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ask Holistic Horse
wild horses being chase by a helicoptor
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Over the years I have worked with hundreds of traumatized horses, most of whom have suffered so much emotional and mental trauma they are left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a hormonal reaction to a traumatic event that lasts longer than 30 days. The amount of stress endured during the traumatic event affects the release of certain hormones that are responsible for creating the "flight or fight" response to stress.
Both medical studies and research show that an area deep within the brain becomes damaged during traumatic events. The hippocampus, a horseshoe-shaped structure, is part of the limbic centre and is involved in several bodily functions including storing and retrieval of new memories and emotional responses. During a traumatic event, both Adrenaline and Cortisol are released into the body to prepare us for fight or flight. They are necessary for our survival. However, if these hormones remain in high concentration over an extended period, they become toxic to the hippocampus, damaging and destroying cells, proven in MRI-brain scans. Researchers have found that people with chronic PTSD have smaller hippocampus areas.
When horses have endured a very traumatic experience and are exposed to chronic stress, their normal feedback system (healthy release of adrenaline, chemicals) breaks down, just as ours does, leading them to experience PTSD. Horses suffering from PTSD have endured so much stress and constant adrenaline, they remain in a chemically-induced state of self-preservation where both Adrenaline and Cortisol are released in large amounts. This is damaging on a chemical and emotional level. Neurologically the horse continues to release hormones that “trigger” them into constant fight and flight. This leaves them emotionally unbalanced as they cannot differentiate between what’s really happening and what has triggered a memory. When this occurs, the horse becomes hyper-vigilant, distrustful, unreachable.
It has also been proven through medical studies and research that we can counteract the effects of Adrenalin and Cortisol thus give the Hippocampus a chance to heal. This can be achieved through the production and release of both Serotonin and Dopamine – the “feel good” hormones. This is where my work with horses has expanded and continues to evolve. I have found that through somatic exercises we can produce experiences that trigger these “feel good” hormones, thus begin the re-patterning, restoration and healing process.
To this day, my black QH gelding Smokey has proven to be the toughest rehabilitation. That’s because he continues to suffer with PTSD. While his reactions are not dangerous, not a day goes by that he is not triggered on some level.
My method of healing and restoration - the practice of involving engagement on a mental, emotional, cellular and energetic level, provides horses like Smokey a healing space where they can feel safe enough to connect, tune in and trust again. An example of this process at work is when Smokey shows signs of flight. It will appear in his eyes first, then his body. When I catch him thinking (reading his eyes) about taking flight, I can call to him, bring him close enough to apply my grounding method. This is where I tune him into my 1st and 2nd chakra energies and help him release Serotonin and Dopamine, the “feel good” hormones.
This practice is a mindful (conscious) approach to embodiment and begins with me. Both mind and body become aligned, one, thus centering and engaging, connecting, to powerful and positive energies within. If Smokey is tuned in, trusting and connected to me, he will “feel” this from me. He will also seek this out as it provides emotional safety and emotional comfort – the highest hierarchy of needs for a horse. It is also my way of proving to him that I am worthy enough to be his leader in moments of fear and uncertainty.
Learn more about Caroline Rider’s training and healing methods, Rider Horsemanship & Tao of Horsemanship, at www.riderhorsemanship.com