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.