Updated: Sep 24, 2022
My first dressage coach used to say that, in order to train a horse, you needed to teach them the word first, then a sentence and finally a paragraph. What she meant was that we need to break it down into small bits. A horse needs to understand how to move away from leg pressure before you can ask them to sidepass over a log, for example. However, I am finding out that, when dealing with trauma in the body, it is necessary to break down the ‘word’ into each letter. The hyper-aroused nervous system is so reactive that what seems like even small bits overwhelm the horse.
Diva and I have been working on contact. That is when there is a connection from the rider’s hand, thru the reins, to the bit.
© Eclectic Horseman
When it is done with finesse and nuance, a circuit of energy is created that actually starts at the hind end of the horse, as they step forward and seek contact with the bit. When the horse accepts the bit in this way, the energy goes from the hind leg of the horse, over their back, to the bit, and then to the reins, to the rider’s hands, arms, shoulder blades and back. More than just contact, we can create connection between the horse and rider – an alive feeling, a circle of energy, that allows intimate and nuanced flow of energy and information.
However, for Diva, contact has meant trapped. Whatever her trauma was, part of it involved not being able to flee from the pressure of the bit. When I first started riding her, I could not use the reins at all, but had to ride her totally by my seat and legs. She would panic at the slightest pressure on the bit and run with her head way up in the air.
Slowly, over time, she has begun to accept slight pressure on the bit, as I showed on the first Diva video. First, just being able to turn her head with one rein without her panicking. Then, being able to flex her nose in either direction by the use of two reins while she stood still. But she couldn’t figure out how to take a step forward into the contact with the bit. She would feel the pressure of the bit in her mouth and lift her head high in the air to try and escape the pressure.
Here is where patience and understanding of the autonomic nervous system has helped me. I understood that her panic was a trauma response. Summoning more patience than I thought I could muster, I tried to show her that she could accept slight pressure from the bit and move into it as she lifted her hind leg to go forward. One step at a time. She would panic and lift her head. Woah. Stop. Settle. Flex gently left and right to lower the head and relax. Pause. Accept the contact. Ask for another step. Step forward, panic, woah. Repeat the cycle.
We have worked on this for weeks, slowly increasing the number of steps she can take before she panics. And today – something clicked for her and she figured out how to step into the contact as she engaged her hind leg and moved forward, accepting the bit. I felt that alive feeling as my hands, arms, and back connected thru the reins to her mouth. We walked around the round pen, taking many steps before she began to tense. Stop. Settle. Ask again. And again. Finally, she blew out softly and gently chewed the bit. Ah! This is what I was waiting for. This signaled relaxation and the engagement of the ventral vagal ‘calm and connect’ part of the autonomic nervous system. We had worked thru the sympathetic ‘flight’ response caused by her trauma, and started creating new neural pathways that allowed the ventral vagal to work. We have the beginnings of connection!
We have much work yet to do to solidify this in Diva’s nervous system. Slowly, one step at a time, I expect that she will accept contact with the bit and begin to feel it as a safe place to be, not as a trapped place.
Again, my horse has been my teacher. I am learning how slowly we need to work in order to create the feeling of safety that is needed to settle a traumatized nervous system. We are actually physiologically creating new neural pathways in the body and brain that signal safety, calm, and connection. This takes many, many repetitions and then time to integrate the new sensations.
And – what works with my horse also works with humans. Horses and humans, as mammals, share a very similar nervous system. A major difference is that horses don’t have a prefrontal cortex in their brain, which means that they can’t make a story about their trauma. I think that this actually makes it easier to treat trauma in a horse than in a human, because there is no story or meaning created that can get in the way of accessing the trauma energy stored in the body.
In the Somatic Experiencing Practitioner training, we are taught how to not let the story to get in the way of accessing what the body is holding. When someone can access the sensations in their body, we can begin the roadmap to releasing the trauma energy that is stored there.
My advantage is that I get to practice with my horse. It is a powerful experience to feel my horse begin to relax and connect with me without fear. It is also a powerful experience to have a human connect into their body without fear. My horses are masters at showing humans how to do this in an EFL session. Want to give it a try?
Thank you, Diva.