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.
Following on from the previous post which talks about our composure in helping horses through their anxiety, there are a number of actions we can take as well to interrupt anxiety and help our horses cope with scary situations.
These are based on some personal experiences getting my own horses through difficult situations – my list is not comprehensive by any means. The main point I would like to make is that there are two paths the horse can take in their thinking once they find themselves experiencing fear. Either towards self-soothing or not. The latter ends up in a bolt, spook, or some other highly adrenaline-bound behaviour. If the horse has learnt to self-soothe then they will be able to interrupt their own anxiety. We can give them a hand with this by introducing actions that will interrupt it and help them down the path to self-soothing.
Tip 1. Let the horse move their feet if they are mildly fearful. Move in a circle to stop any bolting.
Tip 2. Stop movement completely by disengaging the hind in a one rein stop. This is for extremely fearful situations that may turn dangerous if the horse is allowed to move.
Tip 3. If the horse is going into a scary or new environment then encourage the horse to put their head down. This is easier from the ground. The use of treats can also help the horse move their head down, and be a reward for calm behaviour. If possible, have a more experienced buddy horse there as a calming tool.
Tip 4. Use a wiggle of the reins or lead rope, or a voice interruption for a spook when the horse is not prone to bolting, and then go back immediately to what you were doing or something else easier (don’t stop and reward the spook). Spooking often happens due to overwhelming factors, which can include working hard or doing something difficult on top of some other stimulus. Therefore reducing the stimulus of something that you can control (the task the horse does) can help the horse to control themselves.
Tip 5. Have a well practiced routine that the horse knows and can execute well as a warm up in a difficult environment. This will give the horse confidence. E.g. walk in 10 meter circles, change the rein, stop, move backwards, and any other moves that the horse knows well to be done in the same order.
Those are some of my tips to help the horse in the moment. Of course, spending time with gradual introduction to stimulating environments can build the horses ‘immunity’ to getting overwhelmed. Good stimulus (like rubbing the mane in front of the wither – if they like that, accupressure near the poll and other relaxing points, or giving feed/treats) in conjunction with scary stimulus can diminish the response, which can be repeated at regular intervals to desensitise horses to environments and sounds. Horses bodies are large and unwieldy which leaves them feeling vulnerable to things going on around them. Therefore good coordination and body awareness (proprioception) can also aid the horse in their level of confidence. There are methods such as using TTouch wraps that can help horses feel more confident and aware of their bodies, stretching and mobilising bodywork, and Sure Foot® pads that help horses reset their nervous system. All of this helps with their coping mechanisms under stress.
There’s something about horses, a sixth sense that most humans are not attuned to noticing. Let’s call it the ‘energy sense’. I believe that this comes from the highly developed nervous system in the horse, a gift of evolution that has helped them survive. There is a hypothesis that horses synchronise their heartbeats in a herd and also that a horse-human synchronisation of heartbeats can occur. As yet, I’ve not read the science and research that backs up those claims, but it sounds quite plausible.
From my observations, synchronisation is a calming factor with horses. We don’t always know it, but it’s also the same for humans. Mirroring others is entwined in our human social bonding.
Whether we know it or not, human beings can also sense energetic changes. The problem with us is that we are very good at projecting what we think is happening on to external sources. If we feel anxious, we will somehow find something to blame and fail to acknowledge our anxiety. I do it – you probably do it – let’s be honest!
Horses have no need to pretend that they’re anything other than what they are.
My recent issues with not being able to catch my mare, Lily, would be an example. I happen to know already that she reacts strongly to my energy. It’s likely that she reacts to the energy of the other horses too, but I have to acknowledge that I’ve been stressed lately, rather than blame it fully on introducing her into a herd with mares (see my previous post titled ‘Setbacks‘).
It’s a frustrating revelation then that anxiety problems in the horse are mostly our problem. Good horse trainers can push horses into stress while teaching them but then bring it down again just as easily. It causes me to conclude that a method of training is not nearly as important as the human who is doing the training. If the horse senses anxiety then they will not be able to bring their stress down. This can even happen in R+ trained horses that may display emotional reactions which keep their anxiety active. I believe that there is a difference between being ‘nice’ and being ‘kind’. Have you ever tried to raise a child with a method that involves being ‘nice’ all the time to them? Hence, I rest my case!
