The Roadmap to PTSD in Horses
As I started to work with horses that had a large amount of stress that had been retained within their bodies I started to realize that there were other controlling factors that needed to be considered and addressed.
This is where the factor of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome) was first considered and researched; before I could start to help a horse that might be suffering from PTSD I had to understand what PTSD was, what caused it to occur and look at where it might have come from. Upon seeing some of the basic research that had been done with people I did realize that it was based within the workings of the brain and certain aspects or even a specific occurrence in an individual’s life opened the door to PTSD. It was at this point that in order to fully understand how it might affect the horse I felt that I needed to look to a comparison between the human brain and the brain of the horse. What I found in that comparison was quite amazing; what I learned showed me that both brains are just a similar as they are different.
Initially, I discovered that the brain of the horse has an average size similar to a large grapefruit; while the human brain occupies most of the space that is available within the human skull. The next point of interest that was discovered was that any species ability to think through any specific problem (their cognitive skills) is directly related to the ratio of the size of the brain to the size of the body that it is contained within. The human brain is close to 1/50th of the total body weight and size, where the brain of the horse is 1/650th of their body size and weight.
The next logical step was to look to how the brain of the horse functioned and it was here that I discovered how and why horses think and respond the way that they do. Let’s start at the very beginning when a horse is born that have to have to be equipped to survive from the moment they are born, I have heard this referred to as “ready for life”. What I understand that to mean is that new-born foals are up on their feet and totally operational within the first hour of their life. Consequently, at this point in their life, all of their actions are controlled by their “brain stem”, which is an integrated part of their “reptilian” part of their brain. This becomes very important since it is the reptilian part of the brain that becomes the storehouse for additional information as the foal grows and progresses. It is during this time of development that the main areas of importance are the aspects of controlling balance along with developing better use of both eye and head movements.
As the foal continues to grow and develop it becomes much more reliant upon instinctual reactions and group decisions; rather than their own individual thought. This stage of development is also controlled through the reptilian part of the brain, understanding how the horse’s growth pattern develops it is then able to be classified as a “sensory/feeling species” since it is the reliance upon the senses that ensures their survival.
At some point in the horse’s life, a human starts to interact with them, but before we get too far along we need to refer back to the human brain so that we can see the area of greatest conflict between the two species.
The human species is classified as a “thinking species” since we tend to use the “frontal lobe” section of our brain; this is the largest part of the brain and is the area of the brain that allows us to speak, create, reason, organize our lives, and in some cases multitask. This portion of the human brain has become so much more well-developed and larger in size than the horse’s brain that it becomes the most notable difference in the way that each of the two species function and interact. It is how well we, as humans, use our highly developed portion of our brain when working with and around horses that determine the outcome of each and every interaction.
The method that a horse learns is the use of repetition as well as associated cues or signals creating a specific response behavior. The response that is received is totally dependent upon your own action, at this point; one important fact is that most horses have very little choice as to the environment that they live in.
Getting back to the main focus of this article will bring us to the realization that in order to understand that horses, in general, who are somewhat difficult to handle is most likely suffering from some level of PTSD. Once that you start to realize that you are working with that fact it then becomes much easier to work consistently with the problem at hand.
Let’s start by once again looking back at the level of “cognitive” skills of the horse and how horses’ is much less than our own, and since they are less we need to understand that there is no horse that can be able to process stressful situations in the same way that we do. This is where I personally started to realize that it is extremely difficult for horses to be able to wrap their minds around our human experiences; this is the main reason that horses do not do change very easily and this is the main reason why they react the way they do. While researching the cognitive skills of the horse I began to understand that since horses are constantly aware of their surroundings as well as what is going on around them is what creates much of the stress that is retained within the body of the horse.
PTSD comes from either being in or witnessing a stressful situation which then starts the release of two hormones (Adrenaline and Cortisol) that initiate an unbalanced condition that forces the horse to be in a constant state of hyper-vigilant, distrustful, and to many unreachable. It is at this point that the initial situation goes from being a stressful situation to a traumatic situation. Unprocessed trauma no matter what created it or even when or how created has a very strong possibility of leaving emotional scars; even when the cause of the traumatic incident cannot be realized it has a tendency to run deep and in the process, it can cause havoc in both yours and your horse’s life.
Emotional scars can be treated in horses and are being accomplished on a regular basis by releasing traumatical muscles which will improve muscle tone which will then encourage recovery from injury or muscle atrophy which will then reduce the pain spiral and then assist in detoxification as well as aid in lymphatic drainage by increasing drainage of the body system. Working with horses suffering from various levels of PTSD in this manner will start the release of the two “feel good” hormones (Serotonin and Dopamine) which will then start the process of steering the horse back to a more balanced state and counteract the effect created by the traumatic situation created by the previously elevated levels of Adrenaline and Cortisol.
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