Relationships with Horses: The Impact on the Human Brain
Presentation by Dr. Brenda E. Abbey

Being in the prey category, the horse’s intuitive nature has evolved as a mere function of survival; it is constantly attuned to its surroundings and the subtle communication within the herd as a response to perceived threat and an ever-changing environment. In this way, horses have been observed to have acute communication skills within their social structures and highly adaptive behavioural responses. The horse has the ability to respond intuitively to human behaviour which results in immediate feedback from the animal. It is this response ability of the horse that creates opportunities for an Equine Assisted Learning participant to react both cognitively and behaviourally in relation to the cues from the horse. By their intuitive nature and innate sensitivity, a therapy horse can provide a window to the participant’s personality through the horse’s capacity to “mirror” non- verbal communication, and guide the participant through awareness and potential personal change.

Horses have been identified as nonjudgmental, and as Reichert (1998,p.177) indicates, by possessing this characteristic the horse may be a useful medium in relation to enhancing a “ sense of self- esteem and promoting the expression of feelings” .Another study by Roth et. al. (2005, p. 375) notes that the interaction with a horse can assist a young person in exploring” feelings, powers of intuition and energy, understandings of self, nature, relationships and communication”.

This information has the power to inform our practice of intervention and the literature supports that opportunities to interact with animals provide a starting point to explore and develop trust and a relationship with another living creature. McNichlas and Collis (2006,p.69) suggest that “social signals from animals are less complex than from humans and the reduced processing load may permit a greater degree of social understanding and interaction than would be otherwise possible”. Specific to the horse, Graham (2007, p.48) writes that “trusting relationships are demonstrated in various interventions that require specific interactions between the horse and the participant such as brushing or caring for the horse.” Other equine-assisted interventions have demonstrated an increase in trust / unconditional love and acceptance among participants (Iannone, 2003; Johnson, 2001).

Tian Dayton writes that “All emotional learning is held in our bodies, recorded on our vast, interrelated neural networks…The brain and the body are exquisitely intertwined systems that are constantly interacting with the environment. All five senses are connected to this system and field information that determines our unique response to anything. ..In fact, the more senses involved in an experience, the more the brain remembers it, the deeper the imprint onto our emotional systems”.

“When experiential memories are wonderful, our neural system carries with it our emotional sense memories.” Dr. Thomas Lewis MD explains, “ changing the matrix of early emotional experiences which have knit long lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural networks calls for a DIFFERENT kind of medicine altogether” Relationships with horses provide this different kind of medicine !!

According to Dr. Bruce Perry, world renowned psychiatrist and neurologist, relationships and a relationally rich environment are a necessary part of healing from Trauma since humans are neuro-biologically designed to be in relationships. From Dr. Bruce Perry’s research, we know that the brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion and that all parts of the brain throughout almost all ages of life can change, given the right opportunities and experiences. During development, the brain organizes itself from the bottom up, from the least (brainstem) to the most complex (limbic, cortical) areas. In my work as an educator and child psychologist, I also know that relationships matter. Since much of the brain develops prenatally and early in life, the way we are parented has a dramatic influence on the sequential brain development. Dr. Perry reminds us that an infant’s early attachment to a small number of consistent caregivers is critical for healthy brain development. During responsive parenting, the interconnection of pleasure and human interactions is the important neurobiological “glue” that bonds and creates healthy relationships. Attachment is the memory template for the human to human bond and is profoundly influenced by whether the child experienced kind, attuned parenting or whether they received inconsistent, disrupted, abusive or neglectful care.

Dr. Bruce Perry interprets that these great biological gifts are also biological liabilities for children who have experienced abuse or neglect early in their lives. As the brain is developing from the bottom to the top, the process is influenced by neurochemical transmissions. These form “Super Highways” which are crucial sets of widely distributed neural networks that originate in the brainstem and diencephalon and project to every other part of the developing brain. Due to their wide distribution throughout the brain, impairments can result in organization and functioning of these systems. The organization of higher parts of the brain depends upon input from the lower parts of the brain. In normal childhood development, the patterns of incoming neural activity is regulated and the higher areas of the brain will organize in healthier ways. Youth, who have experienced prenatal exposure to drugs / alcohol or early childhood emotional neglect/trauma, will have dysregulated patterns and the higher areas of their brain will organize to reflect these abnormal patterns. Any efforts to change the systems in the brain must provide the child with experiences that create repetitive activation in the neural systems that mediate the function or dysfunction that is the target of the therapy.

