Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: New Goals, New Relationships

The author with Athena: "Working on our liberty, at peace with connection." (Courtesy of Mary Elena Moran)

Saintly Ballad (barn name: “Athena”) was rescued from a Louisiana kill pen approximately one year ago. Since she was recently raced, this qualified her to participate in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover which then became a big goal for us. Due to COVID-19, the October 2020 competition has been rescheduled to next October and will be a “Mega” Thoroughbred Makeover with the 2020 and 2021 eligible horses participating in the opportunity to compete and showcase the versatility of the breed.

Starting our journey together, I knew our success would be resting on my ability to physically rehabilitate Athena’s injuries as well as build a foundation of trust and confidence in her. This magnificent mare is now shiny, filled out in weight, happy in turnout with her horse friends and very adjusted in her home with me. Her bravery when performing over obstacle courses in-hand is inspiring; however, when asked to move forward into the trot and canter, the nagging lameness in her hind end has been a big roadblock to being able to do more.

Athena’s chiropractor suggests that her neck, withers, and pelvic injuries indicate that she must have flipped completely over at some point before her rescue. After much veterinary diagnostic work, it has been determined that her back shows a large portion affected by “kissing spines,” a disease where the vertebrae are extremely close or overlapping each other, which can cause pain and restriction of movement. Both hind proximal suspensory ligaments are damaged, causing gait abnormalities and a lack of push in the hind end, causing her hind hooves to drag across the ground as she trots. The connective tissue over her right hip where she has a large scar has been torn and causes restriction of movement and gait alteration. She has also mildly tested positive for a neurological condition referred to as EPM, which can exacerbate the hind end weakness and balance issues.

Behavior that led the author to examine Athena's trauma. (Courtesy of Mary Elena Moran)

One of these conditions present in a horse can present a significant challenge to rehabilitate but can often show a successful outcome. The numerous conditions present qualify this sweet horse for a life as a companion with retirement from athletic obligations. Unfortunately, I realize that I won’t be able to have a riding career with Athena and will be unable to reach my goals of training her to be a police horse and competing in the Thoroughbred Makeover competition together. In her past, I am certain that her ailments must have caused her enough discomfort to initiate negative behavior patterns, which may have then led to more injuries. As I address her physical concerns, her mental wellbeing has improved – however, overall anxiety and explosive reactions do remain at times. I am currently rehabilitating as much of her injuries as I can so that her life as a companion horse can be done so as comfortable and pain free as possible.

A wise woman once told me that in order to be fully “present” and open to life’s lessons, that I must first “relinquish my attachment to outcome.” This is a tall order to ask of a type-A personality, goal-setting, lifetime overachiever but it certainly helps me find balance in processing disappointment. Maybe the outcome intended by the universe was actually the personal growth and learning I would encounter throughout the journey with Athena.

In giving her the time she needs to heal, we have spent a lot of time together on the ground. During this time, it has been evident that Athena was existing primarily within the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for fight, flight, freeze, and survival. It was clear that she has experienced a lot of trauma and stress in her past. Being well versed in natural horsemanship, I applied every exercise I knew to help her find peace and relaxation with my consistently calming influence, as I have seen great results in so many horses from them, however I had never experienced a horse so anxious, explosive, and 24/7 adrenaline-driven… I realized that I needed to gather more tools for my toolbox.

I primarily practice a method of natural horsemanship called Harmony Horsemanship (developed by Lindsey Partridge) which is focused on creating a calm connection with your horse, rewarding effort with positive reinforcement, and being aware of their mental state to know what they need from me to help them find peace. Like people, animals cannot learn when they are nervous, anxious, and emotional. In a training session, the first evaluation would be to determine where your horse is on the energy scale of 1-10 (1 being super low energy and 10 being explosive, making 5 the ideal learning state) so that you could help them find their way to 5. When Athena would have episodes on the energy scale of 8-10 as a go-to response to the application of pressure, I dug for a deeper understanding of the effects of trauma on the nervous system and whether there was more that I could do to help her and other horses with similar baggage in the future.

In an oversimplification for brevity, the autonomic nervous system is divided between two states: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. (Reference the Poly-Vagal Theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges for greater understanding.) The sympathetic nervous system is your fight, flight, freeze and “survival mode.” The two innermost regions of the brain responsible for these responses are the brainstem and diencephalon. The parasympathetic nervous system is when there is true relaxation, resting, digesting, play, and learning can occur. The two outermost regions of the brain, being the limbic and neocortex are responsible for the ability to learn and socially engage.

Horses are hard-wired for survival, being an animal of prey. Their neocortex is not well-developed naturally unless cross-brain connections are intentionally created with rhythmic (patterned and predictable) sensory input. Whatever area of the brain is activated the most becomes “muscled up” and becomes their go-to response to sensory input. Therefore, when a human or animal exists in a survival state for either an extended period of time or resulting from a traumatic event, they can become “stuck” in that state as well as it becoming their future response to new stressors.

