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Equine Therapy: A Resolution of Hypervigilance

equine therapyWhile we know that horses are tremendously hypervigilant animals, much less is known about how it is this state of heightened awareness is resolved.

It is actually through fleeing — often the very thing that scares humans — that the horse keeps himself safe, serving as not only as an adaptive survival response but also as a way to continuously regulate his physiological system, keeping him well prepared to signal future danger.

In matching their behavior to their physiological responses, horses not only regulate their physiological system, but also find resolutions for threats in their environment.  This feeling, in response to a heightening in the physiological system is not only the horse’s first response in enacting his defense system, but is also a way to resolve the threat.  In thinking about what resolution is, it is helpful to think about the purpose of a heightening response in the physiological system.  A heightened response in the physiological system alerts the horse to a threat in his environment.  Should the horse remain in this state, alerted to a threat nearby, he would continue looking for the source of the threat, in an effort to resolve the danger.

Clearly this would not be a comfortable state for the horse to remain in for an extended period of time.  The horse would not only remain frightened and hyper vigilant, but it would not be adaptive to his survival.  Because a horse’s defense system overrides all other physiological systems, to remain in this heightened state, would be to the detriment of all other necessary tasks of survival, such as finding food, shelter, remaining with the herd, reproducing, and tending to young.  Therefore, in order to survive, the horse needs to find resolutions for threats in his environment.  Resolving the threat means first engaging the defense system, by fleeing or fighting, and then disengaging the defense system.  This disengagement, or resetting allows the defense system to regulate, therefore remaining balanced.

This resolution also allows the horse to find containment on a psychological level.  When a threat enters the horse’s environment, not only does his physiological system show a heightened response, but also on a psychological level, the horse thinks he will be attacked.  So on a psychological level, his reality becomes that his life is being threatened by an attacker.  To find resolution for threat is to stop thinking that he will be attacked, thereby finding containment on a psychological level.  Again, this is an adaptive response for when the horse stops thinking that he will be attacked, he can then tend to the other integral life tasks, such as finding food, tending to young, etc.  Without this resolution, all of these necessary tasks would be temporary suspended, the task of avoiding the attacker becoming more important to survival.  So by resolving the threat, the horse not only regulates his physiological system, but also finds containment on a psychological level.

This is also why when training horses, if they are allowed to run from what is frightening to them, they will again be able to focus on the training, as they have resolved the threat, and regulated their physiological system.  In this sense, the horse has proven to himself that he is again, safe, and has registered this feeling through his physiological response.

This response is very different from what is commonly seen with people.  Because people’s behavior is highly regulated by a sense of self-consciousness, they often don’t react to threats in their environment by actively engaging their defense system.  This is not to say that if a wild animal, or another person attacked a person, he will not react.  Surely, most of us would.  However, this does not describe the wide range of experiences that are threatening to individuals.

Additionally, there are experiences where people are not able to flee, or fight their attacker, and still survive.  These types of experiences typically do not happen in the horse’s natural environment.  In general, when horses are not able to flee or fight their attacker, they do not survive.  In this sense, threatening experiences typically have resolutions for horses.  Either by fleeing or fighting their attacker, or by losing their lives, the threatening experience is resolved.

With humans, most threatening experiences do not have resolve.  For example, being held at gunpoint while being forced to submit to the attacker’s requests, and then being released, does not have a resolve in the sense that the victim did not fight off the attacker.  The same is true in abuse situations.  A child being molested, or a wife being beaten must submit to the attacker’s demands, while not being able to fight off the attacker.  Accidents are also situations in which one’s life is threatened, and he may not be able to defend himself.  Cases such as plane or auto accidents are examples of this.  In these cases, humans are defenseless in that they have not been able to prevent the accident, and could have lost their lives.

Where the horse was able to defend himself, fighting off the attacker, the human was not.  In this sense, the horse prevented his demise, and the human did not, as his demise was prevented by chance.  Either the attacker with the gun decided not to shoot, or the molester spared the child because somebody finally intervened, or the victim survived the accident by luck.

However, all of these explanations are external to the victim.  This means that the victim’s justification for survival is not through his own actions, but through something outside of himself.  He was only lucky to have not been shot, or killed, or died in the crash, but he did not prevent it. Not only is this his explanation to himself, but also this is actually the reality.  So, on a psychological level, the human felt incapable, and was not able to act in his defense.  His defense system was overwhelmed, and he could not act to prevent harm to himself.  It was only through other factors that he did not die.  This feeling of inadequacy, in the face of threatening experiences, leaves the human poorly prepared to defend himself against future threatening experiences.  Because he feels inadequate, or incapable when faced with a threat, he will likely not attempt to defend himself, even in cases where an active defense system could prevent harm.

