How The Nervous System Works


“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
– Albert Camus

How The Nervous System Works

All bodies have dual functions of the nervous system called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. They are not actually two separate body parts, just very different functions of the same body part. But they are referred to as the sympathetic “fight and flight” nervous system and the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. 

We can think of the nervous system more like a single faucet that provides hot and cold water. Same system, two very different functions. It is a useful way to understand how drastically the same body changes when one is dominant over the other. We can think of the sympathetic, fight and flight system as hot water and the parasympathetic, rest and digest system as cold water. The experience of very hot and very cold are quite different even though both are water. In a body, at any moment, the hot can be more dominant by a little or a lot, or the cold can be dominant by a little or a lot. 

A perfect balance between both is called cohesion of the nervous system. We can find an ideal temperature integrating hot and cold, depending on what we are doing. It is possible for the parasympathetic nervous system to be very active, meaning we feel safe and have conscious control, while the sympathetic nervous system is also very active, adjusting unconscious functions like respiration, heart rate or muscle use in order to cope with strenuous activity. We commonly refer to cohesion as “being in the zone” because we are directing our mental focus while also working intuitively, faster than our brain can process. 

The Learning Frame of Mind means that either the parasympathetic nervous system is clearly more dominant, or the body has found cohesion. We find moments of cohesion during strenuous work by first slowing down enough to make sure we and our horses are always in The Learning Frame of Mind during the simple stuff. As new skills become new habits, the body becomes well conditioned to find “the zone” under pressure.

Hot Water

The sympathetic nervous system is called the “fight and flight” nervous system because it helps the body survive by finding safety immediately when we feel threatened. The threat does not have to come from outside of the body or even be real. Thoughts, emotions and even challenges to physical stability of the body can trigger dominance of the sympathetic nervous system. 

When the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, various functions of the physical body change in order to help the entire body cope with the perceived challenge. Energy levels escalate as soon as stress hormones are released and can become very high. Energy becomes “hot” expressing anxiety, tension, resistance, reactiveness, panic or shut down. Muscles shorten and tightly contract. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all increase. Blood flow is directed away from vital organs and into the limbs. Digestion pauses and the immune system is suppressed. All the energy and mental attention is directed outward, with the body prepared to stay and fight or take flight. 

The sympathetic nervous system is the body’s deepest survival mechanism. When dominant it lights up the older, instinctual part of the brain called the limbic system. We can only access species specific instincts and established habits regarding behavior or movement while in the limbic system, in order to survive short term. 

We can certainly feel when our sympathetic nervous system is dominating, and the feelings are not pleasant! We have to pay attention to the energy driving our horse’s behavior or actions in order to know when our horse is dominant in the sympathetic nervous system. The higher or hotter the energy becomes, the more fear our horse feels. Our horse’s energy level will be anything but calm or stable. The anxiety related to flight feels like an escalation of energy while the tension related to fight feels like an intensifying energy. 

Our horse’s actions when the sympathetic nervous system is dominant are not so different from ours. The feelings of fear, anxiety, tension or general lack of self confidence feel the same inside our horse as they do to us. The biochemical experiences we call emotions are universal, just the triggers are different for different species and for each individual. 

In flight, horses will become highly alert to the environment, distracted and unable to focus, have difficulty standing still, become reactive to guidance, be overly sensitive to touch, avoid and physically move away from us or any fear trigger. Bolting, spooking, shying, pulling back and hard to catch are behaviors often expressing flight defense. 

In fight, horses will become intensely focused on us or something in the environment. The energy intensifies but movement reduces, horses either shut down or move towards the threat, which might be us. Horses become cranky, stubborn, dull to guidance, resistant and don’t like to be touched, often biting or threatening to bite, kick or strike. Bucking, rearing, refusing to move, or pushing through our aids are all behaviors often expressing fight defense. 

While any behavior can be done with either nervous system dominant, the behaviors that we call “bad” are those that scare us, are dangerous or we just don’t like. Undesirable behaviors are really just defensive, fear based strategies that horses use to protect themselves, sometimes from us. Horses don’t like the feelings of fear and defensiveness anymore than we do, but all bodies will do what they need to do instinctively in order to survive until the feeling of safety is restored. 

Cold Water

The parasympathetic nervous system is called the “rest and digest” nervous system because it helps the body survive long term once immediate threats to safety have passed. It is the part of the nervous system that rejuvenates and restores the body, building internal energy rather than spending it. Long term survival requires more than just surviving threat after threat. Learning from mistakes, developing new skills, building strength and exploring new strategies are all survival skills that are supported by the parasympathetic. 

