Avoidance vs Shut Down

When I taught my nervous system clinic recently, an observation arose from a horse owner that caught me a little off guard. I had to think through it for a while before I realised how the misconception had arisen.

The owner was adamant that her horse’s grazing behaviour was a shut down response having heard this from Elsa Sinclair. I greatly admire Elsa’s work and would not want to discredit her observation, however, I wondered if a horse with their head down grazing could be related to the ‘freeze’ response of the nervous system that is a primitive pathway in the mammalian brain going back to reptilian ancestors.

I have waited a little while before doing this blog post as my opinion is just pure debate and I thought that I could spend my time doing other things rather than disputing this point! However, it haunts me a little that hearsay can be spread quite easily, especially when it comes to referencing someone who is profoundly amazing in what they do with horses.

After thinking it through, my answer would be that it is quite impossible (and that somehow the interpretation of what Elsa said could have been mixed up with something else).

Here’s why.

The misconception is in the voluntary or involuntary nature of responses. Shutting down / freeze responses are entirely involuntary. Whereas a response of eating as avoidance is a conscious choice. When a horse grazes, that is a conscious choice. Eating never occurs under the level of sympathetic activation that arises when the body is prepared to flee or fight. Animals however can resume eating after parasympathetic activation that will stimulate saliva and digestion. Horses will eat anxiously or as a means of avoidance. In this case, consciously putting their head down to graze is a relief from the stimulus they want to avoid or their internal anxiety. The horse soothes themselves by grazing, activating the parasympathetic pathway.

Since the freeze response is an activation of both sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways (effectively exciting the body and then putting on the handbrake), it is understandable why grazing out of avoidance or anxiety could be interpreted as this primitive shut down response. My explanation of why grazing is never shut down behaviour is that the freeze response happens after the nervous system is pushed into helplessness when a fight or flight response (and other less obvious responses) are employed. It is the final straw after all efforts at empowerment have failed. Whereas avoidance grazing is a coping mechanism, a decision to soothe and self-regulate their nervous system.

The freeze state and less intense versions of helplessness where the body moves in a dissociated way can be triggered by wanting to avoid something when there has been a lack of empowerment over-time which now creates a go-to freeze state rather than an attempt to fight or flee. The main thing to remember is that freeze results from arousal and is interpreted by the body as a ‘near death’ state, therefore food is not required. The body turns off organs that are irrelevant to immediate survival while it is in a freeze state. I would point to scientific literature on the nervous system that describes the cascading involuntary responses of fear and defenses. Therefore, my interpretation is that eating while aroused with fear or discomfort is an intentional avoidance strategy.

It matters because we are then able to respond and understand the source of horse behaviours being intentional or not. If we can attune our awareness of these conditions, as horses do amongst themselves, then we can connect and influence them in a way that is meaningful to the horse.