If you found out that all human and horse behavior boils down to a programmable response system that only has 2 choices, wouldn't that make life vastly more simple? Learn what the Autonomic Nervous System is, and how to hack it to win!
Relaxed, responsive, safe, present, soft, elastic, supple, easy life up and down, balanced, bonded
Spooky, frozen, flighty, bracey, unbalanced, dangerous, stiff, mechanical, wild, crazy, anxious, reactive, aloof, stuck, lazy, checked out
Positive (green) responses are fueld by curiosity, confidence and the pursuit of joy.
When stressed the brain of a confident horse releases endorphins, dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin to self soothe and cope.
The more they soothe themselves by going to relaxation and endorphin release, the more they will seek that great feeling.
Negative (red) responses are fueled by fear and survival.
When stressed the brain of a fearful horse releases adrenaline, ephinephrine and cortisol to try to escape the current threat.
The more they react in a fear/survival state, the more easily they will go there as a reaction to stress.
Jump colored jumps, cross creeks, stand quietly for mounting, have a soft mouth, turn easily, eat well and maintain a healthy weight, use head/neck/back/legs well when jumping, move well, go straight, tie well, come to you in the pasture, clips easily, easy to shoe
Buck, rear, leap, bolt, brace, refuse, trip, have a hard mouth, not eat/thin, eat too much/overweight, wiggly, jump stiffly/poorly, heavy on the forehand, crooked, hard to catch, pull back, difficult to clip, hard to do feet
What would you say if I told you I have the key to switching off the fear/survival reaction, and to turn on the confidence/joy response?
The key is rewiring the Autonomic Nervous System, and its easier than you would think.
The Autonomic Nervous System is the part of the nervous system that controls our responses, and tells our body what to do. The Autonomic Nervous System has 2 different parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (survival responses only) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest/digest/play/learn/heal responses).
Every organ in the body will be in either its SNS response, or its PSNS response.
Since survival, especially for a prey animal, is most important. Going into a SNS response is very fast and easy.
Getting the horse or yourself into PSNS can take longer at first, and you must feel safe and comfortable.
Once PSNS is your go to response, it becomes your default.
Eyes – round/almond
Nose – softly breathing
Chin – loose, soft
Mouth – soft, droopy lips
Ears – soft, unhinged, floppy, often not matching
Neck – long on top, soft bottom
Withers – Up, long, spinal process visible
Back – wide, long, soft, up/round, high/straight
Hindquarters – pelvis rotated under, long point of hip to point of buttock
Tail – relaxed, lower set, soft swinging
Front feet – square, more narrow than hind
Back feet – square, well under body, wider than front
Feet – front and hind feet close together
Overall balance – weight rearward, wither higher than hip, neck relaxed and ‘let go’, top of horse longer than the bottom
Eyes – triangle at top, wrinkles
Nose – tight, often uneven
Chin – tight, wrinkly, sucked up
Mouth – tight, wrinkly
Ears – tight, upright, matching
Neck – thick, hard underneck, often knife edge top
Withers – low, tight, short
Back – narrow, tight, often knife edge and dropped, arched
Hindquarters – pelvis flat, often bumps, short hip to buttock line, tight psoas
Tail – high set or clamped, tight, swishy
Front feet – offset, wide apart, splayed
Back feet – offset or in a straight line, out behind body, more narrow than front
Feet – parked/camped out
Overall balance – weight on forehand, wither lower than hip, neck tight often up, top of horse appears shorter than bottom
Happiness, accomplished, safe, pride, confidence, relaxation, joy
Relaxation promotes bonding.
Relaxation promotes learning and retention.
Relaxation promotes healing.
Sadness, fight, flight, freeze, loneliness, fear of falling, anger, anxiety, claustrophobia/space issues, jealousy
Fear causes one to exclude/push away others.
Fear blocks learning.
Fear blocks healing.
Endorphins - more pain relieving power than morphine
Oxytocin - intense bonding
Dopamine - overall sense of joy and well-being
Adrenaline - fight, flight, freeze, collapse
Cortisol - stress
Looseness, willing to go, relax neck down, calm down, listen better, soft/floppy ears, neck turning, licking lips, yawning, blinking/thinking, back up/soft/wide, flag pole drops
Ears tight and back, stiff, not going straight, prance, neck stiff and straight, chomp on bit, refuse jumps, buck, won’t eat, rear, run away, tail up/tight/ringing, back arched and tight
Lip licking, coughing, lower neck, legs softer, blinking, head/neck turn, tail swish, blowing out, wiggling lip in dirt, laying down, flaming stretch, stomp/pawing, sigh, yawn, scratch leg, chew sides, scratch/chew hind foot, scratch ear with hind foot, kick belly, shake, roll, head flipping, downward dog stretch, cat stretch, Trojan horse stretch
Cross feet, hind feet first then front feet
Tapping/Endotapping until big release
Go over poles
Balance right side and left side
Turn into fence
Conditioned Response Release –
Tapping to create pattern, then use other stressful/scary stimulus.
