|Posted on November 7, 2017 at 6:40 PM|
Equine PTSD; an Emotional Reflection
A Position Paper
I am of the opinion that any living thing that can express itself with emotion in any degree can also in the manner of those degrees experience contentment or stress. My name is Kerry Thomas and I am the founder of THT Bloodstock, and the following are my thoughts and postulations on a topic I have, like many, long been acquainted with before I realized that I was.
Having spent countless hours studying herd dynamics, stress management, communication, natural tendencies and all of the things Behavioral Genetic that relate to physical expression and performance, one of the most recurring challenges I have faced in all breeds of horses in all disciplines, was to unravel the mystery of psychosomatic disruptions. The debilitating anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing a traumatic event, PTSD, manifests its ugly head in any number of ways and is an equal opportunity emotional virus that can affect the emotionally expressive; the higher the sophistication of the species, the more demoralizing its grasp.
During the process of profiling and evaluating horses over the years, regardless of their discipline, I have come across more behavioral disruptions “out of nowhere” than I can count. More often than not, a deeper evaluation shows sensory lead changes or “sensory transition” issues somewhere in the horses basic sensory system processes are the cause. Or there is a herd dynamic gap that isn’t being properly filled; but not in all of the cases. Bottom line, there are a great many horses suffering in silence from psychosomatic challenges that stem from emotional scars they cannot so easily communicate to us, not unless we first acknowledge that this type of affliction can be experienced by our equine comrades.
Once I realized an equine version of PTSD was not only a reality but highly disruptive to the trainability of an athlete as well as to the basic psychological growth patterns of the horse in general, I knew I had to dig deeper. Our goal in equine athletics is focused on identifying elite potential in the operating systems which in turn allow for the optimization of physical ability. There are many inroads to the psyche and their efficient translation to the physical athlete is hinged upon an individual’s ability to manage and process emotional stress. It goes deeper than that, far beyond the race track or the arena, we see its impact and residual effects on the basic quality of life long after a scaring incident occurs.
Equine PTSD & Psychosis; in Manifest
Far too often in my opinion are we quick to want to put a wrap or salve on a problem instead of digging in and tackling the actual causes. It is simply too easy to remedy a symptom than unravel its cause, we see this not only in medicine but also social aspects, it has become for some, the nature of things; the quick and the easy. Short term comforts for long term issues.
To truly understand how Equine PTSD happens, I think we must first ask the question, how it doesn’t happen. What filters and buffers are in place that helps assuage the manifestation of emotional stress?
At its base, environmental stimuli is filtered through two avenues in the horses world; an individual aspect and a herd aspect. The individual aspect is the core that is the sensory system super highway taking in environmental stimulus and filtering it through the lens of self; behavioral tendencies, seasoning, sensory soundness strengths or weaknesses which are thus indicative of an individual’s placement in the overall herd hierarchy. The herd aspect is the same core with the information filtered first through the herd dynamics of the family structure. This is especially important in youth while the young horse is experiencing the world through the safety net of the group. A solid family unit creates a platform for the young horse to find and define their place in the world they’re experiencing and plays a profound role in their ability to manage emotional stress and the ever changing natural environment in which they live. In essence, it is the key to learning and proper psychological growth patterns. As the young horse communicates with the environment they have the communication with the herd to buffer, filter, protect. As their bodies grow, their minds can develop a few steps ahead, helping to keep them safe from injury.
Because the family unit plays a major role in the individual’s ability to manage and filter emotional stresses, removal from this too young and/or tossed into an artificial and incomplete herd structure at a young age, opens the door for gaps in the natural development of the psyche. When the at large family structure is not available the herd craving horse has part of the education system removed and is by default reliant then upon their own often underdeveloped psychologies. The basic instincts of survival lose their buffer of the herd and can become over reactive in their nature, further interrupting psychological growth patterns.
The disruption of the family unit too young without proper surrogate does not of course always produce anxieties and interrupted growth patterns to the point where all horses will suffer from emotional stresses they cannot filter, but it is often a contributing factor especially in the middle to lower herd dynamic. As a herd animal where a system of hierarchy and communication through the ranks is essential for unit survival, the majority of animals, roughly 85%, will necessarily fall into the upper middle to lower herd dynamic ranks. From a purely herd dynamic standpoint, this hierarchy has very little to do with physicality and everything to do with psychology.
