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.
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.
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.
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.
I am scheduled to do a demonstration at Equifest Taupo this year on the nervous system. I will be doing a short session of 45 minutes at 11.15am in the Hansen Products arena on Friday and Sunday of the weekend 28th – 30th October 2022.
An introduction to the nervous system is in the podcast below, which will lead into the demonstrations of techniques and methods that I will be using at Equifest and in my clinics. Please get in touch if you would like to book a group or individual session with your horse(s). I am available for teaching during the weekends in the upcoming period from October 2022.
Having seen that Red Bull has been sued over their slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, I should be careful with the use of this saying!
Just to clarify that for the record. While who knows if anyone actually thought that Red Bull will grow the partaker a pair of wings after drinking it, the advertising was found to be misleading due to the caffeine content being less than a cup of coffee….anyway, back to my post.
This post is about why teaching horses good posture, and even ourselves for that matter, will lead to better nervous system functioning and more resilience (giving us the imaginary wings).
There is increasing evidence in human studies that posture alters the nervous system state. A pose can be high power, such as lifted and filled out, or low power, such as cowering. Lower power poses activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause stress. Higher power poses result in lower stress and more calmness via the parasympathetic activation. Given that horses share a very similar nervous system framework and that other physiological findings for humans have also applied to horses, it is likely that the powerful postures will cause similar effects. I am working from observations in the horse, not just in my experiences, but also a variety of accounts that verify the same resiliency gained from building up powerful postures. However, this is something that research may confirm for more mammalian species other than humans in the near future.
Animals fighting or fleeing have an impressive posture. They appear larger and fluffed up for displaying power. This is likely to be helping them recover from traumatic circumstances more easily which makes them more resilient to being under stress.
When used often, a pose in either a low power or high power posture, can develop into a pattern, like an anxious dog that reacts with cowering when under stress. It will be repeated automatically as a response. This is why it is useful to become aware of postures and consciously act to change low power poses since the studies reveal that high power poses are better for our resiliency.
To relate how posture enables optimal functioning and thus a parasympathetic activation – which is where our bodies want to be most of the time; able to be comfortable, digest food, rest and recover. When we are aligned, supported efficiently by our muscles and joints, and have the space in our bodies to breathe and maintain optimal functions then we are in homeostasis. In this state, we do not need to overcome obstructions and resistance to keep ourselves functioning. When stressful circumstances arise, if we are able to conform our bodies to meet the challenge then we will be less affected by stress, and thus more resilient.
Teaching the horse good posture involves connecting their long bodies into one fluidly moving part. It is like the chain on a bicycle connecting parts together – a front to back to front again connection. The horse needs to engage their thoracic sling in order to engage the hind legs, otherwise they are merely falling forward and catching themselves. This is the start of balance, to lift and place the foot like a ballerina rather than lean over and stomp it down. Both achieve the same goal in moving forward but one is powerful and the other is not. It is the difference between being ready and agile vs. reactive and stumbling. The horse that is ready and agile will be empowered by their body control and have a greater willingness to attempt challenges (a resiliency to stress).
Balance is improved by working in different areas of the body separately as well as asking for slower movement. If you think about riding a bicycle or even walking, it is harder to balance at a slower pace. Balance is disrupted by leaning on something (the riders hands) or using counter forces to assist (taking corners like a motorcycle). A simple exercise is in walk, to slow down coming to a very smooth stop by decreasing the size of the steps, staying upright and straight. The horse must keep an even balance between front and back to be able to stay upright (not move the neck or drop the shoulders as the horse slows). They also must stay evenly balanced between left and right in order to stay straight. Adding to this, a few steps backwards in a straight line, will also encourage the front to work together with the hind using the same techniques as the forward balanced movement. It should not be rushed and the neck does not counterbalance by lifting up or overbending (rather staying still and quiet), with the hips rotating in engaged flexion to carry the weight coming back, and the diagonal pairs of legs coordinating.
Slowing the horses pushing movement down will teach them to balance. Unbalanced horses will thrust themselves forward to counteract gravity which is commonly a sign of stress and anxiety. A balanced horse is more in control of their weight and has the ability to use all of their limbs equally. This gives the horse a stronger posture and a better capability to carry a rider. In the wild a horse does not need equal balance since they are not carrying a load. They use their necks to counteract gravity very efficiently. An important reason to teach balance to a domesticated horse is so that they are able to cope with being ridden. But it is also a way to develop a relationship with a horse through groundwork. Balance will enhance proprioception and coordination, enabling their body to function well at rest and play.
