While many of us are familiar with the organizational dynamics of a group of like minded people, and the concept of a herd of animals, the psychological benefits of existing among a herd are much less understood. For this reason, this post is dedicated to examining this very concept. The following is an excerpt from the book, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond.
The question of whether horses themselves can dissociate had been burning in my mind ever since that day in my professor’s office, and as I watched Bill step back and light another cigarette, I pondered how to pose the question without sounding confused.
“Give him a minute,” he said, flicking the ashes in the sand.
I reached down and gave Flying Cat a pat on the neck. He caught his breath stretching his neck down as I released the reins. I turned and looked over at the gymnastic we had just jumped through. It was the biggest we had ever jumped. Bill, my coach, had been slowly raising the jumps and making them wider with each time through. Then he would make us wait. He insisted that horses need “time to think.” He’d watch Cat closely, and after adjusting the jumps, send us through the gymnastic again.
I never questioned Bill, and when he said it was time to go, I knew Cat was ready. Sixty seven years old, about 5’11’ and of a slight build, Bill had accomplished more in his lifetime than most trainers can ever hope to. It was not hard to notice the way people in the horse business regarded him – with a sense of awe.
Having trained horses his whole life, he never went anywhere without a healthy dose of humility, a straw hat, and cigarette. Forever the storyteller, he loved to recount how he got into show jumping in the first place. He had started out training reining horses, the kind that run, spin and slide. Over time, his reputation for being able to work with any horse spread. He could turn an obstreperous rogue into a polished show horse.
When a customer brought over a rangy looking Thoroughbred, Bill promptly told him that Thoroughbreds are not reining horses. They are not built for the fast spins and slides like Quarter horses. They’re too tall and their center of gravity is too high. But the customer pleaded. Every trainer around had rejected the horse and Bill was his last stop. Bill took a look at the horse, a tall, bay gelding. The customer told him that he had bucked off every other trainer and he didn’t know what to do with him. “What does he like to do?” Bill asked.
“Well he seems to like jumping out of his pen. I can’t keep him anywhere,” he answered.
A little smile came across Bill’s lips as he told the story. He always liked a rogue.
Well, what became of that rogue is recorded in Olympic history. His name was Fleet Apple. He was on the 1968 US Olympic Show Jumping team. And he never did learn how to turn. When the chef d’equip of the team called Bill to tell him that they couldn’t turn the horse, Bill chuckled. “He turns off the leg. If you use the rein, he locks his jaw. It’s an old reining trick.” There was a pause on the line, “Oh, oh, okay. We’ll try that.” Bill could tell the team captain had never heard of such a thing.
Being innovative in his training methods was only one thing Bill was known for. It was due largely to his efforts that grand prix competition was brought to California. Previous to that, grand prix events only existed on the east coast. There wasn’t even an organization for horse show competition until Bill and many others began advocating for one. What started as a group of trainers, judges, and riders became known as the Pacific Coast Horseman’s Association, now one of the largest equestrian organizations in the nation.
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.
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, 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 of herd of horses available from Shutterstock.