Cathy Livingston and her equine “co-therapists”
by Gemma Koh // September 18, 2020, 4:30 pm
Cathy Livingston and Lady, one of her "co-therapists" at the Singapore Polo Club. Photo by Ang Wei Ming and Marcus Chow. All other photos courtesy of Cathy Livingston.
Singapore-based counsellor and psychotherapist Cathy Livingston, 58, understands trauma first-hand.
She was 17 when her father was killed by a drunk driver. Her father, a triathlete, was on his bicycle training for the Ironman in Hawaii.
“The accident rocked my world,” the American who grew up in Texas told Salt&Light.
Camper in a storm
When Livingston’s father was killed, adults from a Christian youth mission Young Life reached out to her. She had been attending their meetings for two years.
The leaders invited her to a week-long Young Life camp with 500 teenagers in Colorado.
“That’s were I felt like I heard the Gospel for the first time, even though I had grown up in a church – not because they didn’t share it, but I think I just wasn’t listening.
“I felt like my dad had left me, and I had been abandoned.
“She just looked at me and she said, ‘Cathy, I love you’ and walked away … It felt like God speaking.”
“John 14:18 really struck me: ‘I will never abandon you as orphans in the storm. I will come to you.'”
Every night, the teens would go back to their cabins where they would discuss the message that was given earlier. “That night, our cabin time focused around death. My dad had just died two months before. So everybody’s looking at me to see how I was going to react.”
Her leader came up to her.
“She just looked at me and she said, ‘Cathy, I love you’ and walked away.
“It was her saying it, but it felt like God was speaking to me.”
Her leader’s words and the earlier talk about how Jesus died on the cross for us made “a huge shift in my life of really experiencing God in a new way.
“I still get choked up thinking about it. It wasn’t just my leader’s words, but her friendship. She really focused on me during this camp.”
Livingston experienced “a 180-degree turnaround”.
Previously, her “every word was a curse word, and I often had a cigarette in one hand, beer in the other”. The shy teen who had “self-medicated” with alcohol – it helped reduce her inhibitions to become more sociable – said: “Coming home from the camp, I went to a party in a field with kegs of beer everywhere. I had no desire for a beer – and never did again as a teenager. Friends were going, ‘What happened to you at this camp?’
“My brother shouldn’t have lived through that accident, but he did.”
“It was like the Holy Spirit zapped me. I couldn’t get enough of the Bible and all I wanted to do was go to Bible studies.”
In a postscript to her father’s accident, Livingston heard that the driver of the car that fatal night came to know the Lord a few years later.
In a twist of events, Livingston’s brother, also a triathlete, got hit by a car four years ago.
“It was like a mirror of what had happened 35, 40 years ago. Except my brother ‘felt God just carrying me and laying me down on the ground’.
“My brother shouldn’t have lived through that accident, but he did. He thought he would never ride again, but he has done several triathlons since.
“The first one he completed was so emotional for all of us. He dedicated it to God and my dad. It was very powerful because he overcame the odds.”
An equine best friend
Livingston’s love for horses began way before the accident that took her father.
“I loved horses from the time I remember.”
“I saw so many teens who were gangsters, jocks … Many would share how God used that experience to touch them.”
Growing up in Texas, a young Livingston was fearful and shy. “But around horses, I felt seen and heard, I felt a peace and connection. My horse became my best friend.”
She took riding lessons and worked at a farm. She got her first horse when she was 10, and began to compete in speed events.
“Life wasn’t always perfect at home. I often felt lonely, sad and misunderstood. I took refuge in the stables. When I went out to my horse, I felt like he touched a part of my soul that nobody else could see.”
She also had a group of friends at the stables who became her “horse family”, helping her feel safe and have a sense of belonging.
Later at university, she would spend her summers working as a horse wrangler at the Young Life camps.
At 35 , she was offered a job overseeing the horse programme at a youth camp in the mountains North Carolina.
She noticed the effect horses had on the youth.
“I saw so many teens who were gangsters, jocks, kids who appeared to have it all together. Then they had to get up on this huge animal and trust it to carry them and keep them safe. Many would share how God used that experience to touch them.
“It was a dream job.”
Learning trust in Singapore
Out of the blue, her best friend, who was working for Young Life in Singapore, suggested that Livingston pray about coming to the Republic.
Livingston managed to obtain the funding she needed in record time. The self-confessed introvert begged God not to make her “sit down and talk to people” to get funds. She sent out newsletters instead.
He answered. Not just then. But over the seven years she was with Young Life in Singapore, beginning in January 2000.
“God was so faithful in providing for me. Financially, Singapore is not an easy place to live. It is very expensive.”
After seven years, Livingston experienced intense burnout and felt she needed a change. As she prayed about it, she realised the depth of the depression, anxiety and self-harm that she saw in the international school kids she worked with here.
“He said, ‘Do you trust me for your emotional needs?’ I said, ‘No.’ And God replied, ‘Trust me.'”
“I love teenagers and people. I recognise that they need deeper help than I know what do to with it,” she said.
Funds from a generous anonymous donor enabled her to obtain her Masters in Counselling at the Singapore Bible College (SBC). Livingston currently oversees SBC students doing internships.
God’s provision was significant to her. “It just showed me that I’m not alone. And that God sees me.
“He set up every step of the way so that I could do what He was leading me to do.”
