While the mysticism of horses seems lost on none, and yet, not entirely understood by even those who proclaim to be equine experts, one of the most touted benefits of our four legged friends is their unique ability to always be fully present. Indeed, horses appear to only live in the now. Yet, is this always the case? Do all horses live exclusively in the present moment?
Surprisingly, the answer to this question is no. However, it is not without human interference that equine dissociation occurs.
When we speak of equine dissociation, or horses becoming disoriented to time, place, and person, we are essentially describing the same trauma reaction that can be seen in people who have witnessed, or experienced life threatening events. Yet, in the case of horses, perception is the key factor. While it may be relatively easy to determine what may or may not jeopardize the life of a person, the same conclusion is not so easy when attempting to view the situation through equine eyes. Implicit in this attempt is, of course, both the horse’s individual temperament — that which he is born with — as well as his own unique history.
Just like people, some horses seem to weather stress better than others. Therefore, what may rattle one horse will not necessarily rattle another. This difference in character then not only predisposes the nervous horse to increased trauma and fear, but also jeopardizes the very learning than would ameliorate the stress. Going further, again just like people, some horses enjoy the benefit of a positive upbringing full of human interactions that build trust and boost confidence, while others struggle to find even a handful of pleasant human experiences.
Often, it is the combination of the nervous equine character and a lack of pleasant interactions with people that then result in a horse that tends to dissociate.
So, you may be wondering, what exactly does equine dissociation look like? Well surprisingly, not that different from in people — increased startle response, excessive hyper-vigilance, inappropriate response to non-threatening events, an inability to correctly interpret the present situation, as well as a difficulty integrating new information. So the person enters the horse’s space, in a non-threatening way — perhaps slowly reaching up to pet the horse, and he leaps back.
While the person means no harm, the horse is in panic mode, and upon a second try, the same response occurs. Five minutes later, or even five days later, the horse seems to be responding to something that doesn’t exist in the present moment — that is, fear rooted in his past. Unfortunately for a horse such as this, while some gains can be made, trust has been broken, and he will always be subject to lack of presence.
However, if we are to truly learn from the horse, perhaps our first lesson should begin with the fact the horses never did, and never will, dissociate in their natural habitat, and it is not until negative experiences at the hands of humans, that this equine phenomenon occurs.
Photo by Johan Verrips, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.