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.

RESISTANCE

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.

Building up from the ground

I’m a ground work fanatic for quite a few reasons. Firstly, I can see a whole lot more of what is going on with the horse from the ground. Secondly, I take away any unbalance to the horse as a rider. Thirdly, it’s winter and well, it’s just more efficient to work on the ground sometimes. It’s a hard slog to ride through winter when you don’t have an arena onsite, so I’ve toned down our training to just hand walking down the road and some relaxation and bodywork sessions in the past few months.

My horse Lily will be coming back into work soon as the weather improves (and with it my enjoyment of riding!). We can start again on a fresh footing which is always a good place to begin. The first part of riding is getting her body ready again to perform well. I take it slowly after time off – I’ve been there and done that with my own exercise regimes, so I know well that building back up slowly to your former glory is important to avoid aches and pains and a resisting attitude.

Following on from the previous post showing part 1 of the slow movement walk exercises, this video below with Lily shows part 2 of that process. In the first video the horse was practicing balance in small steps with frequent stops. When this is going well then we can start doing a few more steps at a time, keeping the steps small and asking the horse not push, but to lift themselves up at the front to create light steps.

We can also add in slow steps backwards, starting with one or two and then as you see the horse able to step backwards with diagonal pairs of legs, asking for more steps without getting out of sync in the diagonals. Ask lightly and try to avoid the horse raising their head as they step backwards. They still need to lift up at the front when going backwards so that the back and hind can engage and the whole movement becomes connected. When the horse can step backwards with diagonal pairs at the same time then this is indicating a good front and hind connection and engagement.

When these simple exercises are well established then it is time to move into some lateral work, such as shoulder fore or shoulder in, and the haunches in movements from classical training that will strengthen further the engagement, flexibility, and start building up to more collection and self-carriage.

Techniques for improving posture

A few posts ago, I wrote about posture giving us wings. The main idea there is that your body posture affects your nervous system, either in a powerful way or in a stress inducing way. Exercise and agility are really what bodies were designed to do, for all creatures. You don’t have to look far to find a study that will confirm how much a part this plays in the repair of our bodies and stress recovery for physical and mental health.

Working on our posture gives our bodies the strength and habitual patterns of creating powerful poses which improves our nervous system regulation. As an aside, I could have said ‘muscle memory’ as that is a term that people use quite often – however after studying the science of exercise, I realised that it is a misnomer. Muscles don’t remember what they need to do, only how big they need to be based on what was previously experienced. Instructions for muscle movement come from the brain. Repeated patterns end up becoming automatically executed as the nerve fibre gets wrapped in myelin (a sort of insulation enabling quicker execution). The muscles will remember how much energy that they need to release and increase in size with each experience of overuse. This overuse of muscles actually causes micro-tears, and then they are repaired with more muscle mass and mitochondria that enable a greater energy release. This explains why we are in pain after doing an unusual exercise, and also a good reason for starting out slow!

Having said that, the type of exercises that I will be going through in this post will be very gentle. No ice required afterwards. There are large muscles that create high power movement and then small muscles that perform stabilising functions. Those smaller muscles are the ones that we target for posture, bringing the spine into alignment, leveling the sides of the body, as well as flexing and contracting muscles around the joints to cover a range of positions.

The reason that we need to help our horses with their posture is that they are notoriously on the forehand for long stretches of the day while they eat. Our domesticated horses are confined by fences or in some cases small stalls and thus at more risk of a forehand stance. Even if they have a paddock, they lack the movement that horses in the wild do to counterbalance their bodies. Wild horses travel huge distances which requires them to use their posture to save energy while they do so. Watching herds of free roaming horses, you will see them trotting along effortlessly in an equilibrium of balance, each with limbs connected and engaged to work together for optimum efficiency. Whereas domestic horses have less need to optimise their energy since food sources are ever present and they do not have to work too hard to get food. There are ways that we can feed horses to mimick some of the conditions in the wild. Sharon May-Davis is an equine researcher and scientist who advocates using high hay nets and different angles of feeding positions to allow horses to reach and browse as they would naturally about 20% of their feeding time. Read an article about how to implement variable feeding positions from an attendee of one of her seminars.

