Can we be anthropomorphic with horses?
Candace Pert, PhD rocked my world when I listened to her lecture and interview called Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind. As a horse trainer, the one part that stuck out to me was her discussion about how all living organisms share the exact same biochemistry of emotions that run through the autonomic nervous system.
In other words, when a horse is happy or in fear the chemicals produced in the body and received by the receptors on each cells surface are exactly the same as when a human is happy or in fear. Emotions are what we do have in common with animals. Triggers for various emotional responses may be very different, but the sensations we experience during each emotion and the effect they have on our body and mind are the same.
The autonomic nervous system in any living creature is divided into two subsystems: The sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic system deals with responses to stress and danger and in general increasing activity and metabolic rate. The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant during rest, sleeping, digesting food and, in general, lowers metabolic rate, slows activity, and restores blood pressure and resting heartbeat.
When horses or riders are in fear the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, helping direct fight or flight survival tactics. The chemistry in the body changes and more blood is directed to the muscles, less to the gut. The heart rate, respiration and blood pressure increase, providing immediate energy. The body’s resources are channeled towards survival.
When horses and riders feel safe and comfortable the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, helping with rest and digest functions or recuperation for the body. The chemistry in the body becomes very different, releasing pleasure hormones and more blood is directed to the gut for better digestion and absorption of nutrition. Heart rate, respiration and blood pressure all reduce or slow down. In the parasympathetic state the body is restoring energy.
This is why the concept of The Learning Frame of Mind is important during training. The Learning Frame of Mind describes a horse that is dominant in the parasympathetic nervous system. As long as the horse is demonstrating fight or flight: dominant in the sympathetic nervous system, conscious learning is going to be very difficult. Without paying attention to which nervous system is dominating, we are not really helping the horse gain health and well-being. When people ask me about pushing or not pushing their horses during training, my answer is always the same – do as much as you can do without sacrificing The Learning Frame of Mind as a side effect. In other words, having the parasympathetic nervous system dominant during all activities with our horses is fundamentally important to real progress with our horses and the health of our horses. This applies to every phase of training from catching to riding in competitive sports. Even the very best racing Thoroughbreds run with excitement and controlled power, not fear.
Working a horse regularly in a state of fear not only marginalizes the training, it is destructive to the horse’s health in both body and mind. People often do this because the horse looks so dramatic and has lots of energy. But operating too long or too often in a sympathetic state can be the source of many health issues. Just like with people, long term stress affects the health of the body.
I took this quote from Candace Perts website. This quote best describes the reason that the Learning Frame of Mind has become so important while training any horse towards balance and healthy movement:
The fact that the word trauma has been used to describe both physical and mental damage has been a key part of my theory of how the molecules of emotion integrate what we feel at every level of what I’ve called our bodymind. As a practical manner, people have a hard time discriminating between physical and mental pain. So often we are stuck in an unpleasant emotional event, a trauma, from the past that is stored at every level of our nervous system and even on the cellular level i.e.,cells that are constantly becoming and renewing the nervous system. My laboratory research has suggested that all of the senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are filtered, and memories stored, through the molecules of emotions, mostly the neuropeptides and their receptors, at every level of the bodymind.
So can we be anthropomorphic with horses? Maybe not in the way that Disney portrays, but on an emotional level we can certainly relate to how our horses feel. Learning to read our horse’s emotional state during work helps us guide our horses in healthy, adaptive and sustainable ways to develop lasting changes. This is what I mean by working with a horse from the inside out.