Develop relaxation/connection response to movement/sight, sounds and touch.
Every organ in our body has its own response, whether we are in PSNS/rest/digest/play/learn/heal, or SNS/survival/fight/flight/freeze. Our entire physical, mental and emotional health rest in whichever nervous system we are using.
Because survival is our top priority, it is much faster and easier to get into the SNS. The SNS is actually rooted in the spinal cord, so your body can react without even thinking.
The PSNS on the other hand takes longer to fire, bc it is rooted in the brain. It takes thinking, processing to fire the PSNS. That's why our horses can take so long to relax, but can pop back into SNS/survival literally in a heartbeat and spook.
Each organ must switch over into PSNS, and to start switching, our horse's Hierarchy of Needs must be met. Horse will start switching from SNS/survival to PSNS/rest/digest/play/learn/heal most rapidly in 4. Relaxation. One must WAIT for horse to finish Processing (switching) to avoid pushing horse back into SNS, Safety or Comfort issues.
Your horse has a basic Hierarchy of Needs to survive and thrive, just like we do.
1. Safety - SNS - Red Zone - Fear - Adrenaline
2. Comfort - SNS - Red/Yellow - Discomfort
3. Food - SNS/PSNS -Yellow/Green - Endorphins
4. Relaxation - PSNS - Green -Major Endorphins
5. Play - PSNS - Green - Max Endorphins - Joy
Soft eyes/peripheral vision,
Salivation turns on (those dressage riders and their foamy wet mouths knew something),
Heart rate slows,
Blood pressure lowers,
Breathing gets deeper and slower,
Digestion turns on,
Healing turns on,
Learning and comprehension turns on.
Salivation turns off,
Heart rate increases,
Blood pressure raises,
Breathing gets faster,
Digestion turns off,
Blood races to big muscles to survive,
Healing turns off,
Learning turns off.
There is actually a huge miracle nerve that connects all of our organs and is the key to getting us into Parasympathetic Nervous System, the Vagus Nerve. If the Vagus Nerve is stimulated and healthy, we will go into PSNS easily. If its shut down, constricted or weak, we will tend to be in SNS/survival.
The Vagus Nerve is our 10th cranial nerve, the longest single nerve in the body. It is named 'Vagus' which means wandering, bc it travels all throughout the body. Having good Vagal Tone is the key to good health. Poor Vagal Tone is blamed for a myriad of common ailments and diseases.
There are many ways one can stimulate the Vagus Nerve and help the body switch from SNS, to PSNS. There are also a few key places we can easily physically stimulate it. The easiest (and least expensive) I know how to stimulate the Vagus Nerve is with Tapping/Endotapping directly on the areas the Vagus Nerve is the closest to the surface.
This is the basic equine nervous system. Notice where the major nerves are running. When we Tap, we are stimulating these nerves.
In this chart you can see where the Vagus Nerve (PSNS - yellow here) is located. Stimulating this nerve passively with movement, with equipment or actively by Tapping is an excellent way to stimulate the PSNS and the relaxation response.
Here you can see the basic facial nerve system. I believe we can use these nerves to help get into and stay in the PSNS too. By stimulating these nerves passively with equipment, or actively with our hands or a tool, we can achieve a positive benefit.
The last huge piece of SNS/PSNS has to do with the concept of Mirroring.
A horse’s brain is hardwired to mirror its herd for safety. If it is doing what its herd is doing, it feels safe, bc the horse believes if the entire herd is doing the same thing, the herd appears to be one giant horse to any lurking predators, and too much to handle. It is less attractive and easy to eat than a single horse doing its own thing. Horses believe horses doing something different than the rest of the herd, are easy prey, and in danger.
This means if the herd is acting crazy in SNS, they must mirror and act crazy too, to survive. If the herd is relaxing and grazing, they must relax and graze too, to be safe. Going against the herd and herd leader means potential death, so even if they wouldn't normally react in a given way, if the herd is doing it, they will too.
When we are connected to our horse, this concept of Mirroring is at work. Whether we have our horse online, under saddle or even at liberty, the horse will naturally want to mirror us. We must do in our body what we want the horse to do in his. We must be in PSNS first. Our PSNS must be triggered and engaged to help our horse engage theirs.
We MUST offer our horse something positive to mirror. We must focus on PSNS physically, mentally and emotionally to see results. If we switch to Fear/Survival/Anxiety/Brace, we will eventually pull our horse with us no matter how wonderful they are.
