Psychosomatic: Brain & Body

Exploring the mind-body interaction of the horse

Psychosomatic effects have been studied extensively in people. However, the possible implications for applying these schools of thought to horses are poorly understood. The discovery of the concept of “Self-Medicate” has led me down a rabbit hole exploring how we communicate with horses. This has led me to an interesting hypothesis as I attempt to conceptualise emotional responses in terms of what I understand from my science background.

It’s no secret horses think differently than we do. They have a relatively small prefrontal cortex (where the thinking and planning happens) and a relatively large cerebellum (where movement is controlled). The cerebellum talks directly to the nervous system and controls balance, coordination and posture. This is already giving me a clue that posture and balance are very important to the horse. The relatively small prefrontal cortex and available evidence indicate that horses don’t have the same ability for abstract thought and planning as we humans. Horses don’t plan, they simply respond to what is. That is; they respond to their environment and what their past experiences have taught them about the environment. People are part of this environment so we can’t ignore our own behaviour and how that influences the horse’s behaviour.

Self Awareness

Do horses pick up on energy or know what we are thinking? I’m not convinced from a science perspective. However, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, horses are very sensitive and emotional beings. There is a lot to be learnt from acknowledging the horse as emotional sentient being, and the science will catch up. I think the more likely scenario is that horses are much much more adept than us at picking up on non-verbal cues. When we are in a particular emotional state, take nervous for example, we do certain things subconsciously with our bodies that horses will pick up on. If we are overtly nervous enough other people will pick up on these indicators, too. Horses pick up the more subtle cues. Tense jaw, the shape you’re making with your shoulders, your posture, facial musculature and expressions, horses will take note. They are social animals and they function within a herd by being acutely aware of the animals around them. So I think first things first we have to be aware of how we are feeling, because we will unknowingly project this in our body language and how we approach the horse.

I’m not very adept at picking up people’s emotional responses, ask my husband, he’ll tell you I have the emotional awareness of a brick. I’m not a psychologist, even as a nurse I shied away from mental health nursing. But one big take home message from nursing that I absolutely apply to horses is acknowledging the horse is a whole being. You can’t separate mind and body. Even in medicine we are pretty bad at this overall, but we are getting there, and we now recognise that mental health and physical health are one in the same, the health of the individual. We can’t separate the two and treat them differently. And this absolutely applies to horses. I would argue the link between mind and body would be even greater in a largely non-verbal species that relies on body language and movement for survival. We are also developing a body of knowledge linking gut health to mental health in people, which can no longer be ignored. The incidence of ulcers and nutritional imbalances in horses is a huge issue, I think in time we will find a similar gut-brain link in equids, but that research is likely 20 years behind medicine. The gut-brain dynamic is a huge topic in itself, and something I’ll likely write about in the future.

The Importance of Listening

When it comes to horses, I have practiced listening to them and learning their cues, and then responding to their cues. I can’t really explain it in a scientific or evidenced based way (although I’d love to do the research one day!), but horses respond so well when they feel understood. There are people out there studying this effect, if you haven’t heard if the concept of ‘calming signals,’ then do yourself (and your horse) a favour and look this concept up! When you listen to a horse you start to build an environment that feels safe for them. You give them an element of control over what is happening. Even for people as predators we recognise the importance of having a sense of control over our lives, and that it contributes to positive mental health. I can imagine the effect of this for a prey species is 10-fold. If a horse can have control of a situation and know there are no predators, compared to the horse waiting for a tiger to jump out and chase them (ie an unknown quantity), then this has to help the horse remain calm and have positive effects on their wellbeing.

Another benefit of being able to read when a horse isn’t comfortable is that you can recognise their comfort thresholds and not push them too far. This also helps to create a learning environment that isn’t terrifying. In saying that, it’s all about balance. We know from learning theory that we need a certain level of arousal – I would call this mental engagement – in order for learning to occur. 

alert engaged horse
Alert and engaged horse

Flight Mode

If we go above the threshold of arousal that the horse can tolerate, then we push them into flight mode, or if strong enough stimuli are used, we can illicit fight mode. Horses have evolved to rely on flight mode to survive. The argument could be made that to deny them flight mode is against their evolutionary behaviour set or ‘natural’ behaviour, and potentially not in their best interest. During training, I will allow the horse to express themselves in flight mode if they decide they need to. This is what they know and what they are equipped to communicate with. I recognise that horses I work with have often had less than ideal interactions with humans in the past. There is absolutely no point punishing them for this, and we know from learning theory that punishment absolutely, unequivocally does not work for horses (it could be argued it doesn’t work for any species, humans included). Flight mode is understandably not what we want in the ‘finished’ horse, we don’t want to be riding and have a horse shy and panic and bolt off suddenly. But I think it needs to be recognised as a healthy horse behaviour and part of the training process. Once we accept flight as not necessarily being a bad thing, we can then work on replacing flight mode with a more appropriate (more manageable for the person, and more pleasant for the horse) response to fear. 