Kindness on the other hand is clarity, boundaries, and mutual respect. Sometimes kindness involves being very firm. Kindness also involves listening. Kindness involves teaching another to function properly for their own sake (and not for our own egotistical agenda). Kindness involves building self-esteem rather than entitlement. Again, I have to look to parenting for a parallel – I have a teenager at home that thinks 24/7 use of a smart phone is her entitlement (everyone else is doing that!). But to be kind, I have to teach her how to function in the world that requires other activities, and that involves having to be the bad cop sometimes to break that addiction. The withdrawal period at first is really the hardest bump to get over, and then when the emotional reaction has subsided there will be a greater capacity to think more clearly.
At some level, in order to develop completely as a human being, you need to be aware that there’s no need to be anything other than what you are.
When you develop a certain level of comfort and confidence about who you are internally, then you’re free to be part of herds. You’re free to have relationships with people.
If you want to reduce anxiety in your horse, then look to yourself and accept who you are and what you need to do to be kind (rather than nice) and then confidently apply your method of teaching which is clear and consistent, giving the horse enough time to understand. Anxiety is not created by pushing the horse, it is created by never allowing them to drop their level of stress while they are around us. Clarity and understanding gives the horse a stable emotional state. Pressure and release can be as effective as R+ . Our emotional state is the key, and the method is secondary.
Today I ventured back to my old neighbourhood near Old North Rd to have a lesson with Ramón Guerrero, a classical trainer and co-founder of the Royal School of Equestrian Art in southern Spain. I took Toby the Pony with me to learn how to do classical long rein properly (I have never had a lesson in this before).
So, we turn up with our long rein ‘gear’ which was a kiwi ingenuity do-dah of two sets of reins joined together to make a long rein…thankfully, Ramón was very understanding of my explanation that you cannot buy a classical long rein in New Zealand. ‘What do we have here?,’ he must have been thinking.
Ramón, who is now 70 years old by the way (and looking in great health!) watched us at first to see what we knew. Well, let’s just say, that turned out to be very little when it comes to the long rein methods! First of all, I was standing on the wrong side of the horse. So, I was advised to switch to the outside and use the inside rein to turn Toby on a circle.
Toby was not going forward into the bit which meant that I had very little maneuverability of direction. So, he had to get a bit more forward and taking the contact. We did some exercises to help this, a sort of lunging with the horse between the long reins, so that the outside rein went around his hind. Then another version of the double lunging with the outside rein crossing over the wither, which is not as efficient for the flexion, but with the main aim of getting more forward movement.
Apparently, I am to be ‘the commander’, so I’ve been a little too relaxed about our training. Toby was told to get to work, which is exactly what I was expecting from Ramón. To my surprise though, the trot work is where he will build the strength for piaffe. I thought that the canter is harder work for the horse, but with Toby electing to canter over trot, it seems that this is the easier way for him to get out of using his back. We are going to do the exercises from now in trot.
Our beginners piaffe was called a ‘shuffle’ by Ramón. I had figured that I would get some good honest truth, and well, I could hardly be offended by that…we’ve never been taught anything about this! So, we are going back to the drawing board until he has more strength in his back to be able to lift up as a diagonal piaffe that can move forward, rather than shuffling on the spot.
To Toby’s credit, Ramón did see the potential and said that he looked like a mini-Lipizzaner. I know that Toby has the heart of a Lipizzaner even if he is a good old kiwi stationbred! He definitely thinks he’s special. Unfortunately, Toby didn’t know about all the hard work that Lipizzaner’s do to look so special. Well, he might have a clue now!
We did a kind of shoulder-in lunging technique that Toby needs to do until he can hold his back in place for the piaffe. Luckily, he’s a quick learner. Now, for the gruelling schedule of daily practice. Classical training is very demanding. Ramón told me that to get to Grand Prix in the long rein he schooled his horse every day for two years. Okay maybe five days a week for us…I’m not sure we are headed for Grand Prix!
I also learned that Ramón is very fascinated by snow and skiing…perhaps I could teach him something??