Parallels Between Equine Facilitated Therapy and Horse Training

Sometimes my approach can come off a bit mystic, but science is always at the heart of what I’m doing…

For a few years, I facilitated an equine program for a detention center. In addition to the wonderful sessions I shared with the incarcerated individuals I met, I was emersed in learning about human attachment theory, PTSD, and affective neuroscience; the entire experience changed me as a person, and when I returned to training professionally, made me a much better horse trainer.

Facilitated work, whether therapy with a trained professional, or Experiential Learning with a facilitator, seeks to re-establish emotional self-regulation with participants via experiencing co-regulation, via the connection we feel with the horse; a very different approach when compared to talk therapy, where we try to reason out our problems on that proverbial therapist’s couch.

Many individuals who have failed to find peace on the therapist’s couch have found that connecting with a horse allows them to let go of body-based, somatic trauma or emotional dysregulation, and feel safe or peaceful in their own body once again. They have to FEEL better, in the moment, to heal; they can’t think their way to healing. They can then take that muscle memory, if you will, and tap into it when they need to self-regulate in the human world.
I’ll note that, as a facilitator, it was important to avoid participants re-visiting their trauma verbally, as that can actually re-traumatize.

Horses are much more complex than we give them credit for. The reason equine therapy works so well for people, is because we have so much in common emotionally with the horse, and can co-regulate one another; we share the structure of the same mammalian emotional brain, the limbic brain, where the emotions are processed after what we are experiencing comes through the brainstem, and BEFORE it gets to the cortical brain, the thinking, rational brain. This mean both horses and people make decisions in our rational brain based on our emotional experience, and sometimes, if triggers are strong enough, we can’t get past the automatic Fight or Flight response; sometimes emotions are so overwhelming that we can’t get past the limbic brain to make a rational decision, we can’t switch off hyper-vigilance, or impulsivity, or anxiety, and it takes very little to push us over threshold or trigger us.
What this means, is that for both horses and humans, no amount of reasoning can fix an emotional issue or something that triggers the Fight or Flight response. In horses, no amount of training can fix an emotional issue. In fact, traditional training approaches often re-traumatize.

Troubled horses and humans are often caught in a vicious cycle, as shown in the ‘Survival Loop,’ from the article https://beaconhouse.org.uk/developmental-trauma/the-repair-of-early-trauma-a-bottom-up-approach which states, “Children with brain-stem hypervigilance, impulsivity, and anxiety need patterned, repetitive activities to re-organize and regulate the brain-stem. Brainstem-activities need to be consistent, predictable, patterned and very frequent, over a sustained period of time.”
How can we take that advice and apply it to the troubled horse?

Understanding attachment theory, and the affective neurostates Panksepp has shown us are shared in the mammalian experience, things like FEAR, RAGE, SEEKING, and especially the PANIC/GRIEF neurocircuit of separation distress, allows us to approach the horse as the complex, emotional animal he is.
Sometimes, training is not enough. Working on a horses power steering and brakes, approaching him like we’re doing work on a vehicle, when the issue is seated in the amygdala, the seat of Fight or Flight, or in the limbic brain, only leaves us spinning our wheels.

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