Where actively defending oneself seems to be an appropriate response to any threatening experience, there are clearly times when it is not.  For example, when being held at gunpoint, it might actually prevent one’s death to go along with the attacker’s requests, instead of actively fleeing, or fighting the attacker.  For a child being molested, he is often told that if he does tell another person, thereby acting in his defense, he will be harmed further.  In both of these cases, it is actually the victim’s inaction, and suppression of their defense systems that keeps him alive.

In a situation such as this, what the human learns is that to prevent harm to himself, he must suppress his defense system.  This is not only maladaptive response in terms of survival, but it is also suppression of a natural physiological response.  When the physiological system is suppressed, there is a restriction of energy flow.  The energy created when the defense system is engaged is a host of neurochemical responses that create muscle responses in the form of muscle tension.  This energy must be released.  When energy is restricted and not able to be released, it has to find another direction to go.  This often comes in the form of stagnant muscle tension that creates some form of binding of the muscle fibers, resulting in pain.  This can come in the form of tension headaches, migraines, digestive disturbances, shoulder and neck pain, and a host of other physical pains.  Because this muscle tension is stagnant, it causes a stress to the physiological system.  Like a resultant effect of the original muscle tension, this stress can cause a host of other physical ailments.  Many conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and diabetes can be explained a suppressed defense system.

In both of the situations described above, where either though external causes (by the action of another person, or by luck) or internal causes (involuntary or voluntary suppression of the defense system), the person does not have resolution for the threatening experience.  In the way that the horse was able to actively defend himself, or if not capable, did not survive, he had resolution for the threatening experience.  This resolution is something that he was deprived of, and therefore, on a psychological level feels incapable of defending himself against future threat, and on a physiological level learns to suppress his defense system in response to threat.

When either through external causes, or internal ones, a person’s defense system is suppressed, and he is deprived of resolution for the threat, there exists a desire, or compulsion to try to find resolution for the original threat.  On a psychological level, the person is trying to find the original resolution of which he was deprived.  Because this lack of resolution creates a feeling of inadequacy, and consequently fear, there is a natural drive to try to resolve these feelings.  However, because people cannot replay the original threatening experience, and this time actively engage his defense system, they may look for situations that are similar to the original threat, in an attempt to find this resolution.  This is an unconscious process known as recapitulation.

Recapitulation is described as the unconscious compulsion to recreate the original threatening experience that initially created this feeling of inadequacy and fear.  Recapitulation is a natural response, and occurs in most cases where a human is deprived of resolution for a threatening experience.  However, recapitulation is a maladaptive response for several reasons.  Primarily, because it is an unconscious process, of which the human is unaware, there is a disconnect between his behavior, and his emotional response to it.  It is as if he is creating these situations in his life without connecting, on a psychological level, as to why he is doing this.

Not only this, he may believe that he is not actively creating these situations, and that external factors are creating these situations.  He is not taking ownership or responsibility for his actions, but is also acting out his belief that external factors are responsible for his behavior.  This is the same psychological belief that was originally created by the initial threatening experience.  This is the victim’s belief that external factors either relieve harm, or cause it.  Because originally it was an external factor that saved him from the initial threat, on a psychological level, he maintains this reality through his behavior (i.e.: putting himself in, or creating situations for which he believes he is not responsible).  In this way, he has internalized the concept that he is not capable of defending himself, and therefore cannot act to defend himself.

Therefore a person may try to find resolution for the original threat, by creating situations that resemble it, yet continue to believe that he is not capable of defending himself.  In this way, he is stuck, and because he is not connecting his behavior to his emotional response to it, he will remain baffled as to why these things keep happening to him, not that he may actually be causing them through his behavior.  It is as if he must induce, or invite harm to himself in order to justify his belief that harmful things happen to him, and he is not capable of defending himself, or preventing this harm.

Again this is a situation that clearly represents a demarcation between horses and humans.  In the horse’s natural environment, there are not situations where not actively defending oneself when faced with a threatening attacker might actually improve one’s survival chances.

Additionally, there are not situations where a horse’s defense system is actively suppressed in response to threat.  For if this were the case, and horses did actively suppress their defense systems in response to threat, they would not react to the attacker, and would be easy prey.  Clearly this type of response would not be adaptive to the survival of the horse species.  So where horses find resolutions for threatening experiences, thereby resolving not only the physiological response of an engaged defense system, but also finding containment on a psychological level, humans are often deprived of this.

Photo by Adrian Parnham, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Equine Therapy: A Resolution of Hypervigilance

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2011). Equine Therapy: A Resolution of Hypervigilance. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 17, 2019, from


Last updated: 27 Jun 2011
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