Are Horses Really So Different From Us?

Can we be anthropomorphic with horses?Candace Pert, PhD rocked my world when I listened to her lecture and interview on a CD set called “Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind.” As a horse trainer the one part that stuck out to me was her discussion about how all living organisms share the exact same biochemistry of emotions that run through the autonomic nervous system.

Will you be my Valentine?

In other words, when a horse is happy or in fear the chemicals produced in the body and received by the receptors on each cells surface are exactly the same as when a human is happy or in fear. Emotions are what people do have in common with animals. Triggers for various emotional responses may be very different, but the sensations of each emotion and the effect they have on our body and mind are the same.

Scientists say that the autonomic nervous system in a living creature is divided into two subsystems: The sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former system deals with the response to stress and danger and in general increasing activity and metabolic rate. The parasympathetic nervous system is central during rest, sleeping, and digesting food and, in general, lowers metabolic rate, slows activity, and restores blood pressure and resting heartbeat.

Something as simple as saddling can send some horses into a sympathetic state

When horses or riders are in fear the sympathetic nervous system is in charge – helping with fight or flight survival tactics. The chemistry in the body changes to direct more blood to the muscles, less to the gut. The heart rate and blood pressure activate the body’s ability to gain immediate energy. The body’s resources are channeled towards survival.

Once this horse learned to accept the saddle through patient repetition he could be saddled in a parasympathetic state

When horses and riders feel safe and comfortable the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge – helping with rest and digest functions. The chemistry in the body is very different directing more blood to the gut for better digestion and absorption of nutrition. In the parasympathetic state the body is restoring energy.

This is precisely why the Learning Frame of Mind is my first order of training. The Learning Frame of Mind describes a horse that is in a parasympathetic state. As long as the horse is demonstrating fight or flight – in a sympathetic state – no real learning is going to take place and I am not helping the horse gain health and well-being. When people ask me about how much or how little to do with their horses my answer is always the same – do as much as you can without sacrificing the Learning Frame of Mind as the most prevalent pattern in the horse. This applies to every phase of training from catching to riding in competitive sports. Even the very best racing Thoroughbreds run with excitement and controlled power, not fear.

Working a horse regularly in a state of fear not only marginalizes the training, it is destructive to the horse’s health in both body and mind. People often do this because the horse looks so dramatic and has lots of energy. But operating too long or too often in a sympathetic state will create trauma. Stress is a killer for both horses and people.

I took this quote from Candace Pert’s website. It best describes the reason that the Learning Frame of Mind has become my beacon while training any horse towards habitual balance:

The fact that the word “trauma” has been used to describe both physical and mental damage has been a key part of my theory of how the molecules of emotion integrate what we feel at every level of what I’ve called our bodymind. As a practical manner, people have a hard time discriminating between physical and mental pain. So often we are “stuck” in an unpleasant emotional event – a trauma – from the past that is stored at every level of our nervous system and even on the cellular level – i.e.,cells that are constantly becoming and renewing the nervous system. My laboratory research has suggested that all of the senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are filtered, and memories stored, through the molecules of emotions, mostly the neuropeptides and their receptors, at every level of the bodymind.

Piss off you fool!

So can we be anthropomorphic with horses? Maybe not like Disney portrays, but on an emotional level we can certainly relate. Learning to read your horse’s emotional state while working then becomes a very important guide to successfully progressing and creating lasting change. This is what I mean by working with a horse from the inside out.

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Quote Of The Day

"I call horses 'divine mirrors' - they reflect back the emotions you put in. If you put in love and respect and kindness and curiosity, the horse will return that"
~Allan Hamilton