The Freeze Response – A Biological Process

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.

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