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.

Why ‘Group Think’ doesn’t help our horses

Firstly, let me start by saying that no one is getting everything right all the time. The learning curve for anything, including things we thought we already knew, means that sometimes we make assumptions that are not right, or take actions that don’t work out well. Unfortunately, perfectionism in the horse world is rife, so it can be a bit intimidating to make mistakes without falling into a shame spiral and then losing our enthusiasm to be curious.

I’ve been there. I once followed the ‘Group Think’ mentality of doing things with only a mindset of impressing and being of service to others. I also realised that I was raised to be a co-dependent people pleaser. I think this is quite a common predicament for females of my generation. We have a strong tendency to want to fit in with our peers. This is naturally what our mammalian herding instincts tells us to do. Being isolated is scary.

However, if we want to be there for our horses sometimes we have to step away from attachment to humans because some of it is feeding our attachment wounds. We need to get more comfortable listening more to our true selves. Does what you are doing feel right? Are you reacting or responding? Reacting is how we act when in distress, responding is when we are aware and regulated.

I came across so many good quotes this week. The ones used here were garnered from a man who spent six months living as a monk with a strict spiritual teacher.

Desires that arise in agitation are more aligned with your ego. Desires that arise with stillness are more aligned with your soul.

Cory Muscara

Being with horses can allow us to find that stillness if we stop trying to get something ‘done’ all the time.

We often need to get out of alignment with the rest of the world to get back into alignment with ourselves.

Cory Muscara

The ego is not all bad, it’s our protector. But it can get easily wounded and become overwhelming with a need to control outcomes and avoid discomfort. This becomes like layers of paint over the top of our vulnerability. Before you know it, there are so many layers that the tender part of your soul is buried. That piece of you that makes you feel like you is gone.

The biggest step towards listening to your true self is not having to hustle for validation of other people. This takes so much unravelling for many of us, and learning to be comfortable with our own company and the thoughts and emotions that we are typically trying to escape. This is why deep insight, like that of Cory Muscara, has come from undergoing quiet resilience and the endurance of long meditation and solitude. Eventually, you learn how to regulate yourself and cope with discomfort, just like you do when you breathe through your furtherest edge in a yoga practice (this is also why yoga is a spiritual teaching practice).

Some of the deepest peace we can experience is living in integrity. You can lie to other people about who you are, but you can’t lie to your heart.

Cory Muscara

…and you cannot lie to horses either. They see you through an emotional lens.

Nothing in life comes easily, and some of the most difficult work is in ourselves. The journey that led me to start teaching the nervous system for equines came about through this self-work. Six or seven years ago, when I first tried yoga, I could not breathe into my diaphragm – years (maybe decades) of having a shallow anxious breathing habit caused physical pain if I tried to use the deep breathing muscles. I was plagued by insomnia with racing thoughts and taking antidepressant medications to cope. My nervous system had been in a constant state of threat that had overworked my adrenals and I was living in this high functioning but shut-down condition of lethargy and dissociation.

Something had to change because living like this was excruciating. It was a slow process back to health of sorts (although living for such a prolonged period under unmanaged stress still has lingering health effects). As if pinpointing an allergic reaction, I had to eliminate the stressors. In the process of healing (still going), I find myself having to let go of many disregulating attachments that keep my mind and body dissociated. This process is upsetting and follows the stages of grief, hence why the work is difficult. In the end comes acceptance after the stages of discomfort, processing the denial, anger, shame cycles, withdrawal and resignation.

The benefits of this releasing ones self from these inner struggles is to allow a sense of being comfortable in your own skin and flowing with life instead of resisting. There is now no need for shoving uneasy emotions elsewhere with disregulated behaviours and making excuses for ourselves. We can show up for our horses as our true selves, rather than a projection of something that is not authentic. Horses don’t need perfection, they need emotional congruence to feel safe. If we are bothered by emotions then we layer and pretend which causes horses to be wary of us because they can sense the conflict and anxiety.

Your true self comes with a cost. Perhaps loss of something esteemed or even rejection. But suffering to be accepted by others is a greater cost to our mind and body. When we can scrape away the layers and feel like we are within our own skin again then we have the capacity to listen.

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.

A.A. MilNE – Winne-the-poo

Spooking vs Not Spooking

I watched a video a little while ago that someone had posted online of a pony coming up to a jump (a very tiny jump as it was), then braking hard and spinning in two different directions whiplashing its rider both ways until the poor kid riding was thrown down the side of the pony.

