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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Horses Moving Toward Wholeness

Updated: Feb 13

Woman riding a horse bareback and without a bridle - riding at liberty
Listening to the Horses Every Communication

Over the past few years, I’ve met a few horses who have undergone what can only be described as a transformation. While I am always happy to see this, I was lacking an understanding of what exactly was going on. When I was at university doing my equine Science degree, the subjects that drew me the most were those related to behaviour. I threw myself into equine behaviour, animal behaviour, captive animal behaviour, horse training and any other subject pertaining to behaviour, absorbing every piece of information that came my way. Since then, I’ve been working with horses’ full time, saturating myself with exposure to countless horses and their behaviours. So, by now you’d think I’d be able to understand and explain what I see.

Strangely what has helped me understand horses even more is studying humans. Or perhaps not so strangely, as we are animals too. When I’m with clients I’m working directly with the horse and their person, and the interaction between the two. It was obvious to me that my understanding of horses far outweighed my understanding of humans, so I took up studies focusing on the inner world of people. As a result of this, I feel I understand what I’m seeing sufficiently to try and explain it.

Sometimes a horse comes into my world who appears to be well behaved, they know what their job is and go about doing what’s asked of them without fuss. In the horse world they’re considered easy, bomb-proof horses and are the desire of most horse people. While no horse is ever really bomb-proof, these horses usually handle most things that people throw at them.

Mostly my clients are open to seeing horses as sentient beings who have feelings, thoughts, desires, wants and needs. For some horses, this is the first time they’ve encountered a human who asks the question ‘How do you feel about this?’ It’s the first time someone was present enough to notice the horses’ small messages, to consider the horse in everything they do with them.

When these horses start receiving indications from the person that they’re being listened to, they can start to talk quite loudly. All the years of things they’ve been wanting to say suddenly tumbles out and the horse can start appearing very different to how they were at the start. I’m not talking here about horses who have a change of behaviour shortly after arriving at the home of a beginner horse person, but those arriving at a new home with very experienced horse people. It can look like the horse is regressing, suddenly they have issues with things that were easy before. By returning to the beginning with their training, they have a chance to re-learn old skills in a new way. This is what I’ve been doing, and the horses find their way again, but I never really understood what was happening until now.

It all has to do with the nervous system. Horses (and humans) have a parasympathetic and a sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is dominant when a horse is relaxed and feeling safe, the body slows down and runs life sustaining systems such as digestion. The sympathetic system activates when the horse feels stress or danger, it’s the system that is triggered when a horse needs to run away from predators. It diverts resources from things like digestion and healing into the those required to flee such as an increased heart rate and dilated airways. This part is well known.

The first reaction in horses to a stress is to flee as they’re flight animals, but sometimes this isn’t possible for them in the domestic world. We constrain horses and force them to do things using our tools and gadgets. If we do this often enough, and don’t deal with what is happening for the horse when their sympathetic system is activated, then stage two steps in. Stage two in this complex is created by the parasympathetic system and results in immobilisation. In horses this can be partial immobilisation, also called learned helplessness.

Most people have seen this with a cat and mouse. The mouse runs away as fast as possible in fear from the cat, having a full-blown sympathetic response. If the cat catches the mouse, they suddenly go immobile, this is the parasympathetic system swinging into overdrive. The body, insensitive to pain, goes completely limp, eyes closed, limbs splayed, heart rate decelerated, they can appear dead. Sometimes this results in the cat thinking the mouse is dead, whereupon the mouse takes off and survives. Sometimes the cat bites into the mouse. Either way this system benefits the mouse.

When a horse is listened to, they embark on a journey of healing. But they can’t go straight from stage two to normal relaxation, they must first pass through the initial sympathetic response to get there. This means they return to all the fear and anxiety that they initially felt which wasn’t listened to. How long a horse spends in this stage depends on how long they were in shut down and their level of sensitivity. By revisiting each thing they express anxiety about and being present and supportive, they can then reach that real relaxation characteristic of being in the normal parasympathetic state. It can take patience and time, but the results of a mentally and emotionally healthy horse who is willing and engaged makes it well worth it.

It was such a revelation for me to realise this. I’d been very clear on how I wanted to be with horses but was confused when sometimes a particular horse didn’t seem to initially appreciate being with a considerate human. By now carrying this understanding, I feel I can be much more supportive and helpful to horses and people who are working at this level. And I now see horses moving toward wholeness on a daily basis.

Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Happy Horses Bitless

Considerate Horsemanship

Ph: 0401 249 263

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