Three Weeks Ago: As Diva and I progress in the under-saddle work, I have noticed that she is actually getting more reactive, not less. I suspect part of that is her fear of the contact of the bit, even though I am very careful and gentle in my ask. Whatever the reason, she still starts the ride with some amount of tension in her body, and I can feel the tension under my seat, through the saddle. That tension can quickly mount to grabbing the bit and running off or, her new trick, going around in very tight circles, almost always to the left. The question I must ask is – Is this a trauma response moving through her body as we up the work, or is there a physical cause for some discomfort that is making her anxious? I must rule out any physical pain or discomfort before I can assume that her reactions are caused by her memories of trauma.
So, to cover all the bases, I have had a number of practitioners look at Diva over the past few weeks. The first step was to look at her teeth to see if there were any sharp edges that may be giving her pain when the bit is in the mouth. Having her teeth ‘floated’ is a yearly job and it was time for that anyways.
The vet said that her mouth looked great. No cuts on the insides of her cheeks and only routine wear on the teeth to adjust. Nothing to indicate that teeth were as source of her fear of contact. Interestingly, when he took her heartrate before he tranquilized her it was 28, which is at the very low end of normal. (My other horses were all 40-42). He said that he only sees a heartrate that low in a very fit horse in an intense work schedule or in a very calm horse. This really makes me wonder if, by nature, Diva is that calm horse and her anxiety and nervousness is all due to whatever traumatized her.
With teeth checked off, I wanted to look at her body. Although Diva has regular body work from a very skilled equine therapist, I also had an opportunity to have a cranio-sacral therapist come to work on her. That was a very interesting experience! Angie began by sensing Diva’s energy field and acknowledging it with Diva. She asked permission to enter Diva’s space after a while and Diva allowed her in at the sacral area of her back. Angie said that, as she put her hands on Diva’s back, she could feel ‘overwhelm’ in the tissue. As she stayed with her hands on the area of Diva’s spine, she described what she sensed was like ice or wood – a solid feeling with no rhythm or fluidity. As she continued to hold the space, she could feel what she described as ‘thawing’ of the nervous system as movement and rhythm returned. At one point, Diva walked away – to go and resource or integrate what had happened. Angie was happy to see this as she says that Diva has the ability to resource herself. They worked for about ½ hour and then Diva was done. She chose to walk away. When I haltered Diva to lead her back to the other horses, I felt a more spacious energy around her and a lightness to her. She seemed to move more easily and lighter that what I usually feel.
I was amazed at the therapist’s ability to sense Diva’s boundaries and what part of her body Diva would allow her to approach. Although we learn boundary work in Eponaquest training, this was at a more subtle level. It was also apparent that Diva knew that the therapist saw her and respected her space. I think this is a very different experience for a horse, as most times they are expected to tolerate whatever the human asks of them, without any autonomy to have a say in the manner.
The next day was our regularly scheduled visit of the equine body worker for Diva and Faraona. Maria is so much more than a massage therapist as she has many, many ‘tools in her toolbox’. Because it was cold and windy out, we had to work in the barn. I brought both horses in so that they wouldn’t have separation anxiety. We worked in the aisle, with the other horse in a stall. Diva was haltered and I held the lead rope, but she was free to move around as she needed throughout the session.
Maria can sense subtle changes in the horse’s body as she places her hands on the horse. When she feels a shift, she takes her hands off and lets the horse move the energy release through the body. Diva would then want to move and I would let her do what she needed. Sometimes she would paw a bit, or chew on the lead rope a bit as she tried to figure out what to do with this energy, but it always ended with big yawns, chewing and licking of lips – classic signs of relaxation in the horse.
As Maria worked with Diva, it seemed that a lightbulb went off in Diva’s head as she realized that Maria was listening and sensing what Diva needed. Diva totally relaxed to Maria’s touch and seemed to want more. If Maria walked away from Diva, Diva would get a bit anxious until Maria came back to her. I was witnessing huge trust in a human by a horse.
Diva’s body checked out well. There was minimal work that needed to be done and, as a real surprise to us both, an area that Maria had previously identified in the right hip as having a thickened muscle from a previous injury was undetectable today! It seems that our work on the lunge line has healed that injury.
So, with Diva’s body getting the okay, the last thing to check out was saddle fit. Diva had been turning her head towards me for a while as I had gently done up the girth, showing concern about me tightening the girth. This could indicate problems with saddle fit. Diva’s back has changed a lot since the saddle was first fit to her. When I got her, she had no muscling along her back (what we call her ‘topline’) and her bony spine was prominent. Through our work on the lunge line, she has begun to move better and has started developing some nice muscle on her topline. This can certainly change how the saddle sits on her back. And sure enough, the saddle fitter was amazed at the change in Diva’s back. She made a few changes to the saddle to try to find a better fit, but came to the conclusion that this saddle will not work for Diva as she gains more muscle because of how the tree points sit on her shoulders. It is very important not to ride her in a saddle that presses down on her shoulder area, as that area is a prime flight response area. This is where a predator would bite as the horse can’t actually reach that area themselves. For Diva, the last thing I want to do is to trigger a flight response because of the saddle. The fitter tried Faraona’s saddle on Diva and said that it would be a better choice until I can find a new saddle for Diva, and I am grateful for that option. It will probably take a bit of time before Diva figures out that she doesn’t have to worry when I tighten the girth, but already I am feeling a difference in her back as she relaxes more.
I have realized in the past couple of rides in Faraona’s saddle what Diva’s back feels like when there is zero tension. This has made me decide not to continue the ride when she begins to tense. The moment I feel tension come, I halt and we stand, perhaps flexing a bit in the contact, until she totally relaxes. Then we can begin the walk again. This is a fundamental principle of Somatic Experiencing called titration – when we stimulate the beginning of the trauma response, we take the pressure off and allow the person (or horse!) to return to baseline before we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system again. This way we build up capacity in the nervous system to allow more stimulation over time and then relaxation. This takes incredible patience and attunement to her nervous system on my part, but that is the work of trauma recovery. It almost seems that one can’t go slow enough!
How Does All This Relate to Human Trauma? When working in trauma recovery, we need to rule out potential physiological causes of the response we are seeing. For Diva – fighting the bit at times - it could be teeth issues, it could be physical pain of the saddle, it could be something like a muscle spasm. Or, it could be a trauma memory. Or both. We must always be aware of the interplay between physical pain, emotional responses and any potential underlying trauma. For example, in humans, – if you have been doing therapeutic modalities such as massage for a very long time and have reached a plateau in response without resolution of the issue – ask the question – could there be a trauma response underlying? Is there something emotional that needs to be worked through to take the work deeper? Conversely, if you are doing that deep work of trauma recovery and are encountering a pain response, it would be wise to rule out a purely physical cause.
Trauma recovery is a complex process. We need to cover all the bases to make sure that we are not missing a vital link in the healing process.