The commentary about it went into details of why the horse must have “spooked”.

Heaven forbid that the horse could have done that intentionally!

It was a spook caused by lack of habituation to the poles they said, and no proper aids.

I tend to disagree with that assessment.

Firstly, I make the disclaimer that I know nothing more about the pony other that what I’ve seen in 15 second video. However, I can recognise a spook, and that was no spook. A spook is an involuntary reflex that comes about from a sudden or unexpected stimulus such as a noise, sound, or seeing a threating or unknown object. The body instantaneously prepares for flight or flight which results in the startle response. After the spook, we expect the horse to either act on the threatening stimulus (run or fight it) or to release the tension (move the body to rid itself of the energy gain).

It is, of course, possible for horses to spook at a jump. However, in the case of a horse (or shall we say pony) screeching to a halt and then spinning from side to side, this is highly unlikely to be a startle response. It is particular narrative which is gaining popularity in the horse world that the horse never does anything intentionally (i.e. it is always the rider or a training fault).

I cannot agree entirely with that (although it does appear to be a common cause of unwanted horse behaviours).

The horse will do what is necessary for their comfort and survival. It also means that they will intentionally say ‘No, I don’t want to do it.” Perhaps the early signals of ‘No’ were missed. It ends up being a big ole ‘HELL NO – OFF WITH YOU’ kind of statement.

I know this, deeply and thoroughly from my pony, Toby. He was a ‘Hell no’ kind of guy. He is still is to some extent. Since our communication became more two-way where I not only ask him to do things, but I also listen to him, that ‘hell no’, has become more of a ‘no thank you.’ These days, I’ve not had to laugh off my bruises and sandy clothes because we clashed about our ideas.

Horses have the ability to think for themselves. They are capable of varying degrees of planning and calculation. I don’t say that in a demeaning way. It is intelligence. How else do they know how to seek out the gate when they hear it unlatch? They have to go looking for an opening. That is calculating an outcome. A horse knows what that sound means, and they use that information by deducing and planning to investigate. In the same manner, confident and clever equines will know your weaknesses, using opportune moments to surprise you (if they are in a ‘No’ kind of mind frame). Not everything that they do is conditioned and patterned by training into their behaviour. Some of their actions come from their own ideas of how they can avoid doing something unpleasant.

It is helpful to know the difference between a spook (unintentional reaction) and a response (intentional action that is effectively the horse saying ‘No’). For a spook, there is not much to be done other than reassuring their safety and allowing the horse to respond in a way that allows them to deploy their nervous system to get back to a calm state. Since the reaction is unintentional, it should never be punished.

In the case of an intentional sudden action, then it is a statement about how they relate to something. Negative answers mean that there is more communication and negotiation to work through. The horse wants to avoid something, and they are letting you know that. It may not be rational to you (think of a toddler when they say ‘No’) but you have to validate them anyway, and then skillfully negotiate your way around it to avoid a complete meltdown.

Each horse has their own resistance threshold. The most willful ones are the ones that are openly communicating and they will teach you how to really develop a partnership. I cherish them for that.

Equifest Presentation Taupo 2022

As the Equifest Taupo event is approaching in only two weeks time, and my thoughts have turned to thinking about what information and demonstrations to present during my 45 minute sessions on Friday and Sunday.

Lately, I’ve been listening to many podcasts and finishing my online course on Somatic Experiencing by Peter Levine. Relating the learnings from human somatic experiencing to the horse has been an incredibly useful resource for developing resilience through the nervous system. It has connected my experience in the field and experimenting with physical exercises with the theory and research about why these techniques have such a profound effect.

Just today I came across a practice called Equine Hanna Somatics after listening to a podcast on ‘The Whole Horse’ podcast (which has many inspiring guests worthy of spending an hour listening in). This particular podcast was with Alissa Mayer. Although I have no research into this method, it was very intriguing and supported similar somatic effects to the practices that I have incorporated into my collection for ‘Nourishing the Nervous System’ coursework.

You can find the website for this podcast here or look up ‘The Whole Horse’ on spotify and other outlets.

See below for one of the techniques of Equine Hanna Somatics:

The premise of this technique is that you are assisting the horse to reset the resting tension in the muscle by guiding them to contract the muscle and then release it back slowly to a neutral position. The slow release is activating (and perhaps interrupting) a subconscious ‘automatic’ muscle response from a deep part of the brain using a conscious movement initiated from another area of the brain. Having the horse do the movement, rather than having the movement done for them is a key part of this exercise. This new neural experience that comes with the horse feeling and thinking through the movement is able to reset the automatic response.

