This article is the third in a series of four articles on horse – human contact. In this article I talk about the shared evolutionary connection between horses and humans, and how focussing on our similarities hand in hand with understanding our differences can help us find compassion in contact. You can access the first article in the series here, and the second article here.
“As mammals we did not evolve to take care of ourselves, we evolved with the help of others to maintain our life. That’s what our body is really asking for. We become more when we are able to feel safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal.”
(Dr Stephen Porges, author of The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe).
When we are faced with something emotionally challenging, how quickly can we bounce back? Can we use our connection with horses and other mammals to help us without damaging them? Can we provide a springboard to help them build resilience? When we need it, can we discipline ourselves to stay at the buckle end of the rein and find safety?
For several days I have been chewing over these questions yet again, trying to encapsulate my thoughts in writing. As it turns out I needed to spend time on one of life’s side trails experiencing loss, which has displayed them for me in a new light. It’s a warm kind of glow. In many ways the process has been nourishing, if fibrous, and, I sincerely hope for most of us the road mostly less travelled (see my post Adventures in Trust and Connection). Less travelled because I have been reflecting on how loss affects my connection with the horses, humans and the other animals in my life, but nourishing because it has made me Find Stuff Out.
Last week we lost a dear friend to a serious and fatal illness. It was what we might conventionally call a ‘good’ death, as in it wasn’t a shocking gut punch as it is when someone is full of health one day and gone the next, but it came a bit sooner than we had hoped. And he was a wonderful person and we miss him. After a few days together, supporting the other dear friends who are in the painfully unfortunate position of having to Sort Everything Out, and also are the people most affected by the loss, we came home and started our own process of coming to terms. Moving into the light of having a loving connection in our hearts without having a living person to connect with.
My brain and heart are re-calibrating themselves. From previous experience with grief I know that for myself it’s not a good idea to a) have total confidence in my own decision making for a bit; and b) trust my own perspective, at least until my mind has settled down. At these times when there is an obvious disruption to the normal state of affairs, I find it difficult to settle, and like many of us I find myself reading a lot, looking for answers.
One of the things I find is helpful is to take up a project. For me at least this is a good way to positively satisfy the need to Do Something, at a time when nothing really can be done. I suspect in my own quiet way, that being so separated today from dealing with the practicalities of a death doesn’t help us process the strong emotions and physical sensations that put our own lives into what can sometimes be desperately painful contrast. We need to move, to create, because death has crossed our faces and we sense immobility is nearby.
Over the last five or six years I have been very interested in the concept of resilience, both in my own life and that of the horses I spend time with. Resilience is described best as the ability to stabilise ourselves after challenge, and is mirrored in how the nervous system oscillates fluidly between states. The work I have done with my horses through seat training and postural work seems to have changed their ability to cope with the things that go on in their lives beyond regular habituation, which reflects a change in reslience. I myself feel more resilient than I used to after getting Up Close and Personal with a lot more exercise equipment than in the old days when rehabbing from injury (cross training; yoga; weights and running – see my blog post The View from the Mat). Now during difficult times I can hold a rope and stay connected to the shore of everyday life, rather than being swept out to sea by big powerful, emotional waves.
In the eighties, behavioural and neurobiological scientist Dr Stephen Porges published his work on polyvagal theory (which I will call here PVT). Polyvagal theory explains the evolutionary neurophysiology of resilience, and gives us some critical points to contemplate as equestrians and human beings. Stephen Porges was the first person to quantify heart rate variability (Porges, 2017), and believes that due to the particular neurophysiology of the vagus nerve which is shared between all mammals, we wear our heart on our faces and in our sense of touch. The vagus nerve is a master conduit between the brain and the visceral organs. Eighty percent of the nerve fibres in the vagus nerve receive sensory input and return information to the brain, and a small proportion of them connect the facial muscles with the heart. If you are interested in his discussion of polyvagal theory, this video interview with Dr Porges himself is a good place to start.
As mammals both humans and horses define ourselves through the sensations of feeling safe. PVT is not limited to human experience, but gives a scaffolding to understand how we share so much of our sensate function with other mammals, and how our lives are centrally focussed on evaluating risk and seeking safety in connection.
The evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system is linked to social behaviour, and PVT emphasizes the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioural problems. Understanding this gives us a strong insight into the lives of our horses. All mammals share the physiological consequences of native biological reactions to safety cues, danger cues and life threatening cues. We all freeze, fight or flee as a response to danger. We all get jelly legs and loose bowels when we’re scared. We all seek safety in connection with others. Think what it must be like to be a horse so scared in transport that they lose control of their bowels, then be expected to carry a rider and jump enormous fences. What survivors they are! Resilience is essential to survival, so if we want our horses to be partners in a long and adventurous life, we must work out how to recognise and acknowledge these two things:
- when our own and our horse’s bodies have reacted to challenge
- what we need to do to find our own safe place, and help them find theirs again
In practice, PVT suggests that we could be smarter about how we manage risk and safety. We have developed cultural expectations that animals and ourselves should suppress risk feedback loops, like expecting fearful horses to ‘just get on with it’, or ourselves to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Instead, we can learn to be aware of what our body is doing and why, make decisions about respecting the internal changes that are occurring, recognise that our body is reacting, and do something practical about it to help it find it’s equilibrium again and build resilience.
I am absorbed by this theory. For me it reflects what we actually experience, and what we observe in practice in our horses’ behaviour, and reflects it more authentically than older theories regarding the function of the nervous system. It helps us understand that horse and human nervous systems crave the same safety behaviours – breathing, posture, deep exhalation, social engagement, reciprocation, gratitude and play being some of them. Also these circuits are really, really old. They emerged a long time ago when mammals transitioned from reptiles. Finally – they don’t require us to learn them, they are ‘built in’ as it were, factory settings, and mainly require enabling and activation. Lets take gratitude for instance – “in gratitude you are bathed with the cues of safety, therefore you don’t defend” (Stephen Porges).
In modern times we still have the cultural expectation that we, and our companion animals, should suppress our feelings as they are less reliable than our thought processes. Porges suggests (in another interview with Bulletproof Radio) that this is explicitly illustrated in neurobiological terms, in Descartes’ (1637) phrase “Je pense, donc je suis” – I think, therefore I am. Descartes did not state “Je me sens, donc je suis” – I feel, therefore I am, because of the cultural subjugation of feelings beneath thought. Devaluing emotional responses today after is just like throwing the baby out with the bathwater in survival terms, and has lead to all sorts of ‘interesting’ human practices, like controlled crying in small infants. Parenting advice like “Baby will learn he won’t get his own way by crying” prioritises a tiny baby learning what it is like to be alone at a few weeks old, over the only signal they can make to elicit care and get to safety.
When I am setting the stage for a lesson or training session, a big part of it is to recognise that each individual has safety needs (beyond the obvious hat wearing etc). Polyvagal theory gives me a range of evidence based things I can do to establish safety parameters for my clients, and jointly and in consequence, their horses. These include:
- group support – horses and humans will feel safer in a supportive group setting. (This does not include competitive settings, although ‘taking a group to a group’ is a safety solution for attending competitive environments. Polo ponies for instance are often at an advantage as they tend to travel in groups and work in groups as a matter of course).
- breathing control, specifically deep exhalation, influences the vagus nerve to slow heart rate (in horses doing slow controlled work with lateral movement with a rider or handler with good breathing control can positively influence breathing). According to PVT I have an advantage here as I learned to play the trumpet as a child! Other ways to develop breath control (like yoga and tai chi) are available.
- control of vocal acoustics and talking face to face to humans and horses – using a wider tonal range will help people hear us when they may be going over threshold. Cues of safety also help us process language. Using prosody – ‘motherese’, conveys safety in mammals.
- whilst we know we can recruit motivation in learning through positive reinforcement which activates the dopamine system, in practice it does not always activate the horse’s safety system. We need to balance this with understanding how to integrate safety cues into learning situations, and when it is more appropriate to prioritise these – touch, proximity and praise influence the release of oxytocin, the mammalian hormone related to bonding, affiliation, and the control of stress reactivity.
- listening and talking in a reciprocal way – the nervous system needs reciprocal neural interactions. This is why humans find social media interactions so frustrating.
- visualisation – using positive mental rehearsal allows us to prime our neural networks to feel as if we are already safe and improves performance.
Also – and here is An Important Point backed up by Polyvagal Theory that I don’t think we’ve always got with equestrianism – feeling safe doesn’t necessarily mean total physical relaxation. Your horse is not always either fleeing or flat out. When there is solid, well established and resilient connection, horses and humans can share activities where high energy is expended, with a relaxed mind and positive feelings. When I first started weight training and my heart rate went way up, my brain was seriously rattled. If you are familiar with Steve Peter’s book The Chimp Paradox, my inner chimp was definitely going to pass out Any Minute Now. Imagine being that fat horse in spring when their concerned owner decides trotting up steep hills will help them lose weight, and six weeks of walk work Is For Wooses. No wonder they look so sweaty and frazzled, and don’t want to be caught for a week! Develop resilience and fitness slowly so horses and humans can adapt and feel safe.