To understand how psychosis gets in and what we can do to help assuage its impact (for I do not believe we can erratic it, only soften or hope to circumvent its impact) we must understand the psychology of the herd dynamics. Because the way in, is also the way out.
The higher we travel up the herd dynamic scale the more complete the individual horse psychology, upper level and lead horses have fewer gaps in the sensory sequences and therefore less development of environmental dependencies. These horses have the fewest interruptions in their psychological growth patterns and thus have a better aptitude for processing emotional stresses themselves; when it comes to athletics, sensory soundness is the first step to optimizing physical ability. That is not to say that a less than complete sensory system and herd dynamic is equal to the inability of physical optimization but it does mean there are going to be more obstacles along the way, more emotional dependencies mean more struggles with emotional stress processing. Emotional wellness is directly related to physical health and convalescence, stress management, performance and on and on. There are few things more demoralizing than psychological shackles.
The sensory system is the surveillance system for the environment, feeding information into the psyche for interpretation which is based upon a mixture of basic instincts, learned experience and social structure to determine a reaction both emotionally and physically. Just like we talk about a horse making proper “lead changes” physically to manifest efficient physical motion, the sensory system too must have proper and efficient “lead changes” in order to maximize emotional intelligence. The more gaps in this sequence, the less efficient, the less efficient, the more dependencies can develop, especially under stress.
In a normal herd setting and by its very nature, the development of codependency is normal and essential to the group survival as is the reliance on herd mates to fill in the gaps so to speak. The role of the underling horses is to help sustain the group by proxy; masking the true leadership from predators. The only way a herd of animals can sustain itself in open space is if the leadership is concealed, and part of this concealment strategy by Mother Nature is to create more mid and lower level members who, because of their dependent psychologies, have more reactive physical responses to stress and hierarchy struggles. Which by turn brings attention focused upon them by the predator; the herd has a better chance to survive when the leaders are not obvious targets.
To protect themselves when they can’t “check in with their herd mates” mid level horses under stress often revert back to a key basic instinct dynamic, one that plays a major role in the psychological growth patterns of the horse; the anticipatory response mechanism or ARM as I call it.
Anticipatory responses in youth are little more than knee jerk physical responses, reaction/non-actions, that take place prior to the buffer of experience. In other words, a weanling (you will see fawns do this often too) that stands perfectly still in the face of supposed danger or runs frightfully away from it, sometimes into a fence or a car. There are yet too little learned behaviors and experience from which to assist in the interpretation processes, so what we have is purely reactive. Over time and experience environmental stimuli is, in associated circumstances, anticipated and interpreted cohesively allowing a higher level of body control and physical reaction/non-action accordingly. This is the core of adaptability, stress management and psychological growth patterns; how horses learn. In a normal herd setting horses will also depend on those around them to help determine a safe course of action. Ever see a group of horses near one another, one horse jump or start and like domino’s several other horses do the same or similar? This is the anticipatory response mechanism in living color. You can begin to see where on the herd dynamic scale a horse is and how efficient their sensory soundness is, by the length of time it takes for them to regain invisible-in-open-space status and controlled physical movement. The longer it takes, the more “at-risk” the horse is for psychosomatic issues to develop and the more dependencies on things other than self the horse is for stress filtration.
Again, in a normal herd setting these puzzle pieces fit together and support one another, codependent as they are, and for the most part emotional wellness and harmony is all you can see. Remove the horse from these naturally occurring dependencies, put them alone, or with other horses with just as many sensory and herd dynamic gaps, or with human counterparts insensitive to herd dynamic needs, anxiety, stress trauma, begin to leave their mark. Processing is everything, high level horses process better and have less outside dependencies than do their lower level (the majority), herd mates.
When a race horse has visual interpretative issues affecting physical performance trainers can use blinkers, but what if the physical disruptions are not physically related?
Unprocessed trauma, regardless of how or when it occurs, can leave an emotional scar that even though cannot be seen, can run very deep and cause quality of life disruptions. Equine PTSD is an emotional response to actual or anticipated stimuli of a former experience that was not, or could not be properly interpreted and filtered. There are numerous sources and potential sources in which to lay blame, from inward to outward, neither lessen the anxiety disorder.