I learnt a new word in the process – pandiculation.

Pandiculation is our nervous system’s natural way of waking up our sensorimotor system and preparing us for movement. 

Sarah Warren – owner of Somatic Movement Center

Our natural reflexes allow us to reset our nervous system through pandiculation. It is a fascinating concept and one that I am going to explore further (although something tells me that is it precisely what I have already been exploring in practice with exercises to reset the nervous system). I will write more on this topic once I get further into reading about pandiculation.

Another interesting podcast that I heard also on ‘The Whole Horse’ was with Sarah Schlote of Equusoma. She has done multiple podcasts so I’ve linked the whole list. Sarah’s writings on her Equusoma website have guided me in the pursuit of understanding the nervous system as it applies to horses. She uses multiple frameworks such as Somatic Experiencing, Polyvagal Theory, and Attachment Theory to guide her practice. This article written by Sarah Schlote has been a springboard for me in exploring ideas about connection. “Connection Before Concepts: A Comparison of 3 Pressure-Release Methods”.

As both a rider and an instructor, I gradually developed an awareness about my anxiety being passed along to the horse. Now, if you say to a person that they are the cause of something it will likely invoke an instant defensive reaction. We, as humans, have a profound ability to not see when it challenges our sense of being good enough. However, if we can move past these feelings that are driven by shame, it will allow us to explore this window of knowlege into the nervous system for ourselves. Learning through the horse has a secondary benefit of developing more awareness of the use of our own energy, body language, and healing capacity of our nervous system.

Join me at Equifest this month (Oct 28th – 30th Taupo) to explore these topics along with a demonstration of some techniques for ‘Nourishing the Nervous System’. To get a head start you can also sign up for the online course that will delve into more explanation and techniques on kahucreeklearning.com.

Overcoming Fear in Riding

We all know that riding horses comes with a level of risk. For this reason, historically and still today, riding horses comes with a high need to control the circumstances to achieve the lowest risk possible. This often comes at the detriment of horses welfare, using harsh bits and gadgets, tying them up and restraining them, and basically ‘breaking’ them as people have so fondly adopted as the term for teaching a horse how to be ridden.

As a survival mechanism, our nervous system wants to avoid risk. When we are oblivious to the risk, we feel somewhat invincible, as is common with young riders in the beginning. However, as time goes on and incidents occur, we may be exposed to residual trauma that instinctually tells us that we are under threat. Whether this has come from horse-related activities or previous experiences, the body will recall the risk and activate our fear.

Much of the time, the horse is as worried about risk as you are (unless they have tuned into a helpless state where they have become unresponsive). In order to commonly address the fear and risk assessement of both parties, working with the horse on the ground before riding will be necessary. The safest scenario is to not mount your horse until their assessment of the situation is either neutral, or in the best case regarded as positive. I would recommend activities such as breathing with the horse, body relaxation and dynamic stretching, interspersed with some gentle and low pressure steps forward backward and then progressing to forward and sideways while you align your body with theirs. These tasks aim to present yourself as non threatening and reliable in your bodily state. Breathing and moving in time will co-regulate with the horses energy. The movement and steps in various directions allow the horse to feel different parts of the body in preparation for riding, triggering proprioception and awareness which gives them a sense of empowerment.

After teaching vaulting for many years, I have seen a great benefit to this activity in training riders. Some of these techniques can be used to regulate our fears in the saddle. First and foremost, vaulters are taught to mount and dismount numerous times during a session of vaulting. This is something that is not generally taught in other equestrian disciplines (mounted games excepted) apart from the one-off get on technique and dismount technique to start the riding session or end it.

In recent years, I have seen a specialised program taught to eventers of how to roll off the horse during a forced dismount. This is similar to the way that a vaulting dismount is taught initially. Think of a karate roll – and you will understand the type of technique. Since adult riders are generally not used to moving in this way, it makes sense that adult riders carry the most fear as riders. Alleviate your fear by learning a roll technique so that your body associates the movement of being head down towards the ground with the ability to right itself. Falling generates fear (and even the thought of falling) due to the high risk of injury and on a subconscious level in our nervous system that we will sucumb to a predator. Not surprisingly, horses are extremely careful not to fall either due to these risks. The ability to right oneself depends on body awareness and proprioception. These skills must be practiced in order for the body to feel confident with an automatic response that is quick enough to avoid or lessen injury and stabilise yourself again to be upright.