For more active training in posture, I have found that implementing very small basic movements that are practiced frequently will have a profound effect. It is in essence following on the teachings of classical dressage. However, classical dressage instructors tend to begin at a level over and beyond what many horses need or can cope with at first, and with a learning curve that is steep for a person who is just starting out with their horse.

To understand balance and posture, we can think about the planes of balance, i.e., which ways the horse can basically fall over. The vertical (upright) plane indicates the side to side balance (which is left – right weighting). The horizontal (length) plane is front to back balance (which is forehand – hind weighting).

How does the horse need to stand in order to be in horizontal and vertical balance? Being four legged with a long neck, the horse has quite an advantage to lean on one side more than the other and compensate by levering the neck to the other direction. They also use the neck to lever the movement when placing more weight in the forehand. The neck is therefore quite a key component of altering balance. When the horse can keep the neck straight at the base between the pectoral muscles then they are having to weight their left and right sides evenly. When the horse has a low stance bringing more weight towards the front, then the neck can oscillate up and and down to lift the front legs off the ground when they are moving, as well the horse uses momentum (with quick and heavy footfalls) to keep from falling over forward.

So, the most basic thing we can do, is to gently work with the neck to align it in a balanced position. Since we want to place the neck evenly between the pectoral muscles, the two front legs should be standing square. Nothing should be forced in doing this. It is often big deal to the horse to feel the neck in alignment and they may resist at first, so take it very slowly and only move the neck as you are allowed by the horse. If you feel tightness and blocking then just wait at that position until the horse releases the tension. When it feels softer then go a little further. Tiny, tiny movements are very effective and over time with frequent repetition will give the horse an ability to align themselves more easily.

I also watch for the body language of the horse while doing these exercises. There are face signals that tell me that the horse is still processing the proprioceptive information from this new body awareness. They become very still, but parts of their face may flicker, such as the muzzle twitching or the jaw muscles and facial nerves, or a blink of the eyes. The eyes will look vacant and soft with a crease in the brow – the mind is internally focused. When they return to being alert, or rub their nose on their leg, lick and chew, stretch their necks around (as if they are looking at something behind), or move their body, or swish their tail, or eye roll and yawn, then they have usually finished. After that “releasing” has finished then I approach again, watching to see if I am allowed to come near. If not, then more waiting until they are ready. After practicing this over time, the horse will figure out how to align themselves and they won’t need too much human help, often preferring to manage the process more themselves.

In the video above with Toby, I am demonstrating the neck alignment as well as doing some very slow steps forward and straight (with neck positioned evenly between the base) where he needs to figure out how to keep his body in horizontal balance. Since he must move slowly, he cannot use momentum to counter falling forward, and with his neck straight, he cannot fall out to the left or right side to avoid the weight shift into the hind. I stand in front of him to stop him taking large pushing steps, but another way is to stand at the shoulder facing forward and use the whip as a ‘go-slow’ cue in front.

This exercise will build the ability to lift up at the base of the neck, raise the withers and engage the body to shorten up, round the back and engage the hind to step underneath to hold his balance horizontally. He needs to place his feet so that they are able to balance his front and back weight evenly enabling the step upwards (like a ballerina) and a gentle landing. I am not micro-managing where he holds his neck, other than it is straight. Allowing him to stretch his neck forward in a curved arc shape helps to lift up in the thoracic sling and back, producing the engagement of the hind.

Effectively, this is teaching the posture of self-carriage.

The problem with desensitisation

To be sensitive simply means being able to sense things. Sensitivity means aliveness; being in harmony with life. To be numb is to be dead.