In 2002, when deciding whether or not to move back to the USA or stay in Singapore, Livingston sensed God asking her: “Do you trust me?”
”I answered, ‘Of course I trust that You will provide.’ And He said, ‘No. Do you trust me for your emotional needs?’ I said, ‘No.’ And God replied, ‘Trust me.’
“My journey has been about trusting when I don’t know what is ahead. When I am scared and I feel unprepared, ill-equipped, tired and lonely.
“I have had to step out in faith so many times. But I have seen time and time again that God provides as He said he would – financially, emotionally and in all other areas. Singapore isn’t necessarily an easy place for me. I am a country girl who loves the mountains. I love the cool weather. But God has continued to provide exactly what I need, always at the right time.”
A safe dwelling
Around the time she was doing her Masters, her cell leader, Alice Heng, started a counselling ministry called Dayspring. In 2007, Heng passed away from cancer at age 50.
“There is a group of girls who don’t belong. They are the ones who have been abused.”
The cell prayed about where the Lord was leading this outreach to troubled women.
“I kept asking, ‘What is the need in Singapore?'” said Livingston.
She and Dominique Choy (Dayspring’s current chair) met with Pastor Andrew Choo who ran Andrew and Grace Home for troubled teen girls. He told them: “There is a group of girls who don’t belong here. They are the ones who have been abused and need targeted intensive treatment.”
“When he said it, something just clicked. We knew it was where God was leading us: To provide a safe dwelling where young teen girls could begin their healing from the abuse and trauma they have experienced.”
Livingston led Dayspring Residential Treatment Centre as its clinical director for almost five years.
Livingston enjoyed the recreational therapy – doing activities or playing games – with the girls.
After the games, “we sit down together and process things. That was very powerful”.
Livingston also took the girls to Equal Ark which uses horses to help develop socio-emotional skills. It was there that she realised that it was possible to do horse-based therapy in Singapore.
To go even deeper, she wanted to be trained in equine assisted psychotherapy with a focus on trauma.
Life in the fullest
John 10:10 on “living life to the fullest”, which features on Livingston’s website, is a clue to her guiding principles.
“People come to me because they are broken and hurting. I can’t fix them or heal them. But God can.
“It is a reminder to me to draw my source of strength and insight from the One who gives life. People come to me because they are broken and hurting. I can’t fix them or heal them. But God can. And my prayer is that every step along the way, He would use me in their lives.”
Livingston sees adults and teens with anxiety, depression, teens with identity issues – sometimes as their main therapist, sometimes as an adjunct therapist. She is getting an increasing number of referrals from psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists. Sometimes this is for a few sessions, sometimes for over a year.
On people who have gone through trauma, Livingston said: “A lot of times they are not ready to really talk about their trauma because the memories might trigger them again. So the first thing I always do is what we call grounding: Grounding them and their nervous system.
“Grounding means being present in the moment. We rush through life and often don’t even notice what is happening around us.
“A horse is very good for that. First of all, their heart rate is very slow. It’s about 32 to 35 beats per minute when they are resting. A horse is very rhythmic in its footsteps, breathing, eating. So if clients come in who are anxious, a horse helps regulate the client’s nervous system.
“We want them to do that before we start actually processing trauma.”
As a prey animal, a horse spends most of its time in a fight, flight or freeze mode. Much like a person who has experienced trauma.
“Due to its survival instinct, it is incredible alert to the internal state of others, and gives immediate feedback to what is taking place internally with a client,” she said.
“They can read intention and the internal states of people from quite a distance. A horse responds to what we call congruence authenticity. If I’m asking the horse to connect in a non-verbal way, but in my head I’m thinking ‘the horse doesn’t like me, no one likes me’, the horse isn’t going to connect.
“I have seen teens build confidence and change negative thinking patterns as they relate to the horse.”
“People that come to therapy are broken, hurting. So many of us have been damaged by relationships. If I can work with an animal who is non-judgemental and accepting, it helps me to transfer that into my human relationships.
“I have seen teens build confidence and change negative thinking patterns as they relate to the horse. I have seen one client with complex trauma completely change. Her parting words were, ‘I learned to trust again.'”
Working with animals, says Livingston, is more organic than sitting in an office doing traditional talk therapy, which Livingston also does in her private practice.
(Just before Circuit Breaker, she had also started work as an associate therapist with Pawsibility, providing counselling with a therapy dog present. She notices that teen clients find it easier to talk when they are playing with an animal.)
For Equine Assisted Therapy, Livingston partners with the Singapore Polo Club Riding Academy and uses about five of their horses.
“God used my relationship with my horse to build a safe, secure, connected sense of being for others.”
“They range from big to smaller, super calm to more energetic. The main factor I look for in the horses is that it is not aggressive; it won’t bite or kick.
“If I can, I’ll introduce the client to at least two horses to choose from. That is the beginning of processing. There is always a reason why they pick a specific horse. They may say, ‘He’s anxious like me’, ‘She’s calm and helps me feel calmer’, I feel safe around her’, ‘This one seems to understand me’ .
“There are so many reasons for ‘why a horse’. For me, I believe there is a spiritual essence about a horse.
“Scripture talks about Jesus coming back on a white horse.”
It has now been 20 years since Livingston settled in Singapore.
Her own history – “not as bad as what some people I’ve worked with have gone through” – has influenced her choice of her “co-therapist”.
“I believe God used that relationship with my horse to build a safe, secure, connected sense of being for others.”