You should be able to see the parts of the horse working together. In backwards steps, the diagonal pair of legs will coordinate when they are evenly balanced. The neck will not be used to counter balance. Slower steps can be maintained. At first it may be a difficult task even for these simple exercises, so this should be built up gradually. Like doing sets at the gym. Many sets with breaks in between for the body to adjust and process the changes is much more productive than too much at once and too little rest between. Horses, with their large bodies have a lot more to process than humans. Extra time is needed for their nervous system to adjust to changes. By watching them carefully and reading their body language, they will tell you when they are ready to proceed.
Sometimes it does take longer than we think it should. Be patient and there will be profound changes over time. Developing resiliency leads to a higher capacity for learning in the long run.
The word ‘trauma’ comes to us usually with extreme connotations of harrowing events like war or tragedy producing painful and distressing physical and mental injuries. But in everyday life, trauma manifests in much more subtle ways as a matter of us adapting to our environment to survive everyday threats – mini threats, like spilling milk kind-of-problems. The skills that lodge within us for managing these stresses are passed down from our families, both in our conditioning as we grow up as well as an inherited programming that comes from our generational predecessors.
In the wild, surviving trauma is more obvious as animals respond to threats constantly. They are required to find food, generate their own warmth, find shade and shelter, protect themselves from physical danger, and maintain their reproductivity. In addition, mammals have social needs that extend to social interaction within herds, and the safety mechanism of belonging to a group. Mammals also have the added task of caring for their young. Interruptions to these measures cause animals trauma. What happens in the wild is vastly different to our lives. Both in the intensity of trauma and the responses of the animals to move past it. Human comfort seeking may have ruined our ability to process trauma adequately. Whereas animals release their stress with bodily responses, humans tend to override it – in an effort to not feel discomfort – with adaptations, unintentionally leaving stress trapped in the body.
There are two types of overall trauma. The first type is a single event that is significant and triggering to our sense of any of the above measures. For example, a car accident or an assault (physical danger), flood or fire (food and shelter and perhaps physical danger), death of a loved one (social support). This type of trauma can produce PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder).
The second type is an ongoing manifestation of stress that produces anxiety and effects that are similar to the single event, but the symptoms develop over time. As we try to adjust to the stress, we adapt in the best way that we know how to provide relief. This often results in an unconscious use of our bodies, a pattern of behaviour that helps us overcome the stress in the moment. However, our responses maybe unhelpful in the long term causing us to stay stuck in situations and cycles of thinking that we cannot seem to get away from. This is termed C-PTSD or complex posttraumatic stress disorder. The complexity is really due to the fact that there is no single event, and that the triggering effects are often hard to pinpoint.
Most people have experienced these two types of traumas. Life is just too hard to live without encountering either of them. Related to riding horses, I have had a bad fall which was an event type of trauma. I didn’t have the side effects of PTSD from that fortunately, but my memory of it is as clear as daylight despite that it happened over 30 years ago. I’ve been in a few car accidents that involved crashing, a scary situation with the military in Colombia, a physical mugging in a dark street in Madrid, and a few other events that I would consider traumatic. I recovered from these fairly quickly when the danger disappeared. We have the benefit of knowing in these cases, what might be triggering us. But in the case of prolonged stress, our bodies usually tells us that something is wrong before we figure it out mentally. Strange aches and pains or gastric symptoms appear from the constriction and contraction that we operate with as an adaptation to stress.
We can develop habits of movement, such as biting nails, folding in on ourselves, tapping feet, crossing our legs or arms, holding our shoulders up, twitching, rolling the eyes, talking incessantly, clamming up, breathing shallow, and the list goes on. Once we have these bodily patterns, they repeat automatically under triggering situations, and perhaps even constantly.
I found myself with plenty of these habits and I am thankful to riding, or to be more exact, my horse partners, for exposing them. If I didn’t need to be in balance and moving in harmony with a living animal, then I may never have discovered any of this. The resistance that I had stored in my body was preventing my ability to sense and activate areas of my body, and to convey relaxation to my horse.
Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.
Horses, with their finely tuned senses pick up our body signals easily. We can’t hide it from them by pretending. In fact that would produce confusion for them as they expect congruency in what your body says and your actions. The more that we work on seeing what they see and sense, the more that we will learn about ourselves. You can’t fix something that you are not aware of. Awareness is really the first step and it takes courage to expose something in yourself that you have been hiding – even to yourself. The body doesn’t lie. We need to tap into what it is telling us. To do this, we need to slow ourselves down to the point where we can be still, stop the distractions of racing into thought. Listen to the world around us, observe and sense our environment. Be a wild animal for a minute. Get in touch with your deep instincts. This is where awareness begins.
