Updated: May 3, 2021
What can you offer to make a horse feel safe? What helps us/them to feel safe?
The calmer the horse and human are, the more trust you will both have and the safer you both will feel. When everyone feels safe, everyone can think clearly and the task at hand will be done better.
Today I watched my student Clare having difficulty getting Khemoson to walk through a water obstacle here at BentWire Ranch. Just the day before they had done it fine, crossing the water time and again- calmly and with a touch of curiosity.
It was approximately the same time of day and the weather was the same as the day before.
Khemoson even wore the same halter and lead rope as the day before, but today they were having trouble on the very same obstacle. So, what was different? I noticed Khemoson repeatedly putting his head down and blowing out. Something was distressing him. It looked to me like he was signaling Clare to breathe and calm down. I suggested they go for a walk, do some transitions and work on breathing. I asked Clare to come back over and try it again when they felt reconnected. After a few minutes, Clare came over and confided that her mom had gone into the hospital early that morning. She could not go see her because of the coronavirus. She was anxious so she thought she would come out and see her horse because that always made her feel better. Ahh- that was what was different about today. We decided the best course of action was just hang out for a bit. Let Khemoson eat some grass. After a while Clare said she should go. As she prepared to go back to the barn, I asked her to please get a small piece of paper that was floating in the water and throw it away for me. I could tell that just hanging out with her horse had made her calmer and she was breathing deeper than before. On the way back, she and Khemoson walked across the water and picked up the paper without giving the previous problem a thought. They had a job to do and did it with intent. At that moment, Clare wasn’t stressing out about her mother and, of course, Khemoson could feel her lower stress level and was now participating willingly. In technical terms, Clare had come down from the stressed (Sympathetic) end of her Autonomic Nervous System. Feeling this in Clare helped Khemoson come back down as well. They both had come down toward “Calm”- also known as “Zero”- long enough to get the task done. Every kind of animals has a World View which evolved from their environment, the challenges they have experienced in their environment, and how they learned to deal with them over thousands of years. How an animal’s sensory system hears, sees, smells, tastes and how the body feels determines their ever changing emotional state as they respond to their world. This is the Autonomic Nervous System. Through understanding the Autonomic Nervous System, we can recognize the emotional states of our horses. These emotional states exist on a scale that includes sleep, panic and everything in between. The Autonomic Nervous System includes the Sympathetic Nervous System (“Fight or Flight”) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (“Rest and Digest”). “Homeostasis” is a state in the middle where an animal’s biological and emotional state is ideal- "The Goldilocks Zone". It is a state that all animals seek constantly. Not too hot or too cold. Not too relaxed and not too scared. Homeostasis is the “best balance”. It is best for reproduction, healing, and being ready to respond to the next potential threat.
Learning to achieve Calm or 'Zero' (Homeostasis) at any given moment is a learned skill with horses. Throughout history, many great horse people have known this to be true. They knew that a horse performs more efficiently when in a “Calm and Alert” state. With the advancements of science, we now have the clinical evidence to support that hypothesis.
With this knowledge, we have developed the tools to teach this in a way people can understand. Just a few years ago we didn’t. Many great equine instructors have spoken about the elusive concept of “feel”, but have struggled to figure out just how to teach it. Today, the way is clear. By learning and understanding Ethology, Neuroscience and Horse Speak, we can make huge breakthroughs in record time. Based on our own world views, horses and humans can have strong emotional reactions, but we react to different types of stimuli. Categorical Perception
In the human brain, categorical perception is when a thing gets labeled as belonging to a category of things- such as a "water hose". No matter how that hose is placed on the ground- for us it is just a hose each time. We can notice it, place it in our "hose" category and dismiss it as a threat in the blink of an eye- even when seen only in our peripheral vision.
The horse’s brain does not have this feature. They have very little Categorical Perception, so the water hose could potentially be a new thing- potentially threatening- every time they see it. The hose's position, how dark or bright it is or even how tight it is wound that day which was different from before. All that is taken into consideration each time the horse see the hose. For them, it takes more more brain processing time to dismiss the potential threat. Every object they see, every sound they hear, every scent they smell requires this same extra processing time. No wonder it can be difficult to maintain the horse's attention.
What helps a horse feel safe?
Acknowledgement - Each new time we pass "the hose".
Boundaries - Establishing ours and understanding theirs
Reliability - Marbles in the Marble Jar of Trust
Accountability- Willingness to accept responsibility
Nonjudgement - Avoiding judgments based on one's personal moral standards
“The Brown Bunny and the Grey Bunny” There are two bunnies in meadow in the forest. The brown bunny is eating quietly (“Calm and Alert”) and conserving energy. The grey bunny is running around and hopping all over the place. A coyote comes along and surveys the scene. Which bunny will he chase? Yes, the grey bunny. Why? Because the grey bunny is not paying close attention and has not been conserving its energy like the brown one. It will be easier to catch. Horses, just like bunnies, have evolved to prioritize conserving energy. If a threat suddenly arrives, they might need to take off at a dead run for several miles at a moments notice. This is part of horses “World View” because they are prey animals and their brains have evoloved to feel as if they are constantly under potential threat. At any time, some members of the herd are at attention, scanning the environment for threats, while others are relaxing. These duties rotate through the herd, so all get a chance to relax throughout the day. Being “Calm and Alert” is of utmost important to a horse when navigating the world. They rely on the whole herd to maintain this state so they can flee in unison at a moments notice. Through Horse Speak® we have learned that certain horses in the herd are stabilizing influences. They are called Mentors, Teachers and the Head Mare. Since they are the calmest horses in the herd, when THEY show alarm, the other herd members will immediately notice and respond. These types of horses are the ones we want to imitate. These are the horses the rest of the herd instinctively follows. Thus you do not have to use dominance to control your horse. If you are “Calm and Alert” your horse will look to you and be more receptive to your leadership- because they see it as being in their best interest. If you are calm and alert, they will mirror your emotional state. To maintain effective and productive human leadership it requires that the human maintain at least 51% of the decision making. Otherwise the horse is not motivated to stick with you and would, most likely, choose to just stand in their field and eat all day. I used to be amazed how much a person like Tom Dorrance (emulating the Mentor horse) could get a horse to willingly do a task without dominance. Tom always kept his 51+% and the horse was happy following his lead. Tasks, or “Jobs” get done more efficiently when all participants know what is expected of them. Uncertainty leads to stress which lowers efficiency. A horse really wants to be calm and feel safe. Understanding their “World View” and what causes them to feel this way is the first step in offering this to them.
In all classes we cover the whole Equine Mandala.
Their Central Nervous System and Brain
Their Language- Horse Speak
How horses learn Operant Conditioning, better known as pressure and release as used in Natural Horsemanship.
Thank you Peace Lucinda