It wasn’t until I started working with horses that had a lot of tension stored in their bodies that I realized other governing variables needed to be addressed.
Before treating horses with PTSD, I had to understand what PTSD was, what triggered its development, and where it may have originated; this was the first step in my research into this condition. Some fundamental studies done with people revealed that PTSD was caused by specific events in an individual’s life and that the brain’s workings were at the root of the problem. At this moment, I decided to compare the human brain to the horse’s brain to comprehend better how it would influence the horse. That comparison showed me how similar and different both of our minds are, and it was mind-blowing.
PTSD in Horses
First, I noticed that the horse’s brain is the size of a giant grapefruit, whereas the human brain fills the majority of skull space. The capacity of any species to work through a particular problem (their cognitive skills) is closely tied to the brain size of the body’s size, as was established later. The horse’s brain is 1/650th the size and weight of a human’s, but the human brain is close to 1/50th.
It was here that I found out why horses think and behave the way they do. The next obvious step was to examine the brain function of a horse. Horses must be “ready for life” from the minute they are born, which I’ve heard referred to as “ready for the ride.” Let’s begin there. That means that newborn foals are fully functional during the first hour of their lives if I interpret the statement correctly. As the foal develops and matures, the reptile component of the brain becomes a repository for extra knowledge. Controlling balance and improving eye and head movements are critical throughout this development period.
As it matures, the foal relies less and less on independent cognition and more and more on group reactions and judgments. Furthermore, if we know how the horse grows, it may be described as “sensory/feeling species” since it relies on its senses for survival. Reptile brain parts likewise control this stage.
At some point in their lives, humans begin to engage with horses. But to identify where there is the most friction between humans and horses, we must first return to our brains.
The “frontal lobe” of the brain, the most significant brain region and where we think, communicate, create, reason, arrange our lives, and sometimes multitask, makes us a “thinking species.” Humans’ and horses’ brains have evolved so vastly that this is the most striking distinction between their functioning and interactions. The outcome of any contact with horses is determined by how well we humans use the highly developed component of our brains.
Repetition and accompanying cues or signals create a specific response behavior in horses, which is how they learn. You have little control over the answer you get at this stage; one thing to remember is that most horses have little choice in where they reside.
Getting back to the primary point of this essay, we may conclude that horses who are difficult to manage are most likely suffering from some amount of post-traumatic stress disorder. Working consistently with the issue at hand becomes much simpler if you recognize that this is the reality you are dealing with.
Starting with the fact that horses’ “cognitive” abilities are far lower than ours and that they cannot absorb stressful events in the same way that we can, let’s have a look at how horses’ “cognitive” abilities stack up against ours. This was when I realized that horses have a hard time comprehending our human experiences, so they behave the way they do.
Adrenaline and Cortisol are two hormones released when a horse is in or witnesses a stressful circumstance. This causes the horse to become hyper-vigilant, suspicious, and unreachable. The situation has gone from stressful to terrifying. You and your horse’s lives can be ruined if you don’t deal with trauma promptly, and even if the origin of the trauma is unknown, it can still leave emotional scars. Even if you don’t know what caused the traumatic episode, this is true.
When emotional scars are treated in horses, they can improve muscle tone, which will aid in recovery from injury or muscle atrophy and reduce the pain spiral. This will also help in detoxification and lymphatic drainage by increasing the drainage of the body system, thereby reducing the need for painkillers. Serotonin and Dopamine, the two “feel good” chemicals, are released when working with horses with varying levels of PTSD in this fashion, which will then begin the process of rebalancing the horse and counteracting the effects of the previously increased levels of Adrenaline and Cortisol.