Aside from teaching yourself to get on the ground and up again, roll over and get up again, you can also practice getting on and off the horse multiple times. Make sure to use a stand or a person to help you up when mounting to reduce pulling the horse off balance. When confidence is established at a standstill, practice dismounting at a walk. Repeat plenty of times (over a course of days or weeks if necessary) until you feel confident. Continue to reevaluate your confidence now and again with this activity.

Note that a good outcome of practicing dismounting while moving is that the horse will be accustomed to a dismount while not standing still and not react so unexpectedly if it happens by accident.

The next set of exercises derived from vaulting are completed on the horse. Typically as riders we taught to be still on the horse, making very small precise movements to give the aids. However, this limited activity causes us to go into complete distress when anything causes our movements to go out of that range. We develop a greater sense of balance when we are able to make large movements and bring it back to stillness. I liken this to a pendulum that swings wildly until it comes to an ultimate place of balance.

At first your horse may not be used to having riders doing large movements, so proceed with smaller versions until the horse is accustomed to this exercise. A good place to start is to roll the shoulders becoming aware of the feeling of your arms dangling, following the sensations all the way to your fingers. Other ways to move upon the horse are to swing your arms, either in circles overhead or holding them up in an airplane position and twisting at the waist. You can move forward reach for the horses ears and backward to touch the tail/rump.

Next you can move the legs (either remove the stirrups or cross them over the front of the wither). Progressively introduce your horse to these exercises, starting at a standstill with small movements and gradually increasing to doing them at a walk and having a larger range of movement. Note that this could take weeks of training depending on your horses level of resilience. At first it is helpful just to feel the extremeties of your body to bring awareness. Flexing and pointing the foot, wiggling the toes, or rolling the ankles is a good place to start. Once you feel connected to your limbs, you can swing the leg back and forth, one and time or both at a time, or one back one forward. Lift the legs up, again one at a time or both at a time or one up and one down.

Ease yourself into working without stirrups, as this produces a very good seat. I also advocate the use of elastic reins so that the rider does not learn to balance via the reins (for more security this could be done on the lunge with a helper). When you have progressed this far, then try riding a little with your eyes closed and develop a a sense of awareness of your whole body, moving your attention to different parts and feeling how it moves with the horse.

These exercises are all designed to empower the body using proprioception (the awareness of your body in space). Good balance enables confidence to respond to righting your balance when it is disturbed. The work in the first exercise enables you to rely upon your ability to respond during a situation that requires a dismount. Empowerment is the confidence gained by acheiving a successful outcome. Repeating successful outcomes develops that confidence.

My studies on the nervous system have enabled me to understand the bodily and emotional responses in greater depth. This is relevant for both horses and humans. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I offer an online course called ‘Nourishing the nervous system’. Details are on the kahucreeklearning.com website.

The power of liberty

I recently listened to a podcast with Catherine Price who has written a book called “The power of fun – how to feel alive again.”

Catherine talks about fun as a feeling (rather than an activity) that is combination of playfulness, connection, and flow. Playfulness is light-hearted spirit and not caring too much about the outcome. Connection is having another living creature present. Flow is getting so wrapped up in what you are doing that you lose track of time.

She explains to us what true fun is – moments when you feel joyfully alive, as opposed to fake fun that is something addictive and hard to resist but ends up leaving us dissatisfied. True fun is gratifying and stays with us long after the experience. It boosts our resilience and enables us to weather future challenges. In this way, true fun must have a positive effect on our nervous system and there is science emerging to back up those claims according to Catherine. We are seeing more written about the importance of play for emotional health and problem solving among other benefits.

You can listen to a podcast with Catherine discussing the nuances of fun on iheart radio here:

I must admit that much of the time that I spend training horses falls more into the satisfactory category where I am working towards a goal. I would not class it as true fun, but something more in the middle, where I’m trying to build or achieve an outcome. This is where most of our life is spent – in the middle zone – doing things because they are necessary and part of a future plan.

On the days when I want to abandon any structure, forget about outcomes and just play, I spend the time doing liberty with the horses. Sometimes they lead, sometimes I lead. Liberty play gives me a sense of being joyfully alive and in the moment without any requirement of success. The horse can leave anytime, which removes your element of control. It is an activity where we can ‘let go’ of all the expectations that have been placed on us by trainers and others who judge what we are doing.

