Equine Therapy: Learning Through “Feel”
I had begun working with Bill three years before, when a horse show judge suggested that he could help with my “rogue” thoroughbred, Keeper. From the time I started with him, Bill’s knowledge of horses amazed me. He literally thought like a horse.
I walked Cat a little closer to where he was standing, resting one arm on the jump standard. “Hey Bill, do you think horses can tell if people are dissociating?” I asked.
He looked at me quizzically. “If they’re what?”
“You know – like, not there emotionally.”
“Well they’re herd animals.” He looked at me as if this, in itself, answered the question.
“What does that mean?” I had never before thought about what it would mean to be a herd animal.
“That’s how they look at people, too, like part of the herd.”
“How would that make them able to tell what going on with people emotionally?” I still didn’t understand this.
“Because that’s how a herd relates-all on the same emotional level. If one horse gets upset, they all get upset. If one gets nervous, they all get nervous.” He pulled his arm off of the standard, and walked toward the edge of the ring. He returned with a small branch he had picked up off the ground, “Let me show you something.” He took out his cigarette lighter and lit the branch. It immediately began to burn, creating a bright orange flame and a plume of smoke. Cat started to back up. His eyes went wide as he caught sight of the flame. He snorted, turning his head side to side to get another look at it. Bill just stood still holding the simmering branch in front of him as Cat continued backing up nervously. He had gone from resting quietly to a palpable panic.
“Hear that?” he asked.
I turned my head toward the barn hidden behind the house. Keeper, my rogue thoroughbred, was neighing nervously. I listened again. Another neigh. It sounded like Sylvie, one of the mares in the pasture on the other side of the house. Then another, and another. Soon, a chorus of neighs surrounded us.
I looked at Bill, standing there still holding the branch, with a grin on his face. “Now how did those other horses know Cat was nervous?” he asked.
The barn and the pasture were both at least 400 meters from the arena, too far out of earshot to hear the small crackling of the branch, or even the snort Cat let out. Nor could the small amount of smoke generated by the flame be detected at that distance. “I have no idea. How did they?”
“They feel it. Because they are all on the same emotional wavelength, when one member gets nervous, it affects the emotional flow of the herd.”
I had read that certain animals, like birds or fish, could communicate like this. Without actually seeing the leader of a flock, an individual bird could sense the directional changes of the flock. Another study found that schools of fish when placed in adjacent tanks, separated by a barrier entirely blocking their sight, continued to swim in the same direction, as if there were no barrier. Even though they could no longer see the other fish, or sense the current changes created by the swimming pattern, they continued to swim in the same direction.
But these were directional changes. What had just happened here involved an emotional connection between all of the horses; without being able to see, hear, or smell any trace of Cat’s panic, the other horses had nonetheless felt it.“It’s like a sixth sense,” I said, looking at Cat as he watched Bill put out the branch.
“Sort of, yeah.”
I thought back to the conversation in my professor’s office. “So horses don’t repress their emotions?” I asked
He looked at me quizzically again, “They don’t what?”
“They don’t push their emotions away. You know, like try to not feel them.”
“They can’t. See all of those horses that were just neighing, they didn’t know why they were neighing. It was just instinctual. They knew something was wrong. It’s how they keep themselves safe.”
So if Cat actually had been in danger, the herd would have known about it and responded, I thought to myself. It made so much sense. That’s why horses don’t hide their emotions, because the herd will always respond to them. Even if they don’t know why something is wrong, they will respond anyway. So there is never a need to hide their emotions.
I flipped back to that day I decided to ride Nimo for the first time. I could see him standing in his pen, staring at me intently. I wondered what he seemed to notice that I didn’t.
“So what do they do when people hide their emotions?” I asked.
“They can’t.” Bill pulled out another cigarette and lit it.
“What do you mean?” I wondered if he was referring to horses or people.
He put the cigarettes back in his pocket. “Horse’s can’t avoid responding to people’s emotions. Even if you try to hide them, to the horses, they are still there.”
“They respond to them, even if you think you have hidden them.” I reached down and scratched Cat’s neck. He was still looking suspiciously at the extinguished branch on the ground.
“What if you don’t know that you have hidden them?” I wondered about the complex trauma that my professor was talking about. Those people don’t even know they have repressed their feelings.
“To the horses, they are still there.”
So because horses’ entire communication system is built around responding to each other’s emotions, they can’t repress them. Unlike people, they have to respond to them. It is part of their instinctual nature.
I had experienced exactly what this meant while training horses — that when they become overwhelmed with fear, they can’t stop it and will sometimes run right through a fence blinded by fear. In fact, the whole concept of “sacking out” a horse is based on the idea that if you can overcome a horse’s fear response — essentially his instinct to run — by repeatedly desensitizing him to a scary object, like a plastic bag, then he will no longer respond to fearful objects by running. However, sacking out doesn’t always work. A friend of mine tried a form of sacking out with her mare by tying a plastic bag on to the horse’s saddle and then turning her loose in a pen. Her horse, in a full-blown state of terror, ran right through the fence, out of the pen, and through a series of three more fences, severely cutting her legs, chest and shoulders. Her “fight-or-flight response”, had simply taken over, and she was unable to stop. Because of horses’ prey design, this extreme instinct for flight or fight is their hard-wired physiology, they cannot consciously override it like people can — it is what has kept them as a species alive for so long. When frightened they have to move their feet, and often restricting this response to run, will increase it.
But it seems that the response to run does more for the horse than simply evade prey. Several studies have demonstrated that horse’s flight response actually results in a surge of dopamine, a powerful opium-like neurotransmitter, in the brain. After running from a threatening object, dopamine then helps the horse essentially calm back down. This effect is adaptive in that it prepares the horse to run from future threats. While the horse can’t stop himself from running from a perceived threat, fleeing itself, is a way to self-adjust the physiological responses, and restore a state of physiological calm.
But expressing their emotions — and thereby responding to their fear, and not restricting their need to run — is also a way for the herd to connect together physiologically. Once one horse feels something, the entire herd feels it too — it’s the only communication system they know.
Yet I had also seen horses communicate with people this way. As a competitive rider, I had once seen the same horse be perfectly well behaved for child rider, yet act out, violently, when ridden by the child’s trainer. While at first this seemed antithetical to what would be expected as the child’s riding ability was not nearly as developed as that of the trainer. Yet in watching how both the child and the trainer interacted with other people, the answer was obvious. While the little kid was friendly, sweet, playful, and perhaps a bit timid, the middle-aged trainer was short with others, inpatient, and even verbally abusive toward his students. Essentially, the trainer was in flight response all of the time, yet he wasn’t running anywhere — therefore, he wasn’t responding, really, to his flight response. To the horse, acting out was the only way to attempt to get the trainer to pay attention to what was happening inside him, and in doing so, respond to his own physiological need. Instead of repressing this physiology, the horse was trying to bring it to the surface for the trainer. It was as if the horse’s behavior was saying to the trainer, ‘you have intense anger in you that needs to come out’.
So when people don’t know that they have repressed their emotions, or even what those emotions are, the horses do. It all made so much sense.
Photo by banamine, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2011). Equine Therapy: Learning Through “Feel”. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 1, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/2011/07/equine-therapy-learning-through-%e2%80%9cfeel%e2%80%9d/