Updated: Jan 25, 2022
I have always had an interest in helping horses with behavior problems. The rewards of helping the horse to “ let go” of fears and tension due to past or present experiences is something that can’t be described. Some words like “ connection, trust, partnership” barely touch on the bond a horse creates with the human that awakens them from their distant emotional and physical state. “ Shutting down “ is a word that describes both horses and humans that have experienced situations that they needed to survive.
” For horses, something as simple as saddle fitting can cause pain and trauma, which often manifest as a training issue or poor performance.” (Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS.)
The “cascade effect” refers to a process that, once initiated, continues to lead to a chain of events that snowball and cannot be easily stopped until the case concludes. — Courtenay R. Bruce et al.
Humans that have endured trauma and abuse will be very shut down in their emotions. It’s a defense mechanism that allows the mind and spirit to endure situations that seem impossible.
A scientific study called the Defense Cascade proves the protective shutdown effects on humans as well as mammals. Shutting down the emotions to endure stressful situations, shows muscle shut down as well. Emotions are played out mentally and physically, it is a defense mechanism. We can’t always compare horses' emotions to humans, but if we are training with empathy, we can believe our survival instincts are very similar.
This is proven with horses used in the healing process of victims of trauma and abuse. It is a connection that creates an indescribable bond to both horse and human. Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management
There is a trending theory that is being applied to training problem horses, it is known as” connecting” with the vagus nerve. Bodywork soothes the nervous system via the vagus nerve. Signs of relaxation are deep breathing, chewing, softening of the eye, as well as facial muscles. Then you can apply a “connection” with the nervous, misbehaved horse.
This is a great article in the BEVA...
“Behaviors perceived as ‘naughtiness’ may in fact signify direct actions to avoid pain- or fear-inducing stimuli.” (B. Hothersall,R. Casey British Equine Veterinary Association) https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2042-3292.2011.00296.x
Want a simple training explanation from a Classic Master?
These nervous system theories are not new to helping behavior issues and “desensitizing” training in horses.
“When a horse is in pain, you can see the stressful situations in the cheek muscles, almost grinding his teeth, but there are other subtler signs,” said renowned equine behaviorist Dr. Katherine Houpt, emeritus professor at Cornell University. “So you should be able to look at a horse and say, 'He's in pain,' especially when you touch an ear and his face changes.” (excerpt from Paulick report by Denise Steffanus)
In 1994, I was introduced to the Ttouch, an awareness method created by Linda Telligton Jones.
Jones quoted "I was disturbed by the lack of respect for the horse as an individual," she says. "So many people seemed to treat the horse as a vehicle, with no recognition of his value as one of God's precious creations." ( Linda Tellington Jones Equus magazine BOBBIE LIEBERMAN)
In the mid-1970s, Tellington-Jones had perhaps her greatest epiphany. After studying the learning theory of Israeli physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, she realized that his concept of reeducating the nervous system without fear or force could be applied to horses and other animals to overcome resistance, stress and tension and improve coordination and learning ability. learning by using non habitual movements to activate unused neural pathways to the brain.(Equus magazine BOBBIE LIEBERMAN)
How Does the Feldenkrais method work? The Feldenkrais Method uses enhancement of one's awareness to address dormant areas of the self and promote larger and more graceful motions, utilizing the nervous system's own ability to create change and improve movement. (The Feldenkrais Method® )
Tellington-Jones proposed the then revolutionary concept, behavior in horses is often related to back or neck pain. ( Equus magazine BOBBIE LIEBERMAN )
"Who thought about checking a back or neck in relation to undesirable behavior?" she says. "If a horse refused to do something, you just got after him harder with a whip or spur. Today, we check the body to see where there may be areas of soreness or memory of past trauma or injury-holding patterns of tension that can be the cause of resistance or behavior problems."(Tellington Jones )
“The Tellington TTouch Method recognizes an inextricable link between posture, the nervous system and behavior. It uses a system of gentle, non-habitual movements on and with the animal’s body, including the skin, to promote relaxation while improving awareness, physical balance and movement. The non-invasive TTouches elicit profound changes in an animal’s emotional state and relieve tension and anxiety. When clients use TTouch at home, and your staff also uses it in the clinic, counterproductive stress responses are minimized and trust is built.”
(Rikke Schultz, DVM, IVAS, EVSO -February 9, 2017 innovative veterinary practice journal)
Awareness techniques that address the vagus nerve:
"Ear work affects the acupuncture points in the local area and relaxes the tentorium (the membrane separating the cerebrum from the cerebellum, also a part of the dura), which attaches to the temporal bone. Major nerves, arteries and veins pass through the lacerum foramen. Tension here can affect multiple systems since the vagal nerve connects to most inner organs, and the accessory nerve innervates some of the muscles around the shoulder blade, thereby impacting front leg movement. Impaired blood flow to and from the brain will have a huge impact on the horse, including many behavioral issues" TellingtonTTouch.com
It was clear to Tellington-Jones that much of the resistance and poor performance she saw was related to stress, but there was scant research available at the time and very little awareness.
Light, single press-and-release circles with the fingertips and hands were not--until that day--a part of her method, but Tellington-Jones realized that something quite special was happening and that she needed to explore these circular touches. She believes the circles release fear at the cellular level, leaving room for a new level of confidence and expression.
Tellington-Jones believes that by treating a horse as you would like to be treated--what she calls the Equine Golden Rule(Equus magazine BOBBIE LIEBERMAN)” We enhance our relationship with those of our own species, Seeing horses as our teachers awakens a level of trust, relationship and respect that goes both ways, and in so doing, shifts our relationship to the world," she says. "This acknowledges and heightens our spiritual relationship with the horse, bringing us home to the same radiance that first drew us to the equine spirit." (Tellington Jones )
In conclusion, Why are we continuing to reinvent ways that people can bring out the best in their relationship with their horse? The theories of relaxation and the central nervous system have already been introduced by the classical masters of horse training. The best thing you can do to create an ideal relationship with your horse is at the first signs of “ problem “ behavior, seek the help of a professional educated in the physiology and biomechanics of the horse.