I have a student that now lives far from me and I had the opportunity to catch up with her and her lovely horse. It has been months since I have seen them. Previously her horse was unable to focus or move with relaxation because he was constantly anxious. We had worked sometimes inhand to ease the anxiety of the horse. My student has now taken this a step further and added frequent liberty sessions with him. I was astounded at the difference when I saw them recently. Her horse now moves around freely, totally relaxed, without bolting at the slightest noise or shadow. He follows her happily around the arena without treats. This demonstrates the power of liberty. The horse is able to feel a sense of safety and empowerment. It is life-changing for that horse. His ability to tolerate the environment and what is being asked of him has changed for the better. He is now in a learning state and has the capability to self-regulate. My student was also having a fun experience with him, letting go of her anxiety about his anxiety. It was truly inspiring!

As Catherine Price reminds us, our lives are what we pay attention to. What do you want to pay attention to?

How about fun?

Joyfully alive connections, losing ourselves in the flow and playing with light-heartedness. That’s where we can create positive emotional well-being for building resilience.


The capital letters in the title were on purpose – meant for shouting. The action (or non-action) of resistance is a strong objection in body and energy.

The thing that I find quite often is that humans who object to horse resistance are most resistant themselves. Resistance is avoidance action or non-action. On the human side, I will get to later. But let’s look at the less complicated version – horse resistance. I have a pony who is an expert at this. Bless him. He taught me the art of forming a willing partnership.

What kind of resistance did Toby the pony do? Well, where should I start! If I look back from the beginning, he was called ‘nappy’, as he could not be steered easily with the reins or maintain a gait per rider request, avoided all forms of travelling by small enclosed vehicles, could not be tied up, putting a bridle on was a game of wrestling, and generally took an opposite approach to partnering with humans. He was quite comical in his devious behaviour. Now, I know some out there will be ‘tut-tutting’ to have called a horse devious, but I have to wonder if they ever really came across a truly smart horse – one that operates on the premise of ‘why should I?’ rather than the typical reinforced conditioning that follows the more ‘scientific’ approach to training horses.

The dictionary defines ‘devious’ as: showing a skilful use of underhand tactics to achieve goals. If you still disagree that the word cannot apply to horses after reading this, then well – we just disagree. Toby was truly an expert at knowing the right moment to ditch a rider. He didn’t go overboard bucking and expending his energy, he calculated a swift side or stop move at precisely the moment when the rider was unbalanced. It worked like a charm. He even ditched a friend of mine who had been a track rider. So cunningly executed, she didn’t see it coming.

He also stood on quite a few toes…of children. Too many to be just a random accident. High pressure never won over Toby. He had me lunging him for 2 hours in a (misguided) effort to make the outside of the horse float a worse place than the inside of the float. The answer was still “no”. As was going into water – “no”, getting wormed – “hell no!”.

And then there was leading. How many times he outwitted me! I’d have carefully managed his resistance all the way from the paddock up to the barn when I lost concentration for 3 seconds opening a gate and he would time his escape with such stunning judgement that I would be too impressed to be annoyed.

So, you are probably thinking that he was just an untrained pony – and that is mostly true. However, now that he is trained, he still does not follow the same conditioned behaviour as other horses would with the same input. He repeatedly tests the boundaries, looking to find a way to suit himself. Good on him really. I mean who wants to be a slave?

In this process of teaching a devious pony how to be more accepting of human input, I discovered more about myself and how much of the time we have unrealistic expectations of what others should be doing for us. Does Toby have a right to demand what happens with his own body? Apparently so. Just as many resistors in these pandemic times are demanding the same. Not that I am one of them. I am less resistant in that regard, having deemed the risks as low. However, it is not a criminal act to want to have sovereign rights over our medical experiences. It made me think, about this and the approach needed to arrive at peaceful negotiations with Toby the pony. Empowerment is very important to our bodies. If we are not empowered then the body reacts. It will first power up with stress but then eventually shuts down – via our reptilian brain parts. This is innate biological programming and not something that we can just override.

People who are resisting feel disempowered, unsafe or insecure to some degree. Resistance always rises up from oppression. Many will shut down and become passive from being overpowered. But those few uncompromising and belligerent, devious ones will make you pay for it. It’s time to recognise that horses also operate that way. Let’s see where that can take us with truly functioning partnerships.

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 7

Online Competition

January 2022

3 phases
Dressage, Ease of Handling, and Speed

for the lower levels

Lead-line, In-hand, or liberty non-ridden class (walk/trot), Preparatory level (walk/trot) and Preliminary level (walk/trot with canter between obstacles), Novice level (walk/trot, and the start of canter for executing obstacles).

