Family Matters

Turning Over the Reins

A father learns when to sit silent

Magazine Issue
July/August 2008
Turning Over the Reins

Almost 10 years ago, working on an article for the Psychotherapy Networker, I called up therapist Doug Mann, who used horses as cotherapists in his work with troubled adolescents and their families. While we were talking, I mentioned that my 8-year-old daughter loved horses, but that we lived in a Chicago suburb. Doug invited Alex, my daughter, and me to his home in rural Colorado.

Because we’d never find his house, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we planned to meet him in a weedy parking lot beside an abandoned cafe and follow him along miles of labyrinthine dirt roads. He drove up in a battered pickup truck with a cracked windshield, a huge mastiff sitting alongside him, its drool wetting down the stuffing that seeped through the cracks in the truck’s upholstery. Alex, growing up in a comfortably liberal suburb in the Midwest flatlands, had never seen anything like this.

“You wanna ride with me or your dad?” Doug asked.

I was surprised but pleased when she ran over and climbed into his truck. I’d always considered many of her friends’ parents overprotective and had been proud about letting her take more chances than most of her friends. Any anxiety this had caused me had seemed a reasonable price to pay for helping her develop the confidence to step out into the world and explore. It built trust between us. If you keep too tight a rein on your kid, you teach her mostly to be a good liar, and when the inevitable day comes for her to step out on her own—a day that, despite every parent’s fantasy, never comes when you choose it—she’ll be less prepared.

That afternoon, Doug took Alex to a small round pen to get acquainted with Buddy, a big, high-strung, unpredictable horse, whom he described as a “perpetual adolescent.” Alex had previously known only stable horses, which walked along well-groomed paths while dreaming of feedbags. Standing next to Buddy was the difference between watching a tiger caged in a zoo and smelling a tiger’s breath in the jungle.

Doug taught Alex how to “join” with Buddy. She walked him in circles with a short rope. He told her that whenever Buddy tested her by stopping, she should give a gentle tug, and if that didn’t work, she should tug more firmly. Soon, she found the zone in which both she and Buddy felt self-reassured and knew who was in charge.

With the proper relationship established, Alex dropped the rope and used just hand signals to get Buddy walking, cantering, and reversing directions. Then she rode him bareback around the pen, with her arms stretched out to her sides and her eyes closed, feeling his rippling muscles with her thighs and communicating to him with gentle leg pressure. She was growing to understand the power and sensitivity of horses, and her own strength and skill.

Then Doug invited me into the pen to take hold of the rope and walk Buddy around with Alex on his back. I was worried. What if Buddy sensed my nervousness, got skittish, bolted, and bucked Alex off? Sure enough, Buddy started to nicker and balk. “Don’t be scared,” I said to Alex, recognizing that the anxiety in my voice completely belied my words.

“I’m not scared,” she said, clearly annoyed at me.

Feeling rebuked and humiliated, I realized that, in trying to deal with my nervousness by trying to reassure her, I was making things worse for both of us. I looked helplessly at Doug, who laughed. It was at that instant that I understood the power of equine-assisted family therapy.

In the coming months, as the lesson resonated, I understood that I’d long been giving Alex mixed signals by combining messages of freedom with expressions of fear. “You can step out into the world,” I’d been telling her, thinking I’d been exuding and imparting calm confidence, but my tone and attitude had actually conveyed, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” This double message didn’t fit my image of my parenting style at all, and I didn’t like it.

We visited Doug every summer for the next 10 years. He and his wife, Dawn, became Alex’s “aunt and uncle.” Alex and Doug went on daylong rides across prairies, through arroyos, and over mountains. Once, while they sat on their horses, calmly admiring a particularly gorgeous view, Buddy suddenly saw a rattlesnake and started, throwing Alex. She hit the ground so hard she lost her breath, and it took a few seconds before she could feel her legs. Doug watched to see what she’d do. When she walked over to Buddy and remounted, she noticed with surprise that his eyes had teared up.

Doug had once been a high-priced, fast-living therapist in Miami Beach. He had a black belt in karate, and was a horseman, a cowboy, an expert marksman, and a certified snowboarding instructor. Long before that, he’d been a short, skinny, vulnerable, angry, and terrified child, beaten by his bipolar father and bullied by the kids in his school. Doug was bipolar too—and last year, his mania took over.

A few months after we last saw him in the summer of 2007, he quit his therapy practice and joined a private security force in Qatar. His marriage now over, he returned with fierce tattoos, cracked ribs, and a bruised spleen, telling contradictory stories about what had happened. He began a mad odyssey to Louisiana and Florida, sending out bizarre text messages and e-mails. Deeply depressed and flat broke, he returned to Colorado and got a job at the local prison, but he didn’t show up for work the first day—and then he disappeared. I tried to prepare Alex for what I believed was coming.

A few days later, Doug’s body was found in the snow. I struggled to figure out how to tell Alex, but couldn’t think of any good way. I finally just said, “They found Doug’s body.” She turned and ran into her room, slamming the door, and I stood in the living room listening to her cry. For a moment, I felt as angry and helpless as I had that afternoon when she’d first mounted Buddy. I’d always considered myself an excellent therapist and father, but now I feared I was just an impotent fraud, who’d clumsily blurted out to her that the second most important male in her life was dead.

Eventually, I remembered what Doug and Buddy had taught me: I needed to trust Alex and her capacities. I’d wanted to overprotect her; to break the news in a way that she wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t feel the loss too much. It was time to remember that Alex could take care of herself.

While she cried in her room, she sent Doug a long e-mail, telling him everything he’d meant to her. She called friends. During the next days and months, she digested the news in the way of most mourners since human time began: uneasily, unevenly, unsurely, sometimes reluctantly—and slowly.

We went to Colorado for the memorial service. Alex, now 18 years old, walked to the front of the hall and spoke in a trembling voice to a hundred people, most of them strangers. I’d prepared my own eulogy, but decided not to speak: this was Alex’s day to mourn. If Doug could have seen her up there, and had known why I sat silent, I think he’d have leaned against the post of the horse corral and laughed out loud, with tears in his eyes.

Garry Cooper

Garry Cooper, LCSW, is a therapist in Oak Park, Illinois.