Healing the horse and human herd from within

In Ortho-Bionomy we work with reflexes, and one of them is rebound. If a body does not have rebound then it has little ability to change, to heal itself. We want to reinstate rebound in the body in order to elicit change and the ability to correct itself. That ability can grow in a being and is directly tied into the continuing health of the organism. I seek that self-corrective response in each body I work with….and in my own.

Photo by One Defining Moment, Lori Hinkle
Photo by One Defining Moment, Lori Hinkle

Horses have incredible rebound capabilities, in that they can experience trauma and not hang onto it. If something happens in the herd, one is eaten, there is a death, there is sorrow, but the herd moves in close and they move on, their collective nervous system filling the hole made by the missing one.

IMG_1448The only time horses don’t rebound well from trauma is when it is human induced, or induced by a manmade object, such as a traffic trailer accident or abuse. They have this ability which is weaker in us humans – when we encounter a shock it takes us a long time to recover. In general, while training horses, we want to diminish their flight/fright response (sympathetic nervous system) and nourish the parasympathetic response which is the rest and restoration response. So we also need to build our rebound response so that we can help horses to diminish their flight/fright response.

It’s fascinating to me that although the ability to rebound from trauma is weaker in us humans inIMG_0660 general, horses look to us for relationships. They may see us as more capable of relationships than other horses – their own kind! I wrote about this before, recounting the studies done at the HeartMath Institute, studies that point to the horse’s heart rate being influenced more greatly by a human than by another horse.

I did bodywork recently on a mare who has exhibited behavioral issues in the past few months, mostly due to her moves. She still has the same owner, who is getting exasperated with this outrageous, dangerous behavior.

Two animal communicators have said that she is carrying residual trauma left over from an accident she and her owner had in 2011. The mare was only four then. I was asked to see if I found that in her.

IMG_1606Having worked with her a few times before, and right after her moves, I had picked up a thread of that trauma underneath a more present trauma for her – and that was leaving a horse she was very bonded to. Leaving him and her home where her owner was with her every day, was extremely distressing at that time.

This time the big thing that came up was relationships, as in big neon letters.  I did not get a picture of the accident itself, but rather, where she had lived after the accident, because her owner couldn’t take care of her due to injuries sustained from the accident. So the mare had been boarded for a month. This had set up a separation anxiety in her that she still had.

My sense of being with her today, with her lack of connection with me in the beginning, the need to walk together to simply reestablish our connection, was very different than the past times I’d been with her. We walked, I let her eat, I touched her, and eventually the light came back into her eyes.

Pieces came together for me then. The mare had never established any close relationships at the boarding barn where she was taken after the accident. It was nerve wracking for her especially because her owner could not get there to see her often. When she was moved from her home and companion horse of several years to a new barn, trauma came up again because everything smelled different, sounded Nova_bodywork_sunlightdifferent and there was no one to bond to there.

We worked through that move, and that was when I learned of her deep sorrow about losing her companion and the thread of trauma from the accident.

In this new move, she has found a dear friend in an older mare who has huge separation anxiety. The mare’s anxiety mirrors her own, but is magnified so each time she goes out on the trail, the mare screams for her. This makes her extremely nervous and flighty on the trail, wanting to leap around and spook and go back to her friend. The close relationship with the mare, whom she spends more time than with her owner, is really special to her now.

The mare’s behavior is disturbing because her owner does not want to get hurt and this behavior is dangerous. The owner has ridden out alone for years on this young mare. The mare is fine with other horses away from home, and with only her owner away from home (even trailering).

My recommendation is to work on this relationship. If we work with the mare in the arena adjacent to the pasture where she lives with her friend, then we will use their relationship as a reward for connecting with her owner. Sometimes we use space or another horse instead of food as the reward and it works really well. Often after a move, a horse won’t be very interested in their human because they are trying to figure out herd dynamics and where they fit in.

