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The Importance of Working with the Equine Nervous System In Holistic Horsemanship Training

How Holistic Horsemanship offers a Roadmap to Training Horses without Stress, Tension and Brace and Unlocks the Potential for Learning and Partnership

Thanks to emerging science, we are becoming more familiar with the equine nervous system, specifically the effects daily training and stress can produce.


Because we will be focusing on training without stress, let’s begin with the sympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for survival, “fight, flight, or freeze”.  This is what tells the horse it needs to go into self-preservation mode (survival mode) when it feels threatened, or stressed.


We also need to pay attention to how the nervous system blocks pain. A horse’s survival response is designed to block out pain and discomfort and like us, it doesn’t allow the body to completely let go of the tension – the body and mind’s response to pain, discomfort and stress. 


Horses are hardwired to hide signs of pain. It is a horse’s basic instinct for survival. They know that if they show weakness they will be picked out of the herd by a predator.


This is why horses are stoic when it comes to showing pain.


This may work well for them in the wild but as a domesticated horse, it creates havoc on their bodies. That’s because wild horses are healthy and without human influence, they are able to process stressful situations quickly - and then let them go just as fast.


This means they do not hang onto stress emotionally, mentally or physically. Unlike domesticated horses who have no choice. We put them through so much unnecessary stress that it becomes chronic – resulting in chronic pain and behavior.


Because horses are naturally stoic about pain, they will try and hide it, which means they will slowly break down mentally and physically over time. This is why it’s our responsibility to read the signs of early onset tension that can lead to potential mental and physical illness in our horses.


The bottom line is, the longer a horse experiences tension, the more they build tension.


When the tension is not released, it continues to “grow” every time the horse moves a certain way or experiences a trigger. This is the same for us. A knot in our shoulder area will increase if the tension is not released. As it increases, it attaches itself to surrounding muscle, tendons, tissue, thus spreading its tension, causing tightness, restriction, and pain. Before we know it, our shoulders are uneven, creating an unbalanced body, and we’re experiencing sciatica pain for the first time. This is happening because everything is connected.


Holistic Horsemanship can help a horse become calm instead of jumpy and unpredictable

Over time, the tension in our horse’s body accumulates, embedding deeply within the fascia tissue. This is referred to as cellular memory. When this happens the horses’ autonomic nervous system (ANS) becomes imbalanced, thus creating a horse that is on edge, on alert, “touchy,” reactive and unpredictable.

Does this sound familiar? Is your horse jumpy, nervous, increasingly uncomfortable?


Fascia is a dense connective tissue that surrounds muscles, binds them together, and lines blood vessels, bones, tendons, ligaments, and organs. Some say that fascia may encode memories in the body in a few ways, including fascial cells.


Equine and human bodyworkers have reported that working on dysfunctional tissues releases memory traces, which are often accompanied by sensory experiences. In some cases, early traumatic experiences may be recalled, and the memory's potency may be erased or eased, along with tissue function being restored.


Most of the horses I have rehabilitated had stored trauma (tension) deep within their fascia, causing cellular memory.


One example is my OTTB mare, Lovey. When I first rescued her, she would flinch repeatedly when I touched her. She would also recoil sideways when I brushed her mane, as if I was pulling her mane. Her mane was about 2 inches in length and even when I rescued her. Between it looking trim and her behavior, I surmised it was pulled.


Holistic Horsemanship can help a traumatized horse with fears or other triggers

Other examples have been cinching, saddling, and bridling. When I am rehabilitating a horse who has severe reactions to either (or all three), I must work on their nervous system first so they can release the cellular memory, stop the trigger, and become present, connected to the real experience, not the past trauma that has been stored.


To understand how a horse processes information and decides how to respond, we need to first understand how their nervous system operates.


The nervous system consists of the Central Nervous System (CNS) (which includes the brain and spinal cord) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) (which encompasses the cranial and peripheral nerves).


Functionally, it's segmented into the Somatic Nervous System (SNS) which oversees voluntary movements, and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which manages involuntary (visceral) activities crucial for maintaining the body's overall physiological equilibrium. In simpler terms, the ANS oversees the involuntary functions of the heart, lungs, digestive system, urinary system, reproductive functions, and the mobilization of the body's resources during times of stress. However, for it to work properly, it needs to be balanced.


Any kind of injury, mishap, or both physical and psychological mistreatment, such as a horse being subjected to excessive stress, can lead to an imbalance in the ANS.


The ANS in horses is regulated by two main components:

-        Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – responsible for the fight or flight response.

-        Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – in charge of the rest and digest functions.


The SNS is activated by the fight/flight/“get out of here” reaction, while the PNS is responsible for calming down, resting, eating, and digesting.


Horses, like humans, can react to real or perceived threats rapidly. When the SNS is in control, horses may overreact or react inappropriately to any situation. At the extreme end of this spectrum, you might see a horse in a state of blind panic, trying to flee or escape, even at the risk of injuring itself and others.