Trauma unfiltered for whatever reason becomes a learned negative experience, a layer that by virtue of the basic survival instinct, is housed within the anticipatory response mechanism for safe keeping, ready at a moment’s notice to “protect the self” by anticipating the same or similar experience purely by association. Horses can learn and excel through the process of anticipation and association, when the experience is positive. But when the experience changes to a negative, the same learning tools turn from growing the horse to protecting the horse; this is naturally occurring, it is nature’s way of adapting to changing environments. For example, the horse by this process learns not to run from a blowing sage bush, yet to run from an attacking mountain lion the same way you may have learned you could slip on ice or any similar slippery or potentially slippery surface. You adjust, they adjust; self preservation.
The same process that opens the way for positive triggers and growth after an experience also can lead to negative triggers and behavioral disruptions; Equine PTSD. Make no mistake, horses on any position of the herd dynamic hierarchy can suffer from this emotional scarring, the differences here are found in the degrees of expression as well their therapeutic process.
Post traumatic stress can be subtle and passing or it can be loud and crippling. It can be triggered by the same or similar stimuli or, thanks to the anticipatory response mechanism; it can be triggered from stimuli remotely associated with the actual cause, making getting to the bottom of it in your horse, more than a little challenging.
Remedy; the Only Way Out, Is Through
Processing emotional scar tissue has to come from the avenue from which it came, this is not an easy assignment nor is there a snap your fingers methodology. Understanding the nature of the apparition is the first step to identifying the likely cause. Because negative triggers can happen from associated anticipations, so can positive associations; you do not have to nor are you ever likely to remove the actual cause, for you cannot erase an experience, but you can use associative positive triggers to chip away at the impact.
The anticipatory response mechanism is your key.
A personal understanding of how an actual experience becomes an anticipated experience is important because the principle is the same for us as well. Once as a child I sat down at the dinner table and my mother had prepared vegetable soup, after taking one spoonful I got sick. To this day I cannot eat vegetable soup even though I know full well it wasn’t the soup that made me sick, I was already ill at that time. But it doesn’t matter, I love every ingredient by itself in vegetable soup, but my negative trigger by association keeps me away from it. This is an isolated example, an isolated trigger with a direct but clear affect without accompanying associations because I can eat all other soups. The remedy here is as simple as avoiding the trigger altogether.
Other forms of associative negative triggers are far more physically expressive and far reaching. There are traumatic experiences which are parlayed to similar environments, triggering a negative memory thus a negative response even when far removed from the original cause in time and space. The higher degree of trauma the deeper the scar, the deeper the scar the harder to manage; in these situations we have to use the same avenue that let it in, to process it out. The only way out is through.
Emotional trauma is a troubling experience; a singular experience of high emotional impact is marked in the psyche as a negative trigger, negative triggers are anticipated along with much of the associative environment. This happens because this is how the horse learns, survives, self preserves. If you’re ambushed at a watering hole, and survive, you will never forget that and may never use that same watering hole or if you do your environmental awareness is far more acute. Its part of the survival process and why young horses can be aloof when older horses are aware.
The remedy for softening the psychosomatic responses from traumatic experience is the process of layering positive associative experience that also will become anticipated. Processing Equine PTSD when we have no real way of understanding what the actual cause was can only be done in stages, these stages are layered experiences. The key to success is to create positive experience that can be anticipated in similar but different environments, and you should not start by trying to meet the demon head on, you must circumvent. By so doing you are creating an emotional comfort zone for the horse to escape into instead of the recurring nightmare of anxiety and fear and tapping into another basic instinct, the natural tendency of adaptability.
Let’s be clear that comfort and “reward” for a horse, a prey animal, is not based upon a physical thing like treats but by emotional calm and stability. As emotional animals horses are a reflection of their environment, not just the physical environment but the emotional environment. You reward your horse with calm and emotional safety and you therapy the horse patient with the same; you become the sponge for emotional stress by countering it with calm quiet matter-of-fact presence.
What do I mean by circumventing by association that allows the anticipatory response mechanism to trigger from positive experience? As an example I’ll use a case I was involved in regarding a horse that was essentially sensory sound after evaluation that also occasionally spooked from out of nowhere, spooking from ghosts as the client told me. The horse would show signs of anxiety in particular environments and sometimes this would erupt physically, and I found that certain environmental stimuli caused the stiffening anxiety and others caused the physical eruption, and I knew we had varying degrees of association. Some triggers were loosely associated and some were more closely related to a past trauma.