With this in mind, there is a problem with the conventional mental health approach since many clinical interventions often provide experiences that target higher level regions of the brain. Many of the trauma victim’s problems are related to disorganized or poorly regulated networks originating lower in the brain.

One recurring observation about resilience and coping with trauma is the healing power of healthy relationships, needing to win their hearts, before opening their minds. This powerful positive effect of healthy relational interactions for the individual is at the core of relationally based protective mechanisms that help us thrive and survive following trauma and loss. This capacity to benefit from relational interactions is in turn derived from our individual developmental experiences.

Dr. Thomas Lewis documents, “the limbic system is associated with our emotions and the neocortex is associated with critical thinking. Both are operative in processing emotions. While the neocortex can collect facts quickly, the limbic system does not. Physical mechanisms are what produce our experience of the world and we need NEW sets of physical impressions to change or alter those impressions. Our neural systems respond to reparative relationships… Healing requires time and experiencing new relationships, in which new neural patterning is inscribed, helps reregulate neural systems”.

In the farm setting, repetitive physical movements like grooming and brushing the horse, sweeping the barn floor, brisk walking will release dopamine .and serotonin {nature’s tranquilizers} into the youth’s system, restoring CALM and an overall sense of well-being The brain changes in response to experience, the brain shapes itself after these patterned repetitive experiences in connection with the farm setting and the horses. We would be reweaving a social fabric with attachment to the horse, attachment is associated with Vasopressin and Oxytocin.

Experiential Equine – Assisted Learning sessions cultivate a context and a culture of connection. There are many ways in which working with horses helps us create, nurture and maintain the CONTEXT of the RELATIONSHIP { client- horse , facilitator – horse , client –facilitator} Initially this context may be between the client and the horse and the client may come to the experiential learning sessions solely because of their connection with the horse. Over time the goal is to transfer this to a relationship with a counsellor to give a context within which to work with the child/client. Ultimately the aim is to transfer this to the KEY caregiving adults in the client’s life- to give them a context to care- take within.

By understanding the different levels at which we “attach” we can collect a client through the horses- at the level of attachment appropriate to them. This work aims to explore the developmental processes of EMERGENCE, ADAPTATION, and INTEGRATION. Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work helps us understand that when attachments have not been secure or deep enough, when sensitivity is very high, and / or when losses and vulnerable feelings have become overwhelming, these developmental processes can become rigid.

True Independence cannot be taught. It grows naturally from the inside, out of safe dependence and attachment. We nurture and respect dependence to allow true independence to take root. Horses address these issues in their herds and they help us see things differently. The horses remind us how being in charge means to take care of and not to exploit. Seeing how the client relates to the horse, for example their understanding and use of power, can help us better understand what is happening in their lives.

Incorporating horses to assist in healing is an historical approach that has been used by Native North American people, as well as in agricultural societies. Recently Obama allocated significant funds to use Equine – assisted Therapy for war veterans’ rehabilitation. Research continues to validate the efficacy of horses in therapy. In the mid 1990’s a program involving prison inmates and rescued retired thoroughbred racehorse demonstrated the power of the relationship and connection between the inmate and the horse he was in charge of caring for.

Just like humans, horses experience a large variety of emotions, are intuitive and social animals with distinct personalities, attitudes and moods. They have different roles within the herds comparable to human dynamics. Horses have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language is telling them, therefore I believe horses are able to help a participant develop self – awareness and SELF REGULATION.

Interactions and relationships give the participant opportunities to observe the horse’s reactions and body language. This helps them interpret the world from the horse’s point of view, promoting empathy and perspective–taking.