I have asked myself the question of why I have seen a horse on multiple occasions move into a home better suited to its needs and watched the horse go from not particularly thriving (meaning none of the horses were in peak physical condition at the transfer) to pretty seriously ill or lame… broken down in a much more serious way than would have been expected over a period from months to a year.
Why (I kept thinking) am I seeing this pattern, and experiencing it myself (specifically with Hope, but in a more emotional less physical way with Wyoming as well)? I would think that the horse moving into an environment better suited to helping it thrive should mean the horse improves in condition, not worsens. I have asked myself if I am wrong about what makes for a better environment for the horse to thrive? Are these horses getting better or getting worse? What is the truth?
Someone working with our functional equine health care told me they see this quite commonly and explained to me that it is an honor when a horse will choose you to fall apart. Ok I thought, I sense truth in that, but what is really happening?
I had an early theory that these new owners took on the horses knowing they would find some issues under what I call the duct tape that had been holding them together previously. When you are willing to take on a horse that is not in peak physical condition, and you begin to take off the “duct tape”- you’d better be ready to find (like in a project house) things behind the layers behind the layers that always are more serious than you realized on the surface when you did a walk through.
I had a sense there was something to this but not real clarity.
Recently I stumbled across an interview with Jim Masterson who developed what is called The Masterson Method which is a body work that is simple to begin, anyone can start, and builds connection between you and your horse while also encouraging the horse release layers of tension and trauma that are held in the body. I liked his story and this method work was based on observation, listening to the horse as you went, and a light touch paired with patience to wait until something changes. It was a low risk – high reward experiment. So I did some investigating on his website, watched a couple demo videos and thought I would see what happened in my own herd.
This is where things began to get interesting.
One caveat from Jim Masterson was that as prey animals, some horses would resist releasing tension in the body because it is a vulnerable state and reveals even momentary weakness. If the tension spot seems clear by observation, and in waiting you sense they are resistant, one suggestion was to be sure you were not looking with too much intent at the horse (expecting release) or possibly try looking away entirely for a moment. Sometimes Jim noticed that after a small release, if he turned away for a moment or gave the horse a break, the horse would have bigger releases that continued on their own.
This podcast binge where I stumbled on to Masterson also led me into some interviews that began with training concepts and wove into equine behavioral neuroscience and trauma and healing. One of the interviews with a neuroscientist included discussion of some studies that revealed: the nervous system must find rest in order for healing to occur, a being (horse or human etc) cannot heal especially in the deeper levels if they do not feel safe.
A different interview along the same subject brought up this point: tolerance and willing acceptance are not the same. Many of our accepted even natural horsemanship training methods include a psychological double-blind where no good options exist.
An example of this is when pressure is put on a horse intended to bring a response. If the response the human is seeking is outside the threshold of the horse they are now in a psychological double-blind. They can choose not to respond which will result in increasing pressure until the pressure is worse than the discomfort of the response they are being asked for. In this case the increased pressure is used to force horses into situations they are not ready or properly prepared for, put them in pain, or do not understand. Under this pressure they are not in a relaxed learning state, but in self-preservation.
In self-preservation the most common reactions are flight, fight or freeze. We rarely allow flight from a training session, in fact most horses are hard wired to choose flight first. When we don’t give them an out we force them to fight with us or freeze. A horse who fights will generally run into a human with access to tools that can win the fight (though humans and horses are often hurt in the process) these horses are quickly labeled bad and disrespectful and problem horses. The freeze response is not only a stoic stillness, but can be when a horse shuts down or withdraws inside themselves to a certain tolerance level in order to survive and function. They are in a heightened nervous system response even though they look docile and calm.
Pressure and toleration are not inherently bad. Simply walking toward a horse is pressure. For a wild horse just an approach will send it into survival mode flight. For my herd they more often greet me with curiosity as they graze feeling generally unthreatened by my approach. I might ask my mare to tolerate the annoying flies for a period of time while we try to do some work under saddle, I’ve asked her to tolerate my lack of grace and occasional mistakes or imbalance in learning a new movement with the expectation I will improve. We work with green horses to learn to tolerate things like saddle bags, water bottles, raincoats being put on or taken off, or tolerate riding in front or back of a group when it isn’t their preference. Different horses tolerate different levels of discomfort depending on their personality. The problem comes when the human decides to (or is ignorant to) override the horse’s threshold and we don’t go at the pace where their comfort level is pushed on but not broken through. To work at this pace as with most things, takes time investment and patience and our fast paced world the value of the art of slow development has gotten lost in the rat race.