Shut Down Mode

If we decide to take flight mode away from a horse, often through restraint or force, we push the horse to what I refer to as ‘shut down’ mode. You may also see it referred to as freeze mode or dormant mode. Prolonged and repetitive shut down (flooding/overwhelming) causes the horse to develop a coping mechanism of ‘learned helplessness.’ The horse learns that by going into shut down, they are rewarded, the human does what they have to, then they go away. The horse checks out and doesn’t participate, and this is a learned response to scary things. As if this isn’t depressing enough, to think these poor horses are operating from a place of hopelessness, with no opportunity to express themselves or have any control over their experiences, it is also problematic for the human. These horses are difficult to engage to teach anything new. Additionally, if you do manage to ‘wake up’ a shut down horse, the default mode to go into is one that is familiar and deeply ingrained – yep you guess it – flight mode. So we have a situation where a horse is shut down and only just coping with what is happening around them, and then something occurs to push them over their coping threshold, and the immediate reaction for the horse is flight. This is very dangerous for the unsuspecting human who thinks their horse is ‘quiet’ then all of a sudden they are bolting with no control (or bucking, or rearing, or however the horse is expressing flight mode).

There are many trainers and horse people out there who when training a horse, push them to shut down mode and think they have achieved their goal of a quiet horse. It’s standing still, not running away, you can do anything to it, crack whips etc. so that’s a good job, right? However the horse has often checked out, they aren’t participating. It looks very similar from the outside, to have a horse truly OK with aversive stimuli and responding appropriately because that is what they have been taught, versus a shut down horse blocking out the scary things happening. However, what is happening internally for the horse and how they feel about the situation is wildly different in these two scenarios.

The Nervous System

One big physiological thing I’d like to go into for you is the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These nervous systems exist in all mammals, and govern the different behaviour sets often described as ‘fight/flight’ mode and ‘rest and digest’ mode. People experience this too. When our world feels safe, we feel calm, our parasympathetic nervous system is in control. In this state of relaxation, blood flow to our digestive systems is improved and this is when we are more inclined to eat and digest food better (remember there is a known link between our guts and our brains!). We feel this when we ‘veg out’ on the couch with food, then feel nice and relaxed and sleepy with a full belly! Horses feel the same relaxed feelings when grazing. I propose to you that horses also feel this way when in the grazing posture; low soft neck, back muscles engaged, hind legs under their body, to stretch their heavy head down and not fall over. 

horse grazing field posture balanced
Horses grazing and moving in a relaxed and balanced posture

Conversely, when we are stressed, brains running a million miles an hour, late for a meeting, scared in a dark alley, pulse pounding, that is when the sympathetic nervous system is in control. Blood flow is directed to the large muscles such as quadriceps so that we can potentially run if we feel threatened enough, Heart beats faster to pump the blood around, vasodilation occurs to get more oxygen to tissues, pupils dilate to allow more light in and hopefully to see better, cortisol levels rise. We know that prolonged cortisol exposure is deleterious to all mammals, we are designed to experience small peaks of cortisol when aroused for relatively small amounts of time. In the event of prolonged stress we experience prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels, which can manifest itself in many ways throughout the human body (mental health impacts as well as cardiovascular risk, for example).

Similarly in a horse, prolonged periods of stress are not ideal. Most horse people can recognise a highly stressed horse – head up, tail up, nostrils flaring, running or bolting around. What we often aren’t taught and can easily miss are the more subtle signs that happen before that. What we also don’t understand very well is that just by being in that flight/fight posture, the horse is automatically geared to perceive the environment as scarier. They will react to any movement as a potential tiger, because that is what has kept them safe and surviving throughout the evolutionary process. So when a horse is moving in this highly aroused sympathetic state, they find it harder to focus, they find it difficult to relax. This is compounded further when we add a rider and saddle and cause pain because the horse in this posture is completely hollow and not supporting the additional weight well. The anticipation of pain, and actual pain, then contribute further to stress, push the horse further into flight mode, and the cycle continues.

Inward and Outward States

I’ve always found it logical to think that a stressed horse will display this stress outwardly in body language. I think the horse community in general is very good at spotting an overtly nervous or stressed horse. We are all operating from a perception that the internal (mental/emotional) state dictates the outward body language/posture that is displayed, right? Now what if the converse were true? What if the posture and body language being practiced by the horse, could influence the emotional state? Stick with me, it’s not as out there as it sounds, and we have studied this effect in people! There is a wealth of literature exploring psychosomatic effects in humans. If we go back to the nervous person, now they are hyperventilating, having a panic attack. What would you do to support them? We tell then to slow down their breathing and focus on every breath. Their brain is in a state of panic and distress, so we ask them to do something physical – take slower breaths – and this allows their brain to slow down and start to focus again. Similarly we see this effect in meditation and yoga where an awareness of the body and releasing bodily tension have positive mental and emotional outcomes. So how does this apply to horses?   

psychosomatic horse internal and external states
The internal state affects the horse posture and behaviour, and vice versa

Posture Dictates State

I see my job as a trainer to help the horse manage their own emotions and operate more from a parasympathetic state rather than a sympathetic state. We can train horses to adopt a parasympathetic posture, which in turn helps them to slow their brains down and relax. So we ask the horse to do something physical – get into a relaxed posture – which has positive mental and emotional outcomes. I think this is really neat for a few reasons.