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

See more details at www.virtualworkingequitation.com

Follow the facebook page for updates.

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with international judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest and see course walk videos for competition 7 (without any obligation to enter). Entries are closing on January 31st 2022 11:59pm NZT.

Anxiety and Energy – the influence of Mitochondria

Scientists are constantly uncovering new information about the body – a superbly complex system of interacting mechanisms. We tend to think of ourselves as a ‘brain’ attached to dumb organs, but this is vastly untrue. Our organs have their own ‘brain’ and what is contained within our bodies functions more like a society of negotiating interactions.

I have studied this, not just in relation to learning about horses, but also myself – in fact, firstly to learn about myself. We often hear people talk about anthropomorphising our horses, but what I see is that humans tend to project their emotions onto others, horses and humans alike. I attribute the reason for this to the notion that emotions have a bad connotation in human society – we tuck them away so as not to appear vulnerable. I have heard very well-known horse trainers say things like they have ‘no emotion’ in their description of how the horse doesn’t respond negatively to their energy. However, my interpretation is that they are using the word emotion to represent anxiety. Emotion can be calm.

Two very important concepts to know about the way that our analysing human brain works, are splitting and projection. The first is the tendency for us to group things into black and white, good or bad. It helps us to regulate strong emotions by magnetising ourselves toward things that we deem good, and blocking out things that we deem bad. Our perception though is quite biased to numerous factors (likeness to ourselves, experience, motivations, our understanding and empathy levels etc.) A high level of anxiety causes more splitting as we use it to control the emotional flood. It is a soothing technique that is generally quite effective but not particularly helpful in the long run. Black and white thinking is a barrier to learning and gaining knowledge.

Change the way you see things, and the things you see will change.

Dr Wayne Dyer

The second part is projection. Projection is when we feel emotions that are uncomfortable and try to pass them along to someone else, avoiding the responsibility for processing them ourselves. It’s a natural reaction that animals do. Have you ever seen an angry/fearful dog bite someone that is not the perpetrator of their fear? Or have you noticed a horse who is bitten by another horse goes immediately to a horse lower in the pecking order and takes aggressive action against them? This is projection. Releasing the tension caused by an emotion outwards. If you say that your horse is _________(tired/angry/sad/sticky/stubborn…etc.), we might want to check first if that’s really our own emotion that we are projecting. Of course, horses have emotions and it’s acceptable to recognise them. The harder part, it seems, is to recognise our own emotions and take responsibility for processing them.

Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

So, where am I going with all this? It leads back to the concept that our stress and resulting uncomfortable emotions can lead to a prolonged feeling of insecurity and lack of safety. We are after all, no more adept at controlling the ‘brains’ of our organs than any other animal. The brain that we control is our unique pre-frontal cortex and the source of our cognition and language. This is where we produce logic, that funnily enough doesn’t have to be logical to give us reasons for doing things a certain way.

The ‘brains’ of our organs interacting produce emotions through the nervous system. One of the newer discoveries is that the energy-producing structures that reside in all of our cells, called mitochondria, have a strong relationship to anxiety. The differences in mitochondria after prolonged stress could be why our bodies hold on to trauma. You can read more about mitochondria and the linkages to stress in this article.

If we acknowledge that stress causes us to soothe by ‘splitting’ things into good and bad and/or ‘projecting’ our discomfort outwards then we can manage ourselves better in these situations to harness the protective capacity of co-regulation with others through the nervous system. We can also find ways to boost our energy-producing mitochondria so that we become more resistant to stress, and ultimately enhance our ability to resist the long-term effects of stress that can evolve into disease and a faster aging process.

Some ways to boost mitochondria are through exercise particularly strength training, taking antioxidants and nutrients to limit the sources of oxidative stress (see this article for a list of nutrients vital for producing energy, otherwise known as ATP), heat therapy, cold therapy, massage, acupuncture, and particular substances that can protect mitochondria from damage and help their efficiency – one of them under investigation is curcumin (found in turmeric). Also reducing exposure to toxins is recommended since mitochondria are particularly sensitive to toxic substances such as air pollution, heavy metals, alcohol, and some prescription drugs such as NSAIDS (includes ibuprofen for humans and bute for horses), statins, aspirin, acetaminophen, and antibiotics.

Without energy there is no life, so the function of the mitochondria is life itself. Our ability to acknowledge our energy forces through emotions is vital to our well-being and health. This is important in stress resiliency where our capacity to regulate comes through our energy-producing mitochondria present in all cells.