I heard Karen Rohlf (Dressage Naturally) recently say that power (or strength) in a horse is energy plus relaxation. If you take a look at her horses, her courses, and her talk-walk integrity she is building powerful horses that have been trained to do high level complex physical movements and they have to push the comfort zones in the horse, but done in such a way that no shortcut tools or force are levered against the horse allowing the trainer to push past their ability to comply with willingness. Something I particularly like about her training is the emphasis that the horse feels good about what they are learning and how their body is moving so they seek the correct form naturally because it’s where things feel good to both the horse and rider. The attention to miniscule changes in the horse’s posture and how to feel this as a rider and then encourage the horse to seek that feel again seems overwhelming to most riders but if we were to embrace the process over progress we might even come to enjoy the art of horsemanship instead of getting to a finish line, a ribbon, or a new level of competition.
In order to thrive and move in power and strength, the basic question a horse or human needs answered is:
Am I safe?
Unfortunately this question is better translated Do I FEEL safe? Because we have all been in a position where our thinking brain has sorted out the fact that it is irrational but yet we don’t FEEL safe and I have seen some instances where the person has FELT safe and it was pretty clear from the outside (or what came next) that they were not actually safe. We know that if we are in fear or pain and the person who can help us ignores our concerns, that rarely feels safe.
I do not suffer from anxiety but I have met many women who do. I have a long time violin student who recently explained to me that she can go into a freeze state of high anxiety and appear like she is listening and even do what I’m asking of her. She shared with me that for years this has been happening to her in various intervals in different situations including her lessons from time to time, and what is going on inside of her (which I did not see from the outside she had gotten so good at being functional in this state) was panic and the inability to take in information. She might ask me to wait a moment while she got a drink, or went to the restroom just to get outside the situation and find a way to come back to calm. She did not dislike me or blame me, something had tripped her brain into overwhelm and internally she was having a panic attack. She fully realized this was irrational and knew that I was her friend and she wasn’t in danger, it didn’t come from me being particularly demanding either. In her case it was a mental disorder that would take over from time to time that she has learned to manage in recent years.
Human nervous systems and minds are more complex than the horse. I do not think horses have the same issues with anxiety disorder in the way humans do. My point in this example is that she felt unsafe even though she knew in her mind it wasn’t true. The fact that she FELT unsafe was what tripped her nervous system and she was unable to learn or take in information in that state. From the outside it would be easy for me to think she was being ridiculous and irrational; if I didn’t understand she had a legitimate struggle that I was not experiencing in the same way at the same moment I could try to force her to just get with the program and stop being so difficult.
What I see with horses is many times the human doesn’t believe the horse has a legitimate concern instead I hear things like: you should be ok with this… or you have seen a tarp/cone/tractor/bike/mud puddle fill in the blank before and that is enough that you should not be afraid ever again… or we learned this yesterday you are just being difficult… don’t be stupid… or we see new behavioral shifts and assume the horse is being a jerk, taking advantage, or lazy instead of seeing the behavior as information and wondering why is this happening? is there pain somewhere? Does the horse possibly not connect the pieces as I assume he should? Could my horse be confused? is it possible he really is afraid of the cone because it is in a new place…
Instead of curiosity, taking the information as real data, slowing down, listening to the horse’s concern and trying to address it from their perspective (ain’t nobody got time for that….) We push through with force or shortcut with a tool heading ever onward toward the goal we have for the day or week or year and when the horse complies or is forced into a physical frame without relaxation and understanding we assume they are ok with it.
This potentially creates long term mental, emotional and physical wear. Eventually it will reveal damage that gets pressed under the surface until either the duct tape is pulled off or it just cannot hold together anymore and that “out of nowhere” blow up comes or the injury makes it way to the surface and is forced to be dealt with. I am increasingly astounded at the amount of things going on beneath the visible surface of the horse (in my own herd) both physically and emotionally that we will not see (if we don’t make the effort) often because they will hide it especially if they do not feel safe. When we do finally see it arrive at the surface is much more deeply rooted and harder to heal.
What is also very clear in my observation is that everyone I know that has horses loves and cares for them very much. Not one of them is intentionally being abusive or making a decision to cause them deep rooted harm. Every one of them is doing their horse program the way they were taught by someone else who had been taught by someone else and so it goes.
Ironically I have found the same people who tell me that horses are not intelligent enough to make good choices, partner with us on a willing level, saying they must be completely controlled at all times in order to be safe also will tell me the horse is taking advantage of them or premeditating bad behavior. This is an odd disconnect. You can’t have a dumb animal incapable of deep emotions or the ability to make good choices also be an intelligent creature who premeditates bad choices in order to get out of work, faking injury, or the complexity that comes along with taking advantage of us.
So with this background that’s had me thinking. I will pause and post this precursor to the experiences I had digging deeper into my own herd, and some of the surprising revelations that make sense out of some lingering patterns I haven’t previously had answers for.
In part 2 I will begin with what Wyoming had to say….