Ryan O’Brien Therapeutic Books Series One
Introduction & Guide
“Hello, my name is Ryan O’Brien and I have a story to tell.”
WHAT ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT?
The Ryan O’Brien books are about a beautiful little black Shetland pony called Ryan O’Brien. He tells of his quest for identity and friendship, his struggle to solve problems of low self-esteem, loneliness, jealousy, sadness, bullying and being different in some way; the day-to-day problems he encounters in his life on the Meadow. These stories are real. I have cared for Ryan O’ Brien now for almost twenty years and can assure you that he, like all horses, has important friendships, can suffer loss, can be frightened, bullied and traumatized.
In the bibliotherapy model – therapy through literature – Ryan O’ Brien’s story is also the story of childhood. Like little ponies, children need to be nourished, sheltered, loved, valued and they need to feel safe. Children also need to know how to ask for help when the problem is too big for them to handle and, most importantly, they need to know how to tell their own story. Like Mimi La Boom, the sad little pony of Book Four, children need to find their “whinny” – their voice.
The role of bibliotherapy is well established as part of the broader model of narrative therapy. The rationale behind the use of books in child therapy is that it facilitates discussion about a child’s problem by introducing themes in a non-threatening way, allowing the child to escape into the safe, accessible world of the story. Even the most shameful problems can be confronted in this way.
WHO SHOULD READ THESE BOOKS?
These books work with pictures as well as words, so children from as young as three can get something out of Ryan O’Brien. The older age limit is a little harder to determine. Given that Ryan’s themes and emotional work remain relevant across the lifespan, I’d suggest there is no upper limit. Grown men have been known to shed a tear for Mimi La Boom. The only requirement is that the “old” person, have enough of the child left in them to want to learn from a little Shetland pony.
The Ryan O’Brien books are not just “therapeutic”, they have educational value, their content meeting many of the requirements for the Kindergarten/Infants syllabi in the subjects of Health, History and English. For an educationalist’s perspective on the classroom use of these books, the reader is referred to the Ryan O’Brien website (see Educational Tools) However, it is for children who have lost, or have never found their narrative voice, that the Ryan O’Brien books were originally written. In fact, the very first book –“Ryan O’Brien- The Smallest Horse of All” – was written ten years ago now for a little girl who, due to a hormonal problem, was indeed the smallest girl of all. Like Ryan, she needed to discover the many, many ways she could be “big”.
Helping children find their ‘whinny’ and talk about their life story is at the heart of narrative therapy. Too often, in a medical paradigm hell-bent on diagnosis and miserly with time, children don’t always have the space to speak up. In the reductionist medical model, one patient can end up largely resembling the next. Symptoms are extracted, questionnaires answered, boxes ticked, brain waves measured, criteria met and treatment prescribed. Patients are depersonalized to diagnoses and the child’s voice is often not heard. Of course, getting the diagnosis right is important and does not demand that the patient be a willing participant. However, it is common clinical experience that treatment will falter if a therapeutic relationship, based on some exchange of story, is not established.
All therapists will have encountered the scenario in which a young patient is referred with a stack of files, sometimes weighing as much as the child, documenting years of the clinical history, whilst the child curls up, disengaged and silent. The clinician gleans the story from the file and gets no communication from the child.
The child who can’t or won’t tell her story can cause therapeutic despair. “I wonder whether she’ll talk to me today” is often the unspoken thought in the therapist’s mind. The causes for this narrative drought are many and are not acknowledged in the negative descriptor ‘uncooperative’. The child may simply not trust the situation. The pressure of being in a 3×3 meter room with a stranger, no means of escape and the expectation of talking may overwhelm her or be out of culture. She may have no developmental model for talking about her inner world or even the minutiae of her day-to-day world. She may fear consequences for telling her story. The story may be so traumatic it is beyond memory. The child may lack the language of emotions, be a concrete thinker and confused by the questions. She may have difficulty reading emotions and body language and be frankly terrified by the empathic posturing of the therapist. Often she is simply so weary of having her story hijacked by parents, caseworkers or referring clinicians, she despairs of authorship: “Why ask me? Just read the file!”