Quote by unknown author

I could stop right there. I think my message is summed up well in that quote. But let’s deconstruct this idea of desensitisation which is often still promoted in training methodologies. It’s not just limited to horse training either, the human world devalues sensitivity and emotional congruence. Hence, understandably it is also very misunderstood in the world of horse training. Strength is associated with words like resilience but that which is unemotional, rather than as a way to regulate emotional awareness. When the body’s emotional reactions to both external and internal stimulus are ignored, it becomes dissociated from our minds. This is what we achieve by desensitisation.

Dissociation is not resilience, it is a coping mechanism that over time becomes dysfunctional as it forms into a habit, accompanied by a sympathetic nervous system reaction that readies the body for fight or flight. You can start to see how that can be destructive. Energy created in the body with nowhere to go is problematic. The body needs to complete the fight or flight activity or it ends up having excess adrenal and cardiovascular activity. Shallow breathing, heart palpitations, restless limbs, headaches, dizziness, sight issues, brain fog, and other symptoms can appear. This is also where pain sensitivities can arise, due to blocking areas of sensory awareness and instead turning it into a pain receptor. Immunity and digestion are other areas are also compromised in this process.

Did you know that athletes have compromised immunity after exercise? This is due to the functions of the sympathetic nervous system to direct blood and oxygen into our limbs, lungs and cardiovascular system during strenuous activities, reducing functions that are for rest and repair, such as digestion and immune system responses.

But horses are big and dangerous, right? We can’t let them react to their sensory awareness…we say to ourselves.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because they are big, strong animals that can easily overpower us.

But no, because shutting down their sensory awareness causes immense internal stress for them, and in most cases it is unhelpful to teach a horse to be helpless. What if it needs to judge a jump, or get out of the way of an object heading towards it, or react when it slips?

So, what can we do instead?

The key to understanding this was identified in a study that was done in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow. In a nutshell, the study found that baby monkeys had an attachment to the comfort of a soft covered inanimate “mother” over and above a wire “mother” giving only nourishment. The comfort was also a factor in their willingness to explore and be curious with novel objects. The monkeys that had a comfort figure were braver with investigating new things, and at the point of being overwhelmed, they returned back to the comfort of the “mother”. After feeling safe again, they ventured away to investigate once more. It is an oscillation of being reassured and at a safe distance from the stimulus, to being able to face the new and scary object. When they return to the “mother” their nervous system is reset, switching between sympathetic pathways inciting curiosity and bravery teamed with a countering parasympathetic pathway of security and safety. This prevents them from being overwhelmed and dissociating. In contrast the monkeys that did not have the comfort figure were unable to investigate the novel object. They remained huddled in a corner showing high anxiety and coping mechanisms of thumb sucking and rocking themselves.

We can learn quite a bit from Harlow’s studies about the importance of emotional security, and partnering this knowledge with how our nervous system is wired for connection and co-regulation (polyvagal theory), we can deem to find more appropriate training methods. Allowing the horse time to investigate and then move away at their own preference, exposing them to small chunks and then allowing the horse to reset themselves with a feeling of security. Bringing a horse friend to help them co-regulate, and also providing ourselves as a model of safety and relaxation rather than coming across as a threat.

So, with that in mind, I accept when my horse feels unsafe and I respect that they need to have an emotional reaction to it. My one rule is that they don’t run me over or strike out at me in the process, but they are allowed to sense the environment and have the time that they need to process it. I realise that by trying to intervene, I can make their reaction worse. By trying to make them feel differently about something, I come across as a threat because I am going against their instinct. They are better to figure it out themselves without me being part of their “issue” with whatever they are getting reactive about. In the end they will be more trusting of my input if it is in line with their own reactions. It becomes the opposite to a vicious circle. The horse is able to trust you as a source of comfort making them more secure in their environment, and feels empowered to react which improves their resilience making them less likely to react.

It comes down to whether you want the curious and brave monkey or the one that retreats into helplessness. In my view, it is more of a challenge for the human to delegate some control back to the horse. Complete dominance is often a far easier prospect for us humans to demonstrate our superiority and prowess. But these techniques of oppressive control do not help our horses cope in the best way for their welfare, emotional regulation, and longevity.