The way we train a horse has a direct impact on it's nervous system.


Because horses are so stoic, and hide their pain and discomfort well, we often don’t see the subtle signs of discomfort, unease, and stress. Unfortunately, our horses have to show extreme behavior before we notice something is wrong.


In my previous blog, Why is “Slow Learning” the Best Approach for Training Horses? It's in the Science! I identified stressful training and how we can prevent stress.


In addition to stressful training tactics, the following areas of horse ownership can also stress a horse, causing the nervous system to become heightened, in a constant state of alertness and agitation.

  • Prolonged standing or too much travel. In their natural environments, horses dedicate as much as two-thirds of their day to movement.

  • Physical duress. Too much physical stress, for prolonged periods of time instinctively activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

  • Psychological duress. Too much stress, for prolonged periods of time, such as pressure, desensitization (flooding) instinctively activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

  • Lack of forage. Whether a horse is eating or at rest, its stomach is continuously producing acid. When stalled or in a pen without access to hay (forage) every few hours, uncomfortable and often painful ulcers can develop.

  • Overheating. While exercising, a horse's body temperature will increase considerably, resulting in more sweating, faster breathing, and challenges in regulating its temperature.


Recognizing the signs of stress is not easy. Because horses are hardwired to hide stress, it is challenging to detect the early signs.


Horses experiencing an imbalance in their Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) are often seen as anxious, easily agitated, unpredictable, or restless.

Even the most skilled trainers struggle with these horses. They might believe they've discovered the solution for a specific horse, only to see the horse suddenly lose focus and become uncooperative. Some individuals might assume the horse is misbehaving, being difficult to train, or having issues with their behavior, failing to recognize that there might be an underlying physical or mental issue.

Keep in mind that when there's an uneven distribution of the ANS, the horse is unable to control its reaction; it happens automatically.

The key to developing (aka, training) a horse in their PNS, state of calm and relaxation, is training the horse’s nervous system to handle stress.


This means we develop (train) horses in a way in which we do not overstress their nervous system. Granted, this is a fine line between feel and timing, and while it takes experience developing those two skill sets, the secret lies in holistic horsemanship.

Holistic horsemanship focuses on the overall health and happiness of the horse throughout it's life – including training. This process involves a deep connection, listening to the horse to grasp the best way to proceed based on how the horse shows up (the signals the horse is sending with the behavior it is exhibiting.)

It also guides you on how to evaluate your horse's well-being, until your horse transitions into their PNS, parasympathetic nervous system full-time.

Horses can function in their PNS 99% of the time. This is true for wild horses. They live in their PNS most of the time, engaging in activities like grazing, resting, and interacting with others. Only when faced with actual threats or danger do they function in their SNS.

By evaluating our horse's overall well-being during training, we can connect with them at their current level of need, and proceed from that point, which involves identifying areas where they require assistance in managing their nervous system.

Do you know how to read your horse’s stress?

While acute pain is obvious, showing up in lameness issues, bucking and refusal, there are the subtle signs of stress that manifest in our horse’s mind, emotions and bodies that aren’t easy to detect. Ignoring these signs, pushing our horses through fear, or punishing them is not the answer. In the end, it only leads to tensions and chronic stress.

Chronic stress leads to an imbalanced nervous system and unpredictable behavior. When we learn how to release our horse’s tension, and avoid creating chronic stress, the horse’s natural blocking response (SNS), their PNS will strengthen and eventually take over.

Holistic Horsemanship Training focuses on bringing a horse into the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Here is a simple process for creating the nervous system transition from SNS to PNS. In the end, the horse’s body always wants to align itself and heal. We just need to give them the right tools so they can.

  1. Rhythm and patterns. Rhythm is a pattern that naturally produces dopamine. Dopamine is a “feel-good” hormone released by the brain. Like humans, when horses are doing something pleasurable, (aka, being in rhythm) the brain releases a large amount of dopamine. It’s addictive. The more it’s produced, the more our body seeks it out. In the end, this isn’t about movement as much as its about finding the pattern that makes you feel good.

  2. Learn how to read and trust what the horse’s body language is telling you during the process of creating rhythm and patterns.

  3. Stay consistent enough and long enough for the horse’s sympathetic nervous system to stop working and for the parasympathetic to kick in and take over. You’ll know when rhythm is created.


If you are ready to start developing your horse holistically, from the inside out, ground to riding, rehab to recovery, beginner to pro, please click here for the Mastery Foundation Program. This step by step program will teach you what to look for and how to read your horse as you begin training holistically.

If you’ve been searching for a deeper way to be with horses, a better way to train horses and in a connected and safe riding partnership, the Tao of Horsemanship Academy is for you!

With a comprehensive website of holistic horsemanship information, as well as free resources, support and complete online learning programs, you can immerse yourself in the world of consensual partnership with your horse and love the journey as you learn together.

May you always be one with your horse,

Caroline Beste

Founder, Tao of Horsemanship


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