Attempting to extract story from the unwilling child is at best, unpleasant, at worst it can feel abusive. It can be tempting to reach for the script pad, medicate and book a review in a month! Yet the goal of having real dialogue with the child is paramount. We all recognize the extraordinary wave of well-being that comes when the dam gates open and the child begins to freely tell her story. It is as though having authorship of one’s own life is as fundamental a need as security and love. Finding that gentle passage between the mute or monosyllabic child and child confident enough to tell you about things that matter is the challenge.
This is where a little, black Shetland pony may help, the child learning to stand bold, look you in the eye and begin their narrative in the hoof-steps of Ryan: “Hello, my name is Ryan O’Brien and I have a story to tell.” I have now observed dozens of young patients work their way through the Ryan O’ Brien books. It is wonderful to observe their narrative shift, almost seamlessly, from the lives of ponies on the Meadow to their own life. Many declare they want to write their own story, and I encourage them to do so, with photographs, little pieces of hand written text and lots of drawings. Most want to include the character of Ryan O’ Brien in their own story. Some have gone on to learn to ride and harass their parents/carers about getting a pony. Perhaps these books should carry a warning!
THE PLACE OF HORSES IN THERAPY
There is now worldwide recognition of the place of horses in psychological therapy for humans. While randomized controlled trials are yet to catch up with this wave of therapy, the clinical anecdotal evidence for its efficacy, for a wide range of psychiatric and psychological problems, is compelling. In particular, children and adults with the autistic spectrum disorders seem to benefit from the equine assisted therapies. The fundamental idea behind equine therapy is that there is an emotional connection between man and horse and that in the relationship man can learn an awful lot about himself and change for the better.
Horses are creatures of flight and fright. They know anxiety, fear and panic. They can be traumatized, shut down, enraged, aggressive and driven mad. They can have highly neurotic behaviors closely resembling the compulsive symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. They can be soothed and thrive on contentment and security. They have powerful emotional memory. Their relationships with humans are similar to the interaction of the child with the adult world. It all hinges on trust. If trust is intact good things happen. If trust is broken the relationship rapidly, very rapidly, deteriorates.
For all our intellectual superiority, humans have much to learn from horses. Horses have not yet developed the capacity to be emotionally dishonest. We have the sophistication to lie about love, hate, hurt and fear. A smile can hide just about anything! Horses, however, with their irrepressible body language, can’t help but let you know exactly how they feel. A happy horse offers a kind eye, pricked ears and ready approach. The unhappy horse shows the whites of his eyes, flattens his ears and swishes his tail. Sometimes I wonder whether we humans learnt to lie about love when evolution reduced our ears to useless little appendices and shrunk our expressive tails to a tailbone hidden neatly in our pants!
The other remarkable thing about horses is that while we can fool each other (and even ourselves) about the mood we’re in, we can’t fool our horse. The horse’s antennae for the accelerated heart beat, tensed muscles, altered rhythm in our movements and altered vocal pitch, are supersensitive.
All these attributes explain the relevance and power of equine therapy. As the child physically interacts with the horse, the horse can’t help but mirror the true emotional world of the child and in that completely honest reflection there is a wealth of learning and therapeutic transformation to be had.
The presence of a Shetland pony in bibliotherapy can, of course, have a superficial appeal. Little ponies are cute and loveable. The contemporary toy world is replete with pretty ponies dressed in pink with spangled saddle blankets and curled forelocks sprouting a unicorn’s horn. I would hope, however, that the Ryan O’ Brien books would convey something other than cuteness. I hope they convey the emotional honesty that is natural to horses, their capacity to also hurt and their need for relationship. Increasingly, as companion to the work I do, I refer my patients to a local equine therapy unit, to help them find their ‘whinny’ in a paddock with real horses. Certainly the Ryan O’Brien books convey greater authenticity to children who have actually stood alongside these magnificent creatures in the paddock and have experienced respect for their emotional life. They really do know what a whinny is and can make a fair attempt at reproducing it in my rooms!
HOW TO USE THESE BOOKS
I was in two minds as to whether I should write a formal guide to using these books. To the teachers, therapists or parents who will be guiding children through the Ryan O’Brien series, I would say, “Guide as little as possible”.
IN THE ONE-ON-ONE SITUATION
The crucial thing is to respect the child’s initiative. It is easy for the adult to put thought, feelings and interpretations into the child’s mind. It is tempting to coerce the child’s attention to detail and draw parallels between Ryan O’Brien’s dilemmas and the life problems that may be affecting the child. I urge you, don’t usurp the child’s capacity for authorship and remember, children learn best when they don’t realize they are being taught.