I can’t avoid how in equestrianism we are often made aware of the impact of abusive training practices, and how horses can demonstrate differing levels of ‘shut down’ or learned helplessness as a response to some training protocols. Polyvagal theory explains how severe trauma and abuse create dissociated states in humans and other mammals – we literally do not feel our bodies. We are disconnected from feel or touch, can become involuntarily immobile as a defense strategy, or become highly active (think of the bolting stressed horse) to avoid immobility. It is insufficient though to suggest that to regulate the system and support health, growth and restoration in recovering from trauma we must simply remove the threat. Many of us know from experience how much patience, time and thought goes into setting up alternatives to recover resilience in traumatised humans and animals. When these are successful we are recruiting safety systems and rebuilding neurology.
The best horse human contact sessions happen when we are all able to feel trusting, welcomed, supported by the group, and physically and psychologically comfortable to take our space in the activity. They often include playing and having fun together. They do not include endless sets of goals or challenges. They include reflective listening. They include a lot of touching horses and some contact between humans if everyone is cool with that. When any one of us has problems, or we are ill, anxious, or have lost our cool, everybody’s safety and progress is affected, including my own if I am coaching. In my own practise, if I am not on my game physically or emotionally I know I will be running the risk of borrowing from my horse’s emotional bank account, as I am limited in my ability to: get my timing right; to make good reinforcement choices; to get into deep practice; and to create the bubble that my horse needs to feel safe with me if away from their friends.
Back in real life I needed some fresh air and sunlight so I went and found my herd. I probably need to say that I haven’t ever really sought out my horses looking for my own healing. I believe that horses are very vulnerable and my feelings affect them, also think back to my state in the beginning – untrusting of my own decisiveness, and generally unsettled. I recognise, and again share this with Stephen Porges – that we need to appreciate the vulnerability of other individuals and love them to keep them safe. I believe horses are particularly susceptible to the imprint of trauma on our bodies – I discussed Lucy Rees’ theory of synchrony in an earlier article.
When I got to the herd I decided that if Lad was comfortable to connect with me in my unsettled state, we could go out for a walk and a ride round the loch. He is a horse who has a few behavioural markers that point to his vagal tone being more finely tuned to risk than my other horses. He is by nature cautious, he shows persistent fear of a few specific things, and although he will comfortably spend time alone with me, he is strongly attached to his herd friend Dileas – it is stronger from his side. He is also one of those horses who do not self-regulate in eating. Polyvagal theory suggests that over-eating (and other addictive behaviours) may be an attempt by the nervous system to reduce risk reactivity. In my mind I often wonder if some horses who do not self-regulate, and there definitely are some, had abrupt weaning or other early traumatic experiences and suffer resultant attachment trauma. I don’t know what Lad’s early life contained exactly, so I aim to be respectful and give him positive alternatives that he can synchronise with, which down regulate his danger system and up regulate his social engagement system. Getting enough bounce in my bungee isn’t always possible if my vagal tone is flapping all over the place like a wet towel, in which case I will say ‘hi and bye’, but he is resilient enough to manage a degree of unsettled human behaviour now, and using learning theory I can notch up his positive feelings about social engagement.
When we left for the trail Lad’s behaviour exactly reflected my indecision and unsettled state. He paused a few times and looked back towards the herd as I led him across the first field. My internal condition was reflected in my posture, my gait, how I could control my core, and my vocal range was low. He clearly saw the herd as his best route to safety. I had two choices: persist and run the risk of making him stay with me whilst feeling unsafe (not one I choose to take); or finding a way to make myself feel safe and seeing if that gave him enough feelings of safety. So – I moved myself to the end of the reins, metaphorically gave myself the kind of shake my terrier does when she finds me in the woods, took a deep breath, rolled my shoulders back and down, looked up to the horizon, had a foolish grin, put on a silly voice, wriggled my face about and made a raspberry noise. And he stopped pausing, briefly touched my hand with his nose, I rubbed his neck and we went on together.
Remember a rein has two ends.
“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid neither horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses
There are two other articles released in this series:
My own website can be found at annistonebridgedotcom.wordpress.com
For useful information on training and riding with Less Invasive Minimally Aversive principles, you can find the World Bitless Association here.
Peters. S. (2012) The Chimp Paradox: The mind management programme for confidence, success and happiness. Random House; London.
Porges, S.W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. Norton: New York.