Becoming aware of what the visual symptoms are for each state in your horse gives you the knowledge and ability to identify that you are training within the parasympathetic state where true relaxation and learning can take place but also to help facilitate the switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous systems. A symptom of being in survival mode is “freeze” which can also look like submission and compliance through “learned helplessness.” It’s important to be able to identify visual symptoms of both states to determine whether the horse is truly relaxed and socially engaged throughout the learning/training process vs. simply being frozen which may look like compliance.

Athena (Courtesy of Mary Elena Moran)

A horse with a well-balanced nervous system has the ability to “self-regulate” when they encounter stress (e.g: plastic bag flying through the air in proximity to the horse) to then assess the threat where the outer regions of the brain override the lower region’s response, allowing the horse to find a calm and alert state without activating survival mode. For this “self-regulation” to take place, cross-brain connections which are healthy pathways sequentially developed from the inside out (beginning with the brainstem, moving to the midbrain/diencephalon, to the limbic system, and lastly to the neocortex) gives the horse the ability to become “unstuck” in the lower regions of the brain and “self-soothe” where they can bring themselves back to homeostasis. The gift of self-regulation can teach a horse to manage themselves when a human is not present to assist them and may prevent a horse from injury, illness, and stress.

Rehabilitation of the traumatized horse can look very similar to successful trauma-focused mental health practices in humans which is an intentional process of developing new pathways in the brain through rhythmic sensory input focused on developing the brain sequentially from the inside out. The neural pathways may start out very disorganized; however the brain is very capable of changing in a positive way (plasticity).

So given this understanding of the nervous system and how it affects the brain and the ability to learn, I am now looking at horse training through the trauma focused lens. I am focusing on building connection first, and the task/control secondary. Building a relationship with the horse where their voice is heard and it is safe for them to make choices has created a platform for the horse to feel safe and relaxed. I don’t want to be one more thing that a horse needs to be afraid of. I have found that if I focus on building a relationship while performing a task, the horse will stay relaxed and the “control” will be a side effect of this relationship. I am now more aware of my horse’s indications of stress (wrinkling of the nose and eyebrows, the cessation of blinking, zoning out) and then I let them know I am aware of their concern by pausing and then letting the pressure of the stimuli stay very consistent to give them an opportunity to develop a new pathway to the outer thinking levels of the brain without pushing them down into the lower regions.

I am also creating rhythm audibly and with touch to create regulation when the horse is in the lower regions of the brain/survival mode. I also utilize a method called “endotapping” to create a relaxation cue with the horse through tapping in rhythm on the horse’s body, which I learned from Charlotte Cannon. As humans, when we are anxious and worry, we are not being “present” as we are living in the future. This concept is not unique to humans as horses also exhibit the same challenges. I start a training session with making sure that I am present and regulated myself, and then I can bring the horse back into their own body utilizing touch and requests for engagement when they are mentally checking out/dissociating; if they are away from me at liberty, I may ask for movement and then connection or just catch their attention with a flag for a moment to bring their thoughts back into their own body and not have their mind outside of the training arena. (Where their mind is can usually be indicated by where their ears are pointing.)

This mindfulness, attunement, and awareness matters in everything that I do with the horse as I am always working on their connection to me and watching for signs of dissociation and stress even in basic tasks such as the haltering process. Every simple task may now take 30 minutes longer in order to complete the task if the focus is shifted to the horse being mentally present, relaxed, and connected to me. I spend a lot of relationship-building, unstructured time together such as hand grazing and grooming. When I focus on my own ability to be present and aware, my horse improves their own mindfulness. A simple explanation to that cause and effect is that in a herd environment, a horse feels safe because the other horses in the herd are present and aware, watching for threats. Therefore, being in a “herd of two” with my horse provides safety when I am mentally present.

This trauma-informed, connection-focused lens of horsemanship is growing and is not unique to my own discoveries. Studying “Natural Lifesmanship” which is Trauma Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (partnering people with horses in the therapeutic process) is where most of my new learning has taken place, and I suspect this amazing process for healing will revolutionize horse training as well as the mental health world over time. Warwick Schiller’s online resources have also been tremendously helpful in learning to apply my new mindset to horse training.

I am so appreciative for the learning opportunities that have facilitated my recent growth and understanding to better help horses heal just as I am truly thankful for horses like Athena as the unique challenges they embody present an opportunity to metamorphose as a horseman because what you do know just isn’t enough and you are too stubborn and dedicated to the journey to throw in the towel. If you are that type of horseman, hang in there: you will be rewarded.

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