Using all 3 positive purposeful triggers will make all the difference in the world in our horse. This is the secret of the great horsemen. They have focused on all 3, physical, mental and emotional fitness. You can too.
Your horse has Mirror Neurons in their brain, that help them mirror the rest of their herd better. Not only do they use body language to communicate, they can communicate through mental pictures.
The picture you hold in your mind is what your horse will do his best to mirror. If it is a positive picture, he will want to mirror it.
If its what you fear will happen (buck, bolt, spook), he will also want to mirror it. He doesn't understand words like, "don't do this", he just sees the picture, and his mirror neurons do their best to make it a reality.
Always visualize what you WANT to happen, not what you are worried might happen.
Your horse feels all of your emotions. They will feel positive, like joy, peace, love, relaxation, and acceptance. Or they will feel negative, like fear, anger, judgement and hate.
They cannot tell why you feel the way you do, they just do their best to mirror whatever you are feeling. Positive emotions help trigger PSNS. Negative emotions will trigger SNS.
Practice letting go of all judgement and negative emotions. Leave your outside life far away from your horse. Practice clearing your mind, and feeling only joy, gratitude and love when you are with your horse.
If you come to your horse with judgement, frustration and disappointment, you are setting yourself up for more of those same feelings.
The absolute best way to get a performance goal accomplished, is to do in your body what you want the horse to do in his.
We have all heard this, and feel like we do our best to do this, but we have been missing the biggest clue to making this happen. We hear "relax, relax, relax" but what does this mean? If we actually completely relaxed, we would collapse off the horse. We must maintain some degree of tension in our bodies to remain upright on the horse.
Did you realize the specific muscles you use to stand, sit, move and ride come in 2 groups?
We actually have a group of PSNS muscles that trigger relaxation, and maximum athletic performance. We also have a group of SNS muscles that trigger fear, survival, brace and spook. We must use the PSNS muscles if we want a relaxed, happy horse.
Your PSNS muscles are called your Stabilizers. They are your core, fine tuned, dancer muscles. They give you access to your maximum athletic potential, they are your artist muscles.
The main muscle of your PSNS is called your Transverse Abdominus, or TA. To activate or engage your TA, pull your belly button back to your spine and tip your pubic bone up. When you do this, tiny muscles in your spine called Multifidi, or the Spinal Stabilizers, will fire, swell and stretch your vertebrae apart.
This mirrors to your horse to engage his belly and lift his back. This triggers PSNS, relaxation, engagement and that awesome feeling of being 'in the zone'.
By engaging you TA, you can override spooks and negative behaviors, at least long enough to safely dismount. If you are using the physical muscles of the PSNS, it goes against your horse's instincts to fly into SNS. THIS IS HUGE!
The muscles we don't want to be using are our SNS Mobilizers. These are our fight/flight, gross motor skill, big, mechanical muscles. These are hard firing, survival muscles, pedestrian, dump truck muscles.
The main muscle of the SNS is called your Psoas, or fear muscle. It is the only muscle that attaches your upper body, though your pelvis to your femur and lower body. When triggered, it tightens down, pulling the pelvis forward, locking the hip flexors closed, arching and tightening the lower back all the way up the spine through the neck.
This causes your back to arch, belly to pooch, butt to stick out, and if allowed to stay engaged long term, creates back, hip and knee pain, inflammation and deterioration.
It also sends the body into SNS, and until it can be released, will continue to trigger fear, anxiety and SNS in the human and horse.
Finding ways to trigger our PSNS may sound elusive, but here are 20 proven ways to stimulate your Vagus Nerve and get yourself on to greater health and happiness.
1. Breathing – slow deep breath in, long open mouth exhale. Deep breathing is the fastest way to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and send yourself into relaxation. Receptors in the body sense your exhale and release ‘Vagusstoff’ that instantly lowers heart rate.
2. Pull belly button to the spine (engage Transverse Abdominus), and tip pubic bone up.
3. Exposure to cold water – splash cold water on your face, cold shower, swim in cold water.
4. Yawning/TMJ jaw realignment (open mouth/part teeth)/Relax tongue down off roof of mouth
5. Ear massage – Vagus Nerve goes right next to the ear.
6. Listening to mid-frequency music (Disney soundtracks are great!)
7. Humming – deep tones especially the ‘OOOOO’ sound
8. Singing, especially at the top of your lungs
9. Laughter, Smiling, Eye Contact, Speak with sing-songy voice, Use fascial muscles when communicating (no flat affect/Botox face)
13. Connecting with friends – bonding releases oxytocin
16. Tai Chi/Qi Gong
17. Acupuncture/Chiropractic/ Osteopathy/Reflexology
18. Probiotics – balance the gut microbiome/healthy bacteria in the gut
20. Live, work, and learn in environments that feel safe.