My horse, Gino, has been a perplexing case of difficulties. Now almost 11, he’s been with me for eight years. He is a friendly and curious horse who makes me wonder if he was a dog in a past life due to behaviours such as being exceptionally loyal, licking everyone, and having no fear about sticking his head into anything, or being impatient to get himself into the horse float. Although he has a boiling point that comes quickly. Most horse people might expect that from a thoroughbred, and in fact, this disposition generally gets explained away due to a breed trait. However, there was no obvious reason for Gino to be exploding into a maniac. He wasn’t ever taken to a track to race, and actually was sold at the Karaka bloodstock sale as an un-started 2 year old. I bought him about 3 months after he spent time at the breakers.
His difficulties with temperamental outbursts, and biting with stallion-like aggression sent me on a road of discovery. It led me, over the course of those challenging years, to connect many dots, slowly piecing together an understanding of what was going on in his body.
The first clue was the freeze response. This happened very early on in our relationship, even when leading, he had a tendency to lock up and not move. It was donkey-like immobility – nothing would move him, bar some serious force. At times, that response created a hazard, like when this happened while out walking along our rural road. But mostly when riding he would just go very slowly, requiring a huge amount of effort pushing him forward to get an upward transition or hold a gait. I concluded fairly quickly that something wasn’t right. I had a vet look at him – perhaps the wrong one to call. He said (with very little investigation or palpitation of his body) that he was just lazy and I needed to work him more.
I was skeptical of that diagnosis – and it felt quite a waste of money! At least the vet got to clean out a big waxy bean while he was there, adding some value to his visit. I decided to go lightly with Gino, taking him out for hacks at a walk and only doing the things that he was willing to do. We did this for years. His strength improved over that time, but it still wasn’t translating into forward energy when riding in the arena. It was frustrating for me as he would gallop and canter along the beach, but I could still see that his stamina was definitely lacking. I noticed that he would also become stiff after long bouts of exercise, despite having a good amount of earlier conditioning.
Jumping was a tell-tale sign. He couldn’t do it for peanuts. It was as if he was afraid to land over anything higher than a cavaletti. He tried, but it was invariably awkward. I stopped pursing these activities due to his lack of energy and resistance (which I now know was a shut down response).
So, eventually, we ended up doing mostly ground work where he learnt lateral moves – haunches in, half pass, walk pirouette, and lunging for transitions into trot and forward stretches. He had erratic behaviour though. I realised that his threshold for coping was low. At the point where he was frustrated learning something or the pressure was too much, he would either shut down immediately or launch into fighting mode. In new environments, it was a lottery. He either had a great day out, or freaked out.
After one particular day out when he went bananas at a training event – despite having his horse buddy there to help his nerves and being led through everything – I finally came to a better understanding of him. I had been trying to get him to disperse some energy by asking for a trot on the lunge – a task that he was familiar with – but the energy was not coming down. He was rearing and having a super tantrum, unable to cope with anything. Disparaged I led him to the side of the arena and sat on the fence, ponding what to do. I heaved a huge sigh, ready to give up and go home. Gino, was still fidgeting but he’d stopped the rearing and foot stamping. I sat there watching the others training their horses. With my attention off him, Gino relaxed and soon his eyes got droopy and he dropped his head into a standing sleep mode. A total switch into relaxation had occurred, and remarkably quickly.
From that day, I realised that I had a bigger influence than I thought over his moods. I committed myself to being responsible for his anxiety. We went back to basics on everything. I took it upon myself to get consent for his participation, and I watched for subtle signs that he was entering into the discomfort zone. The most obvious was his rigid stance, but he would also look away, or get a glazed look in his eye and a twitch in his muzzle – the beginning of the shut down. I gave him huge breaks between tasks, and every request was a tiny chunk – one step at a time, until he could cope with doing more.
With more observations, I pieced together a number of symptoms that he displayed with ECVM (c6-c7 spinal neck deformity). Speaking with experts on the subject, I found that his sire’s heritage had multiple inbred lines of a horse known to have the problem. As yet, I haven’t confirmed this via an x-ray, but the prognosis would be of no help. Horses with this problem have an overall downward trend in capabilities, worsening over time to a point where euthanisation is needed, usually well before old age.
Gino’s extreme nervous system activations have given me a huge challenge to handle, but with the understanding of his body being off-kilter and quite likely painful (which is being managed with pain relief), our interactions have become focused around helping him to cope with his situation. This means spending plenty of time allowing him to soothe himself, and assisting him with the areas of his body where there is tension – enabling him to restore the sensation of a shut down part in a manner that is not overwhelming. With these efforts to nourish his nervous system, we are able to continue doing some tasks, like obstacles at liberty or on the lead. I have decided not to ride him from this point onwards because his right front leg has become too unstable to support a riders weight.