Me_TexPeople are at a disadvantage with horses many times because they are fragile and trauma stays with them longer, lodges in there. This is what I spoke about in the beginning, the research done on trauma in wild mammals (Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger)  (and horses count because they retain wild herd behaviors) show us trauma in horses is really caused by people mostly, and so they get over things faster than we do. There is rebound there in the horse that doesn’t exist in the human.

This is a highly sensitive mare responding to her need for relationships and the lack of rebound she has surrounding that, and in her owner around this situation. The idea is to connect the mare up with her owner so she can renew and expand her constellation of relationships. With bodywork she improves because we reignite the rebound reflex in her. This was what really worked for her the first time I was called out after the move. Once she was treated, she calmed right down and came into relationship.

With rebound in our systems, we are better able to weather what happens to us. We do not become so easily triggered by people we don’t like, old traumas, old injuries and can better take on what happens: deaths, divorce, and other losses. As humans, psychologically, we can get so wound up in our problems or other people’s problems we lose our ability to rebound. When something triggers us, like a horse’s behavior, we can get so focused on the problem that we can’t think of anything else. Granted, some problems can take up every waking hour, so it’s no wonder this happens. But if we can find a still pond inside ourselves, a place to come back to – center, and stillness – the troubles can fall away for a short period, giving ourselves a little oasis in which to heal. If we bring ourselves back there, then the horse can more easily rebound and grow confidence that there is safety with their person.

The other thing we did was some Liberty Foundations work to connect the mare more with humans and reinforce her rebound. Trailering out for rides and lessons is not an issue. We hope that over time, with the settling of her rhythms, this mare will be fine riding out from the barn alone, as well as going on trailer rides far away with other horses.

Although this is not the end of the story with this mare, it is a work in progress. When moving her in future, her sensitivity should be considered, although I highly doubt that she would be so triggered again. Her rebound reflex is stronger and she also had some herd work which reinforces the rebound with its rhythmic quality. In a way, I felt it “took a village” to work with this mare’s dilemma, because it took unraveling the problem from different perspectives to come up with what might help her. She went to a trainer after this for more valuable reinforcement. That, and a new barn with trail buddies, helped her enormously.

Yet initially, I truly believe giving her a small “oasis” in which to to be heard and acknowledged made a huge difference.

 Read more on the horse-related studies from the HeartMath Institute in this blog:

Straight from the Heart: What do Horses Tell Us?

Copyright (c) Susan Smith


Take advantage of a special offer: $20 off a Horse + Rider session ($95 value) from now through September 1! You can purchase it now and use at any time.

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Saturday, July 11 – Hang with the Herd – Join me and my herd under the cool canopy of the trees for some real quality time together –Experience herd, honesty, healing. A new Liberty Foundations ½ day workshop for those who want an introduction to the work or to reinvigorate their liberty process. PayPal and credit card payment available.

We will sit in the cool of the trees with the herd during the morning, go work with the horses, then come back to the trees with cold drinks when it gets hot. Excellent herd to liberty experience! Space will be limited, be sure to enroll soon to ensure your spot. Location: Mac’s Overnight Stables, Canoncito (near El Dorado), Santa Fe, NM.  Time: 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. $75. Contact susansmith@orthohorse.info or 505-501-2478 for information.


September 26-27 – Fall Liberty Weekend in Oklahoma — Susan Smith and Ruella Yates, co-instructors. Contact either of us: susansmith@orthohorse.info or ruella@libertyfoundations for further details. Cost: $325. Clinic is filling quickly, be sure to enroll!

December 7-11 Sahaja 2015 5-Day Clinic on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean – Susan Smith & Stina Herberg. See details:

Independent Liberty Trainers Network

Susan & Stina Team Up to Make the Sahaja Clinic an Unforgettable Experience

Sahaja 2015

Susan is a member of the Independent Liberty Trainers Network. libertytrainersnetwork.com/

Associate Instructor, Advanced Practitioner – Ortho-Bionomy & Equine Ortho-Bionomy

Practitioner, Equine Positional Release

Liberty Foundations Coach




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