Good vs. Evil: the horse’s nervous system
May 18, 2018 by Jec Ballou
An ever-present challenge of training horses is that they are hard-wired to escalate tension. This has helped them survive in the wild. Studies of the amygdala area of their brain show that when a horse is in a state of mental tension, even a small external stimulus causes the anxiety to quickly ratchet up. The horse is then trapped in flight mode. Unfortunately, we load them with stimulus whenever we interact with them, especially when we are trying to attain specific results.
Obviously a horse in a hyper-toned state of mind cannot be expected to use his body in ways requiring precise motor control. Or perhaps I should say that we cannot successfully ask him to do this when his brain and body are operating from signals to be tense. We cannot fine tune recruitment of muscles that are primed for flight. It does not matter how skilled a rider or trainer might be; a horse will never make good gains until he is under the influence of a calmer nervous system. How, then, do we go about our training in a way that diffuses, rather than builds, tension?
Our task is to untether the horse from his sympathetic nervous system (the flight/fight center) and recruit his parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ command center). Studies of the equine brain show that the activity in the amygdala, the anxiety and flight center, can in fact be re-programmed significantly. This happens through hands-on touch and bodywork followed by the correct physical exercises.
This equation rewires a horse’s operating system in a way that enables them to learn and adopt new behaviors and movement patterns. Over time, this rewiring becomes a permanent state of being. Without this approach, we trainers are generally just loading tension on top of already existing mental or physical tension, alienating the horse from his ‘rest and digest’ mode of operation, which is the only environment where positive change happens.
Every single cue we give our horses, every interaction and request, can send them more firmly under the influence of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Being a trainer that can help access the parasympathetic nervous system means acquiring a whole new set of skills than the ones most of us were originally taught. Some days it feels like a slower path forward, but if we wish to see permanent changes, it is the only path forward. Otherwise, we try and try to change habits without getting very far because we fail to address the underlying control center for these habits. In reality the seemingly slower path is actually the faster path forward.
When a horse is not able to change in ways that we might wish—the ways that will benefit him—we need to stop and ask what about his living conditions or training might we shift in order to not continue adding fuel to the fire of his sympathetic nervous system? Is there discomfort we can alleviate? Are his schedules consistent and predictable? Is his training making measurable contributions to utilizing his parasympathetic nervous system? This sort of inquiry led me to write my latest book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, and continues to challenge me to become a more helpful trainer. During my upcoming clinics, I’ll be asking students to join me in this inquiry. Meantime, what thoughts do you have to share on this?