I began to realize that the horse would show signs of anxiety and stress when walking out of the barn, onto a trailer, or around a corner etc., and he was telling me these were similar to him and he was associating them, thus anticipating “something” negative. A closer study revealed that physical speed of approach and physical space from the “perceived trigger point” could manipulate the degree higher or lower, the emotional impact which by proxy becomes the vehicle for manipulation of the event. Once you have established this kind of soft skill manipulation of the negative anticipation you have established more maneuverability; influencing the outcome or resulting emotion by controlling the perceived environment. There are for the ill and struggling two environments; one of them the actual and the other the perceived and anticipated. Therapy requires the therapist to blend them together while manipulating the outcome by the “safe out” comfort zone.
In this particular case I manipulated the interpretation process by altering the physical condition of speed and space in similar environments over time, slowly working through the processing in accordion-like layers until the negative trigger points were less prevalent. I never knew what traumatic event was associated with or was the actual cause of the anxiety disorder regarding the horse, there was no bowl of soup at the root to blame directly. In situations like these with so many unknowns the only option is to circumvent by association. Unfortunately there is no one size fits all step by step process when it comes to Equine PTSD of this nature, there is no timetable and there are no guarantees. Because so many things play a role in the inception of psychosis, sensory soundness, naturally occurring tendencies, overall herd dynamic and so on, therapeutic measures must be hinged upon the basic individual psychology to be affective. If not, you risk causing the horse more problems.
Reflective Learning Therapy; the Human, Horse Connection
Emotional communication, it is the highest and purest form of communicating. Emotional communication transcends spoken language and supersedes in impression physical expression. If you think of language in the context of song, we can appreciate and be affected by the music even if we cannot understand the words.
Horses are excellent emotional communicators and they are natural sponges absorbing the emotional vibe of their environment; it allows them to communicate in quiet subtlety with one another, it allows them to reflect the emotions of humans. This unique emotional connection with the horse is what makes the horse not just a wonderful human partner, but also a highly sensitive and fine tuned vehicle for emotional wellness therapies.
Having had the pleasure to help develop horse based therapies for people of all ages with physical and emotional challenges, one of the consistent go-to indicators in helping develop individual therapies is the horses ability to reflect human emotion. High level herd dynamic communicators can anticipate human anxiety and stress and are capable of giving subtle cues before there is a physical disruption. Having worked with those who have a difficult time “talking about it” or who simply cannot speak, the horse became both absorber and translator. I have long felt that within this relationship could be found a key to innovative emotional wellness therapies. In a carefully created environment, the person and their horse therapist create a unique partnership with the horse helping process the personal emotional stress and anxiety. Most especially individuals who carry their emotions and their own PTSD and other struggles very close and buried deep, the horse in partnership by a natural connection becomes the emotional processor.
When the right horse, emotionally, is partnered with the individual of certain emotional needs, the connective relationship and unspoken communication creates a comfort zone and within this relationship disruptive human emotion has a place to be filtered. An essential aspect of this is accessing the ‘right’ horse for this process to be fully affective. The ideal horse psychology for this is the adjunct horse within a natural herd dynamic. The adjunct horse in a herd structure is an upper level herd member that acts as the go between from leadership to underling in times of high stress and normal herd motion alike. Very often mistaken for the lead horse, this high level communicator acts much like the emotional buffer between and within the ranks, further protecting the actual leadership from predator targeting. These horses have a natural shared leadership essence and are sensory sound with nurturing tendencies. Ideal for the nurturing task required.
One of the very unique and exciting things I am eager to continue to explore is utilizing the horse to reflect human stress and anxiety caused by an environmental trigger, actual or in association, before said trigger has its full impact. By so doing, I believe we can begin to identify associative triggers of PTSD and psychosomatic illness and use this information to create new and innovative emotional wellness therapies. Using the same template of base understanding regarding the anticipatory response mechanism which mechanically creates negative triggers after trauma, we can, through the human horse relationship, manipulate the environment in a therapeutic manner.
I am anxious for the potential in Reflective Learning Therapy and excited to continue to expand upon its potential in helping those in need. Stay Tuned…
Kerry M Thomas
Founder of THT Bloodstock Twitter = @Thomasherding / FB = THT Bloodstock
*For additional information on Behavioral Tendencies and Sensory Soundness I recommend reading the introduction section to both the 2017 & 2016 Kentucky Derby Analysis found at www.thtbloodstock.com Big Race Analysis section.
**Clinics and lectures are available upon request
“The first step to achieving your goals, is believing that you can.” KMT