Giving the horse this tool to be able to improve their own mental state, by way of managing their own posture and way of moving, gives the horse a lot of control over making their environment more pleasant. They perceive their environment to be safer, even if it isn’t actually the case. And because the horse then has this tool they can utilise, they can use it whenever they feel threatened. They don’t just get ‘desensitised’ to one thing. They know that they can make ANY scary thing, less scary. This works so well taking a horse to an event for the first time. It’s a new environment I can’t expose them to at home. But, they already have the tools they need to settle themselves, and I am there to remind them to use their posture if need be. This way, I can help support the horse to feel better about the situation, but they aren’t reliant on me to be their safe place, they can be their own safe place! And I think that is really empowering for the horse and builds a lot of confidence.

The second great thing that happens when a horse can use a more relaxed posture, is that they are actually more physically balanced on their feet. They keep their legs underneath them, their weight shifted towards their back end, and they are really stable. Being physically balanced and able to stay upright is a big evolutionary advantage, and I believe it does make them feel safer. Conversely, a horse falling on their forehand feels unbalanced, and feels really unsafe. If a tiger were to pounce, they couldn’t escape quickly and efficiently being off-balance and all spaghetti legged! 

The third really great thing that happens when a horse is balanced and relaxed and using top line and back end muscles, is that they set themselves up to stay sound. If they can carry a rider effectively they protect their own backs and get sore less often. They are also less reliant on engaging neck and forehand muscles, and so they are able to move with a softer neck and poll. This acts to prevent pain at c2/c3 as well as c6/c7, which are commonly tight and sore as a result of a horse moving on the forehand. The less sore the horse gets, the less chance their owner is missing soreness issues, and the less chance of the horse needing to panic and stress over pain issues.

posture dictates state horse safe relaxed

Licking and Chewing

So how do we know when our horse is operating in the sympathetic (flight/fight) mode or the parasympathetic (relaxed) mode? There is a growing body of evidence now that is suggesting that licking and chewing is a really reliable and obvious indicator we can all use to know that our horse is switching back from a state of flight to a relaxed state. Lots of old horseman will say that licking and chewing is the horse taking time to think about what they have just learnt. I would argue that whilst the horse was unsure and pressure is on (in flight) they were in sympathetic mode, then once they do the right thing and pressure is relieved, they go back to parasympathetic (relaxed) mode. The horse has learnt that when they do the right thing (the desired behaviour being taught) in response to the cue (pressure), then the pressure goes away and they can relax and that feels good (parasympathetic mode feels good!). So, I don’t think they are really processing the cue and learned behaviour in the same way as we would with our large prefrontal cortex – I think the horse learns what behaviours lead to feeling good. I think it’s important to note, that no matter what you believe, be it that licking and chewing mean the horse is thinking, or that licking and chewing means the horse is switching back to relaxed mode – I think we can all see and agree that allowing that time for the horse to do the licking and chewing is a really important part of the learning process.

psychosomatic horse licking and chewing
Licking & Chewing – is the horse thinking? Or is it simply a physiological response? Perhaps a little of both?

I’ve observed from working with horses that some give a really quick lick and chew as soon as they do the right thing, but some horses take a little longer to come back to relaxed mode, or to process what they have learnt if you subscribe to that school of thought. But, I find that all horses will eventually lick and chew, even if you have to give them a few minutes. So this is really what I talk about when I talk about going at the horses pace – it is about ensuring that the horse is allowed to get back down to relaxed state, and to experience the drop in cortisol – rather than being continuously flooded by the stress hormone. This is what really makes a horse feel safe and build confidence.

So I would then go on to say that the person’s ability to read the different physiological (and likely emotional) states of the horse, has a huge impact on how the horse feels about training, feels about the environment, and how they feel about the person’s ability to read and listen to them. I know from nursing how deeply people value being listened to and by feeling as though they have agency and control over their bodies and lives. People value empowerment and feel so much better about even the worst of life’s circumstances if they feel empowered. I would be surprised if studies came out to indicate that horses don’t also get a positive mental/emotional outcome through empowerment on some level. 

With Thanks

It would be remiss of me to not mention and thank Steve Brinkworth here. I had a lot of ideas, things I’d accidentally discovered from horses but didn’t know how to conceptualise, and physiological knowledge that I knew fitted in but didn’t know how – then I went to Steve’s Horse Starting Course. Steve’s way of describing the relationship between the horse’s posture and emotional state connected so many dots for me. “Posture dictates state” is a phrase he says frequently, and it’s become a bit of an internal mantra for me when working with horses or trying to work out what is happening internally for a horse when they are unable to speak. This has completely revolutionised how I look at and think about problem behaviour, and consequently how I formulate a plan to address problem behaviour. In addition to helping me to connect dots, he also gave the practical hands-on methods that I needed to help horses achieve what he refers to as ‘Self-Medicate.’ I believe the underlying mechanism that allows Self-Medicate to work is the psychosomatic interactions between posture and the parasympathetic state. I still think Self-Medicate is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever witnessed and it’s something every horse person can achieve for their horse.

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