Are you afraid of your horse? Being afraid of your horse is nothing to be ashamed about. Many horses are scary, or people have had scary things happen with horses. Sometimes people come to liberty training because they are afraid to ride, or have a horse that is unridable or unmanageable. It’s also good to have a healthy fear or caution when working around horses.
Anything can happen around horses. They are 1,000-plus pound animals who have a strong flight reflex. People can get hurt just walking their horse somewhere, or at feeding time. When you work around horses you up the ante of how many times you can get hurt because you’re there all the time. At the same time, when you work around them your senses become more keen, and you automatically have eyes in the back of your head. Still, with all that sensible caution, stuff happens. Horses don’t have to be “dangerous” to hurt you. Many have an uncanny lack of knowledge of their own physical boundaries and can just knock you over because they didn’t know or remember you were there. That’s why teaching them where their body begins and ends is important.
In all cases, we want to be able to move beyond our fear or if the situation is too scary, get out of it. To be in a fear state is not healthy for anyone over long periods of time. Just look at the survivors of battle – they come home with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), a very real thing. And PTSD can occur on other levels, because seemingly far less dramatic situations than war can cause it.
In a recent presentation at the Ortho-Bionomy Annual Conference held in Denver in May, advanced instructor of Ortho-Bionomy Ursula Hofer gave a talk in which she addressed trauma. She said the brain is not as in charge as we might think. She quoted the theory of Dr. Stephen Porges, director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wrote The Polyvagal Theory which identifies two distinct branches of the vagus nerve or tenth cranial nerve in mammals. The vagus nerve runs from the back of the cranium to the abdomen, the wiring for gut instincts and the mind-body connection. The “vagus” nerve has two distinct branches, the dorsal branch being responsible for primal survival strategies in vertebrates and control of the digestive tract. The ventral branch regulates “flight or fight” behaviors. These neural pathways regulate autonomic state and the expression of emotional and social behavior. In short, when the vagus nerve is out of sync with the rest of the body, it can manifest in many types of gastrointestinal disorders such as abdominal pain, chronic nausea and diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, and lack of appetite. This nerve communicates with the brain and vice versa, so it makes sense that when we go into a trauma mode, we may feel a reaction in our gut.
The reason we get afraid to the point of immobilization is very often because of trauma. Some animals will “freeze” under threat, this way conserving resources. People do that too, but often we get stuck in that mode, where as wild animals will generally move out of this mode once danger is past as their nervous systems recalibrate.
The bones may heal and on the exterior you can look and feel just fine. Trauma can make it hard for the nervous system to self-correct in people. Often it will keep you in a pattern of remembering the accident and it can also make you afraid without you ever being conscious of it. In relating this to horse accidents, I can be with a completely diffeeent horse, and the reflex to hunch up and curl into a ball is there. Others may see it but it is so much a part of me I can’t see it coming, I just find myself there. When I’m there, my horse responds to me, head up, high alert, what’s there to be afraid of? Why are you bracing? Where’s the mountain lion? I’d better go faster. For a fearful horse, this can make the situation even worse. And often times we can’t figure out by ourselves how to stop being fearful. It’s not an intellectual thing, it is alive in the body, as Porges points out.
Recently a friend of mine had a car accident. She said things kept happening after that, like she would run into a door, she couldn’t think quite right, she was slow to react and make necessary decisions; she just felt out of sorts all the way around. This is a typical trauma response. She wasn’t injured in the accident but it was so upsetting to her nervous system that it hadn’t been able to recalibrate and go on its merry way. This didn’t translate to horseback riding in this case, but it caused enough concern for her to come to me for help.
The body needs help in these cases to self-correct, because it’s not able to do it on its own. It has become stuck in a pattern.
Another consideration is that very often as a result of injuries incurred in an accident, the body isn’t as strong as it once was. In turn it lacks body confidence. The skeleton isn’t holding itself quite right and therefore, the organs are not weighted correctly or are compressed inside the structure. Some gentle exercises such as putting your feet up the wall, or yoga, can be helpful in helping the body right itself, if they feel okay to do. After an acute injury sitting in the saddle can be painful or awkward and it’s good to work with a professional who can help you restore the strength in your body and find the connection with your horse again. We may have to tailor our idea of what riding we can do for awhile until the body can heal itself enough, even not ride for awhile.
Our horses are mirrors of our fears and joys, so we cannot hide anything from them. Our relationships with them really require that we meet our fears and shortcomings, so that we can have an honest and present relationship with them. Every horse person has been in a position of being frightened by a situation or a horse, we have all been there.
There are also times when a horse may exude an energy you’re not comfortable with, either they are very high and excitable, or aggressive and you feel afraid. Trust that feeling and put the horse away or leave if it’s safe to do so. Afterwards you can pick the incident apart and try to figure out if it was something in you or the horse all by himself who got excited.
If this is a persistent problem, consider getting Ortho-Bionomy for yourself. The work can occur in the office, on horseback or on the ground, or just close to the horse. We work within your comfort zone. It can be combined with Liberty Training. The possibilities are limitless as is the potential for healing.
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