Gino is a horse that had no option but to resist. His body told him so. Life is good now – mostly leisure, playing with horse buddies and showing off his array of tricks. The stressful incidents have been few in the years since I redirected my attention to an understanding of his boundaries, thresholds, and reading and adapting to his biological state. The severity of his case was able to highlight more subtle versions of the freeze response.
Not all cases are caused by pain. This is essentially a shock response, but it may also be caused by conditioning to fear – a triggering of anxiety. The body renders itself helpless and therefore shuts down, lacking empowerment to do anything differently. It creates an ‘I can’t do it’ type of resistance, as opposed to ‘I won’t do it’ which is what an empowered body would offer as a rejection of something asked. A horse that is shut down, either into a completely immobile or just a partially resisting state, needs to be provided with the security to restore their functions to being fully aware and composed. They need to be enabled to respond to the internal and external environment with their natural biological programming – a self-restorative healing process provided by the nervous system. In doing so, we support them to feel the sensations in their body without becoming overwhelmed, allowing the horse to cope with difficulties and move through them into a more stable bodily state.
Post Note: In this journey, I have also become inclined to the notion of starting horses at an older age. Gino had been the youngest horse that I had ever taken in, and thankfully my intuition knew to keep his workload light. We walked in-hand quite a bit and took short rides at a walk for the most part during his early training. But if I did this again, I would keep him unridden until at least 4 years old.
I am studying furiously on this subject of the nervous system as it has such an important role in how the world is experienced for both ourselves and horses. There is already a blazing trail starting in the equine world of training horses with their sense of safety in mind and consent to the task presented that is now connecting the anecdotal observations to their nervous system functioning. As has been discovered in humans, security and empowerment enables them to release stress and feel a sense of relaxation that improves their overall wellbeing and resilience.
What has once been seen as ‘lazy’ or ‘stubborn’ can now be understood under the freeze or immobility response. This was primarily designed by nature to save animals from a cruel death by shutting the body down from pain and disassociating in order to reduce terror. However, freeze responses can occur from other stimulus where we are unable to act due to a feeling of helplessness. This is especially common in horses with pain or those that lack empowerment to flee or fight when they feel threatened. This is a biological response more than a psychological factor. The key to reestablishing awareness and functioning is to restore the sensations of the body, completing any attempt to flee or fight that was in progress as the immobility response occurred.
Animals in the wild complete the immobility to restored functioning with a series of movements that usually involve trembling and running in place, and then a reactivation of their internal systems with deep breathing. An example is seen in the following video of a polar bear returning from sedation.
The completing of the procedural memory of their escape allows the animal to restore their nervous system function to normal levels. In cases where this does not occur, which is common in humans or domestic animals that are not under natural conditions for restoration, the trauma stays in the body causing an array of psychological and physical health effects.
I put this idea into practice with my horse Toby, who needed to be sedated for a swollen eye inspection. Although he was resisting at the time of sedation, I would assume that he was under less stress than the polar bear running for it’s life. Even so, an eye problem and humans trying to open it up would be a significant threat to a horse, especially Toby who has a strong sense of self-reliance (and a lesser trust in human capabilities). His energy had been sapped by the trauma of what the vet confirmed was a scratch to the eye, and he was resting on the ground when I first saw him that day.
Some detomidine sedative was given intravenously and he was out for a very long time. In fact he was wobbling around and crossed his back legs making me concerned that he would fall on the asphalt (due to the mud situation we had come out onto the cul-de-sac part of the road next to where our paddocks are located). After an hour or so of waiting for him to return to consciousness, and only a very drowsy step able to be taken, I started to help his body recover from the immobility state. Picking each leg up I activated movement in the joints replicating a walking stride.
I moved him forward a little with each round of leg movements. Then repeated again and added a few wiggle movements in the upper body holding either the sacrum or the wither. A few deep inhalations and exhalations came after that, and then with more than an hour of being in a frozen state, he returned quite dramatically to consciousness, waking up almost immediately and then wanting to find something to eat.
Another video that demonstrates this resetting of the nervous system to release stress is a video of an impala in the clutch of a leopard, about to get eaten, and completely shut down and disassociated from it’s impending death. Fortunately, it is saved by a bunch of baboons, and then returns to consciousness following the same process of completing the procedural memory of the flight response with twitching and trembling. After many deep breaths to bring life back to the body (it was at the maximum threat level when it went into immobility and collapsed into a state of death), the impala suddenly rises up and bounds away.