Only when a body feels safe does the parasympathetic nervous system dominate. Once it is dominant, the functions of the physical body restore to normal. Pleasure hormones stabilize energy, calming external output and directing energy and mental focus inward. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration reduce. Muscles lengthen and restore suppleness. Blood is directed back into the vital organs, away from the limbs. Digestion begins working again and the immune system becomes operational. 

Each nervous system also stimulates different brain functions. While the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the instinctual limbic system, the parasympathetic stimulates the “executive” part of the brain called the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is where we access choice and imagination. Horses brains are essentially the same as ours but smaller, with less capacity for choice and no ability to imagine a different future. Horses learn from the past, but make choices in the present moment based on how they feel right now. 

Energy levels stabilize when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant. We experience pleasant feelings when cooling down, chilling out or remaining calm, and so do our horses. Mental energy is more thoughtful, purposeful or intentional. During fast or strenuous work, maintaining a steady energy and mental concentration are also signs that our horse feels safe on the inside. 

Actions are more moderate, with our horse cooperating willingly even if struggling to figure out a task. While our horse’s mental focus may be intense on us or the task at hand, the muscles do not tighten excessively so movement remains fluid rather than stiff or jarring. All actions feel like responses from our horse rather than reactions, even when mistakes are made. Our horse’s body language expresses cool, calm curiosity, exploration, enthusiasm or at least a willingness to try. 

The Learning Frame of Mind

Another way to describe a body operating primarily in the parasympathetic nervous system or in the balance of cohesion is The Learning Frame of Mind. The concept of The Learning Frame of Mind, as an important part of training, is that we consistently choose to operate and help our horse operate with the parasympathetic nervous system dominant or in cohesion, during all work, all the time. 

Throughout Basic Handling, or whenever we are working at halt and walk, we should see obvious signs that our horse is very calm, softly focused on us and is trying to cooperate. During faster speeds in Groundwork or Under Saddle, we should still see calm, stable energy, mental concentration and a willingness to try, during the many mistakes that will be made as an expected part of learning. And, we should feel the same ourselves. 

Since horses, as a prey animals, have very different instincts for survival from humans, who have predator instincts, working with a horse can be become unsafe. A human dominant in the sympathetic nervous system can trigger defensiveness in a horse and vice versa. In order to work safely with our horse and enjoy the challenging process of learning, we both have to start by being in The Learning Frame of Mind. 

Even when the parasympathetic is only a little bit dominant or the nervous system is in cohesion, energy levels always stabilize and choices are reflected as responses, instead of reactions. The sympathetic always takes care of autonomic body functions needed to cope with increased physical demands, but it will dominate the body if a personal threshold is crossed into fear or physical instability. 

Activity in the two nervous systems is what alters energy levels, drives behaviors and physically affects all functions of the body. Long term health is supported whenever emotional stress is reduced towards calmness and energy stabilizes. Many health issues are the result of chronic emotional stress, even if our horse is doing what we want. While temporary emotional stress is unavoidable, it should not be sustained or encouraged. Physical stress on the body is a positive part of building strength, but does not need to involve the energies of anxiety or tension. A cool headed horse, even during hot work, is the result of taking the time needed to authentically habituate The Learning Frame of Mind during simple challenges. 

In order to habituate The Learning Frame of Mind as part of our work, we learn to focus our attention on energy levels and body language, always assessing what might be driving any behavior. We begin to address the underlying cause by helping our horse feel safe and comfortable, rather than seeking blind obedience or using punishment and rewards in order to shape behavior. 

Whenever we notice the energy fluctuations slipping towards fear, defensiveness, uncertainty or resistance, then we pause and adjust our work. We need to be prepared to adapt, change our plans or slow things down in order to restore an internal sense of safety, whenever the need arises, as a priority of training. We may have to wait until we feel calm before going further. We may have to take a break and wait for our hot horse to chill out before continuing to work on skill development. 

By understanding the biological, unconscious impact that each nervous system has on the entire body, behavior and movement, we begin to see the root cause of any “problem” we currently have with our horse. Problems in behavior or challenges during skill development with our horse can always be traced back to internal feelings. We don’t need to help our horse change behavior, we need to help our horse feel safe on the inside, while with us and while doing what we are doing. 

(Excerpt from the updated version of the Basic Handling workbook) 

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