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Caroline Riding with Sundance, Smokey and Legend

Science & Spirituality

The Way to Be and Work with Horses


Create a Real, and Lasting, Connection with Horses

There are three things horses need from us that motivate them to want to connect, forge deep and meaningful relationships and partnerships with us. They are feeling safe, feeling regulated (emotional agility) and deep and mutually rewarding friendships.

To begin with, I need to talk about wild horse behavior, instincts and needs, and how vastly different they are (in many ways) from our domesticated horses. It's absolutely imperative that I start here so we get a clear understanding of healthy equine behavior, and unhealthy behavior, how it originates.

Did you know that wild horses are the only example of healthy horse behavior? The number one reason why is becaue they are always in the PNS, parasympathetic nervous system of relaxation, digestion and feeling at ease, feeling safe?

If you search for wild horses, you will find a lot of Facebook groups and YouTube channels dedicated to observing and protecting our wild horses. They will host an abundance of videos and photographs of wild herds of horses freely roaming, interacting, bonding, birthing, and living relatively stress-free lives. 

While injuries, aging and death are part of a wild horse's way of life, their instincts for survival keep them healthy and safe. This means, you won't see a wild horse showing unhealthy behavioral issues nor will they get sick and die from the many diseases and health conditions so many of our horses experience due to domestication.

So, what happened to our domesticated horses? Meaning, why are so many unhealthy, stressed out and checked out?

There are three main reasons. One, they are not getting what they intrinsically need to support their emotional, mental and physical well-being: friends, freedom, and constant forage.

Two, we take them away from their mothers too soon. This means they do not get the nutrition needed from the mother's milk, nor do they receive the level of bonding and socialization skills needed to feel connected, safe and loved. In the wild, weanlings nurse for years and most of the fillies stay with their mom and the herd, who is comprised of family members, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and cousins. 

Only when the young mare is ready to breed will she seek out a rouge stallion and even then, most mares return to their parents, and family that raised them, so they can all help raise her offspring. Very rarely will a mare leave her family to start a new family with a stallion. And, when they do, they mate for life.

Three, they don't feel safe. The inability to have their needs met has wrecked havoc on their nervous system, leaving them stuck in their SNS, self-preservation.

The lack of these basic, and very important, needs of the horse (babies) places them in a state of constant self-preservation (sympathetic nervous system). Studies have shown that 98% of domesticated weanlings suffer from ulcers caused by lack of proper nutrition (weaned too early) and stress, becaue they have been taken away from their dams too soon. Click here to listen to my podcast about this topic.

The science behind a horse's behavior is pretty simple. 

Confident, trainable, and connected horses feel safe, period. A horse can only feel safe if they are in their parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), period. I add "period" because mainstream horse training has done us a huge disservice when it comes to diagnosing and dealing with equine behavior.

 

The truth is, we don't need to know what causes the behavior

to fix the behavior. What we need to know is how to fix (reset)

the horse's nervous system so they can

fix (regulate) themselves.

 

When a horse is regulated, they are calm, relaxed, thinking and learning. So, instead of spending a ton of time trying to fix all the things that are 'wrong" with your horse, work on the one thing that will change everything, the nervous system.

Unconfident, untrainable (difficult) and disconnected horses don't feel safe. Thats because they are either constantly triggered into their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or they constantly live in their SNS of freeze (checked out, learned helplessness), fight and flight.



Unfortunately, most mainstream training teaches us

how to control the horse's behavior instead of teaching us

how to change the behavior.

 

Control is taught through harsh and aggressive tactics such as excessive pressure and release, excessive repetition, operant conditioning, desensitizing, flooding, force, and submission. 

The reality (science) is, the more we try to control a horse's behavior through harsh tactics, the more we makes things worse, and that's because the horse's natural self-preservation takes over. The longer a horse is kept in their SNS (through stressful interactions), the more their nervous system gets damaged. And this is how horses become traumatized.

Changing behavior does not means we search for the root cause of the behavior, what's causing our horse to behave a certain way. Rather, we change the horse's behavior by resetting the horse's nervous system so they can return to their PNS.

 

When we reset our horse's nervous system,

the behavior will go away. This means they will return to their

true nature and healthy instincts.

 

After working with thousands of horses, from all "walks of life," and not knowing their history, why they behave the way they do, this is what I discovered to be true. Emerging science now supports my evidence-based experience, specifically Dr. Steve Peters.

What I realized is we don't need to know the horses history to fix their behavior. This means we don't need to know the "root cause" of the behavior, such as abuse, neglect, training tactics, environmental influences, etc. All we need to do is teach the horse how to self-regulate, get back into their PNS and the horse will fix itself (the behaviors will go away).

 

Horses are designed to fix themselves. They are natural healers, both inside and out and when given a choice (wild horses get to choose friends, forage and freedom), domesticated horses will seek what they need to feel safe and in every way. This is hardwired into their DNA, their instincts for survival.

The science shows us that when a horse is self-regulated, they produce both endorphin and dopamine, the "feel-good" hormones responsible for feeling good, feeling relaxed, feeling safe. And, only when a horse in their PNS are they open to learning and are trainable.

 

This is why most training doesn't really work.

 

Too much stimulation, desensitization, pressure, and force naturally, instinctually places a horse in their SNS where they produce too much adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones responsible for self-preservation. The only reason it appears (seems) to work is because the horse stops fighting.

 

In the end, behind every unhealthy behavior is a need that isn't being met, the need to feel safe. Let's circle back to the beginning where I explained the three intrinsic needs of all horses: friends, freedom, and forage.

Friends is most important and for the following reasons. Friends means safety in numbers. Horses feel safe when they have friends they can bond with, which meets an emotional need, and safety in numbers means they can connect to each other's nervous system through heart-coherence.

A horse's nervous system is so fine-tuned, it acts as an internal radar, detecting the slightest energy shifts and changes within the nervous system. This has also been referred to as the horse's sixth sense. This means their senses are so refined, they can detect the subtlest change in the environment, changes that are responsible for life and death.

So, how do we change this for our domesticated horses when we can't give them the choice to choose their friends, freedom and forage?

We begin with this awareness and we become educated. Education is power. The more we know, the more we can do and do better for our horses. In the end, our love, our friendship and our time will give them what they need.

Horses are one of the most emotionally flexible and adaptable species. This is both a gift and a curse though. The gifts are sentience and resiliency. The curse is they are easily influenced by their environment, by us. It's our responsibility to be their advocate, their guardian, and ensure their feelings of safety, love and over-all well-being.

Through holistic horsemanship you can learn how to meet your horse's needs, as an individual, as a learner, as a friend and a partner. Holistic horsemanship teaches you to really connect with your horse and begins with teaching you how to assess, meet your horse where they are, read them, understand what they need. Assessing is the path to learning how to connect and communicate easily and clearly with your horse and is the foundation to creating the relationship and riding partnership of your dreams with horses.

This is how the journey into the soul and spirit of your horse begins. This is what I call, and teach, the spirituality of horsemanship. When we meet our horses where they need to be met, everything and anything is possible and that's because we've earned (not forced) deep levels of trust, respect, leadership and consensual partnership.


 

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