Don’t hurry the child. Adults are neurotic about time because, having left youth, they realize time is running out. They like a book to “do its job” in a single sitting. Forget about your adult notion of time and remember the books you loved from your own childhood were the ones you pored over and absorbed in slow time. The therapy of the Ryan O’Brien books does not hinge on a single reading. Let the child return, again and again, to these books (they will certainly want to) and let them be slow fertilized with the narrative rhythms and the paradigms of problem identification, emotional expression, help seeking and problem resolution.
Of course there are things that the guide CAN do.
- Let the child unpack the books from their little book-bag finding the right colored book, which is the one they are up to. Help the child settle down comfortably with the book in his or her lap. If the child’s comfort zone permits, sit alongside and let the book straddle both your laps.
- Maintain the order of the books. This is important, as there is development of plot across the series and more importantly there is purposeful introduction of themes and gradual build-up of the bank of emotional language. The first – the Blue Book – is an introductory book and deliberately the most simple, modeling the basic language of self-description. The books that follow draw the reader into the world of emotions and relationships, working through the common life and schoolyard problems of finding a best friend, jealousy, sadness, bullying and being different in some way.
- Be generous in helping the child with the meanings of words. Let them be encouraged by their efforts rather than frustrated. These books are not meant to teach reading. They are meant to encourage story telling; hence criticizing the child for not getting the word right is COUNTER therapeutic. There will be “horsey” words that even the guide may not know, e.g. “palomino” and “farrier”. Help the child find the meaning in the same spirit children find eggs on the Easter hunt. Don’t be greedy. Make sure the child gets there first! Children feel a real sense of triumph when they discover and own a new word.
- Let the child work on coloring-in their own Ryan O’ Brien characters (easily downloaded for free from the Ryan O’Brien website- ryanobrientherapeuticbooks.com.au) Each book will have their corresponding pages of silhouette images drawn from the photos in the book. To do one’s own drawing or coloring of a character is to add authorship.
- Let the child listen to the Ryan O’Brien theme song, “Got To Stand Up.” The momentum of the song draws the child to courage and resilience.
- Give the child an opportunity to love and laugh with Ryan O’ Brien and his friends with the You Tube video version of the Got To Stand Up theme song. Perhaps they want to make up their own choreography to the song.
- When the child is ready, usually in response to Ryan’s questions, she will begin to offer bits of her own story. Listen carefully and make lots of encouraging noises. Don’t paraphrase the child’s story in grown up words, rather echo the words, phrases and cadence the child herself uses, even if they are not Oxford Dictionary material. Made up words are often the very best! When revisiting themes at subsequent sessions, remember to use the child’s own words. Nothing reinforces a child’s sense of authorship better than being quoted!
- If you think the child is ready you can suggest, “Maybe, one day you will also write down your story, like Ryan O’Brien”. Following on from the Blue, Green, Pink, Yellow, Purple and Orange Books of Series One, the child’s own story should be properly called the “Golden Book”, because it is the most important and precious book of all. Remember, the Golden Book does not exist in hard copy or E-book because it is to be found in the child’s imagination. Let the idea lie quietly on the back-burner, waiting for the day! The child may need some help organizing her own book. You can help A LITTLE BIT by covering a scrap-book in shining gold, taking pictures, printing them off, cutting out, laying out and gluing. ALWAYS follow the child’s initiative and don’t become obsessional. This is the child’s act of creativity, not an assignment you will be marked on.
RYAN O’BRIEN’S BLOG
Because Ryan is a real pony, his story on The Meadow continues to grow every day. Who knows where the story is heading! New ponies will come visiting, creeks might flood, summer may be so hot the ponies will play under the sprinklers, things will go wrong and things will need fixing.
In recognition that real stories never really end, Ryan O’Brien will maintain a blog on his website to share his adventures with readers all around the world. The therapeutic message of the blog is simple. Stories are not just about the past; they are about today and tomorrow. Every single day of a child’s life brings forth new story, with all its important feelings and responses. We can either bury that story or tell it!
If you would like to contact Dr Kathleen Mary Bokey please use the contact us page.