Thanks to the pioneering work of Hans Selye, we have a fairly solid understanding of the stress response. However, it is the modulation of this very powerful reaction to stressors that we continue to struggle with. Further, it is the deleterious effects of stress that lead to a number of stress-related diseases and conditions.
At the onset of a stressor, the human body goes into alarm, secreting neurochemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, thereby activating the sympathetic nervous system to do one of two things: fight or flee, (in some rare cases of complex trauma, the sympathetic nervous system can also cause the person to freeze).
It is during the alarm phase that we’d see a horse’s head shoot up, ears pricked forward, body tense, and then he’d bolt, terrified, away from the source of the alarm. Consequently, this is also when most people fall off, as the horse is running wildly away from some perceived alarm (as horses are incredibly sensitive, this “alarm” could be as minor as a piece of paper blowing across the ground).
The alarm phase is also when most people can identify stress, as it is during this phase that is most likely to cause some disruption in their life, such as interrupted sleep or insomnia, inability to eat, nightmares, flashbacks, and hyper-vigilance to the point of inability to concentrate. Interestingly, it is typically at this point that people are most workable and receptive to stress management interventions as the stress is currently impairing their life.
Although the second phase of the stress response has been well documented by Selye and others, horses in the wild rarely demonstrate it. In wild horses, the alarm phase prompts them to respond to the stressor, as ignoring the source of stress might mean that they might become lunch for some enterprising lion. Robert Sapolsky, acclaimed Stanford stress researcher and author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, among many others, would agree. The second phase of the stress response, known as the resistance phase, is really more about resisting, ignoring, or in some other way managing to live with the stress. For obvious reasons, this idea would seem ridiculous to a horse.
Humans, on the other hand, live with stress as a course of everyday life. However, the cascade of glucocorticoids that characterize the resistance phase can, in many ways be even more detrimental to health than the neurochemicals released during the alarm phase. Glucocorticoids decrease insulin sensitivity (predisposing a person to diabetes and obesity), impair white blood cell functions, decrease reproductive hormone response, and most concerning, severely increase heart disease risk (related mostly to the over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system).
Again, interestingly, people typically are not so receptive to stress management during the exhaustion phase. The reason for this? It is during this stage that they have managed to live with the stress and are blissfully unaware of the underlying effects of chronic stress. Also, as people typically cannot identify when their sympathetic nervous system is activated, (I certainly can’t), there is a substantial amount of denial in this phase.
However, if I have learned anything about horses, it is that they are terrific barometers of our sympathetic nervous system activation. Without a doubt, when exposed to a person, or another horse, whose epinephrine and adrenaline levels are firing off, a horse will display very obvious reactions — essentially, it will trigger their own alarm phase. This is also why those who ride horses recognize how easily one horse who is panicking can set off another, causing mass equine mayhem.
This is also where equine therapy can be so revealing. Enter a client who feels that she/he is managing the stress in his/her life quite admirably, and feels as calm and collected as can be, and with no hesitation, the horse is triggered, wary of this individual. All of the sudden the horse that was pleasantly dozing away in the sunshine, will not let this person approach. And yet, other people have easily approached this horse with no problem.
To the horse, this person is a walking stressor, and clearly should be avoided. It is sometimes just this intervention that will catch a stressed person’s attention.
Woman and horse photo available from Shutterstock