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Opinion & Essays - August, 2001 Issue #84 

Swimming With Snakes
2001 By Lewis N. Foster,
Treatment Coordinator,
Carolina Family Ministries
PO Box 617, Darlington, South Carolina

There have been times when my work with a horse trainer has led to a need to understand a different language of psychology. For example, I might say that the adolescent is acting out emotions rather than using them as information. The horse trainer would say that the adolescent has “snakes in his head.”

We’re out on a trail ride and one adolescent with no experience decides that the leader is not going fast enough so he pulls his horse from the line of ten or so horses and starts to trot towards the front of the line. Now, when one horse trots all the horses want to trot. They’re social animals and don’t want to be left behind. All the horses try to catch-up and the first horse thinks they’re trying to pass him, so he speeds up. With this, the inexperienced adolescent panics and dives off his horse. This frightens the horse more and he moves to a full run.

All the other horses see the one horse at a full run and think there must be a reason to be at a full run (maybe there’s a snake) so all the horses start to run. Half the boys on the horses panic and make glorious dives from the back of the horses and land in the dirt. The adolescents with experience manage their horses and pull them to a halt. The boys on the ground will have to walk back to the stables, because, their horses will not stop running until they get back to the barn, home safe.

All the boys look at the new inexperienced adolescent and say, “that boy has snakes in his head!”

I look at them and say that he is sequencing behaviors that set him up to be a failure. He’s not thinking clearly, having difficulty managing emotions and stress, and his short and long-term memory isn’t working well. He thinks he has to do everything right the first time, even when he has never done it before.

The boys and the horse trainer look at the therapist and say, “Yea, he has snakes in his head.”

They speak with experience.

Back at the barn we process the trail ride and everyone takes the time in a non-judgmental way to educate the new adolescent so that this doesn’t happen on the next trail ride. The mistake is forgiven and everyone dons his swimming gear and heads to Hurricane Creek Beach, (the pond).

The first boy to arrive makes a glorious dive into the pond and all the others follow. The afternoon swimming fun is under way and all goes well until one of the boys says in a panic, “There’s a snake!”

What happens when a snake gets mad? It throws a hisssssy-fit!

Sure enough, there’s a Red Belly Water Snake moving along the side of the pond looking for a frog or lizard or egg or insect to eat. Several of the boys have left the pond and are running back to the stable, home safe. All but one of the other boys is standing on the edge of the pond watching the snake. I have my video camera catching all the action.

Hey Robert, are we venomous?
Why do you want to know?
‘Cause I just bit my tongue.

The snake realizes he’s being watched so he cuts his trip short and makes a straight line to his hiding hole at the opposite end of the pond. The horse trainer educates them on the habits of the Red Belly Water Snake and one by one all return to the swimming fun. One boy tells the others that he read on the Internet that there are 2,700 species of snakes and the one in the pond is not poisonous and has no fangs. Several jokes about snakes began to surface from the boys in the pond. They laughed their way back to being relaxed.

What kinds of snakes get to hug the bride at a wedding? Garter snakes!

The boys who ran to the stable said that the ones who stayed in the pond have “snakes in their head.”

What do you call a snake without any cloths on? Snaked!

The therapist, being an analyst, started linking the situation to other areas of life where adolescents have to live with snakes in their family, community, school, state and nation. The horse trainer and boys (snaked) their way behind the therapist and captured the kicking, horrified therapist and threw him into the pond.

What kind of slippers do snakes wear? Water moccasins!

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