What can we learn from this study of the natural restoration of the nervous system?
Firstly, that animals in the wild are naturally primed to release stress from severely traumatic events. I have been watching how Kaimanawa horses are able to adapt quickly to domestication with a trainer who pays attention to the signals of relaxation and threat and responds accordingly to progress when the horse is ready to cooperate. By allowing the horse to respond as they are naturally programmed, the horse can assure it is safe (from it’s perspective of being empowered to react) and the trainers status as a threat is reduced. When the horse has a sense of security and can offer connection under non-threatening conditions, the horse becomes more relaxed and they will offer curiosity which enables productive learning to occur. In this way, the relationship is created first before the teaching concepts are introduced. When this is done from the start of the horse and human contact, it enables more trust and a stronger bond with humans.
Secondly, in domesticated horses, we have reduced their capacity for naturally releasing stress. Domesticated animals are contained without freedom to roam or escape from threats. They develop anxiety as do humans when they are under perceived threat and lacking a sense of empowerment to resolve the threat. The needs of horses involve searching for food, expelling energy, playing and bonding with members of a herd, resting, and having a sense of protection belonging to a group, as well as reproductive and survival enablement. Anything that counters these needs are threats. Horses can shut down into an immobility response when they feel helpless, and this becomes a habitual state over time. Recovering a horse from this disabled way of living involves restoring their association to their body, enabling sensations to be felt and processed by the nervous system.
An understanding of the nervous system, and it’s most severe response under threat – the immobility response – provides a useful guide for training horses. When we respond and adapt to the signals that the horse gives us, it improves our method of training. With a more resilient nervous system, the horse can regulate itself with calming responses that reduce tension and resistance, providing a greater capacity for willingness to try our ideas.
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
The nervous system is becoming an increasingly important area of focus in understanding behaviours, both in horses and ourselves.
Since I wrote the previous articles, I have watched an interview series on trauma which has some very good information that can be applied to how we approach our own emotional responses as well that of the horse. We share a relatively similar nervous system functioning as mammals. This involves the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for mobilising the body during threat and the parasympathetic nervous system that returns the body to ‘homeostasis’ where there is an optimal functioning to the body, enabling a rest and digest mode.
Trauma is a manifestation of stress in the body. It can also be collective (as in societal trauma from prejudice or war), and generational where it is recalled in the body as ‘inherited’ from our forebearers. Trauma symptoms are evident in PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) which is an event that causes trauma or C-PTSD (complex PTSD) that comes from a prolonged stressful environment or adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s). When we are under stress, the body is working to restore homeostasis, however when the stress builds up without release the system can get overloaded. This has a detrimental effect on the immune and nervous systems, causing inflammation and pain that can develop into more serious health issues.
Horses are under constant conditions of stress, due to weather conditions and food finding, and if domesticated they will also be dealing with the demands placed on them by us. They may also be physically injured and fighting pathogens which will be causing a physiological reaction to restore homeostasis. Nature has provided a way for the stress to be handled with co-regulation. This is provided by bonding and attachment, where mammals attune to each other and provide emotional safety which settles the nervous system. A lack of bonding and attachment disrupts the ability to co-regulate and this intensifies the incidences of stress, and leads to behavioural adaptations to manage the amount of stress, such as avoidance and disassociation.
This would explain the spooky horse ‘syndrome’ – which is a behavioural adaptation into an avoidant horse. In my readings about this topic, it has become evident that the nervous system is a key factor in the well being and coping mechanism of horses.
I have experienced an anecdotal account of this with my horse, Lily, last week. As I have been preparing to teach a session on ‘Resetting the Nervous System’, I had been making additional efforts with Lily to settle her nervous system last week in lieu of riding. On Saturday, at our riding session after not riding at all during the week, Lily was on the best form that she had been in about six months.
This phenomena can be explained by the feeling of safety (parasympathetic nervous system functioning) and connection (co-regulation). It is an area that is being explored more in the horse world, and is supported by human research such as Polyvagal theory (Dr. Stephen Porges) and Somatic Experiencing (Peter Levine). The physiological factors have a very important role in the ability to heal and perform optimally, including higher order brain functions and learning capacity.
Resetting the Nervous System will be a series of sessions on identifying areas of tension, proprioception modification, soothing techniques, and posture adaptation. These methods are based on observations of a range of practitioners, self-study, insights and observations. The techniques are all suitable for self-learning and will not only be beneficial for the mind and body of the horse, but also for ourselves.
Saturday 26th June 2021, 9am – 10.30am at Highbury Equestrian Park (formerly Stable88) in Matakana. See event on Facebook.