Fight or Flight: Working with the Sympathetic Nervous System
Updated: Jun 25
Tiara’s Treasure, my 4 year old OTTB, is a sensitive girl prone to episodes of "losing it." She has been described as "a handful," "fractious," and "needs a gentle touch and an experienced handler.” In western medical terms, she has a genetic condition known as Px2, PSSM (I'm still learning about this); it is prevalent in thoroughbreds, and in some ways makes them great for the job they're being bred to do. In horses with this condition, their sympathetic nervous system is often in a heightened state of arousal that reacts to the slightest stimulus: like a switch being flipped, the nervous system over-rides any rational thinking, making the horse run like a bat out of hell even to the point of irreparable injury to themselves. In Parelli language, this is a "Right Brained Extrovert," and the Parelli's have developed a lot of valuable awareness and tools to help horses like this become more balanced. In Cesar Milan's verbage, this horse represents "unstable energy;" his teachings, too, have been a big help as I navigate how to work with Tiara.
I absolutely adore this special girl. As I work with Tiara, she is teaching me so much, not only about horses but about my own needs and the needs of others as well. I, too, am very sensitive. I used to see this as a fault, something to be ashamed of, something to try to numb and overcome in order to fit in. But I've come to recognize it as a gift- one that needs to be honored and accommodated, one that allows me to feel, recognize, and respond to things that others miss. Like an autistic child, where too much sensory input sends them over the edge, people like me ~ and horses like Tiara ~ need special care to bring out our gifts. Maybe that's why I was drawn to her.
Tiara is the smartest, sharpest, quickest learner I have ever known. She thoroughly loves and craves interaction, always the first to “volunteer” when I go out to the herd. Eager to please, she also requires some immediate gratification for her efforts or she easily becomes discouraged. She similarly takes to heart the slightest reprimand, and loses her desire to try. I've found some things to be really helpful for Tiara, and I hope by sharing them they can help other horses too.
For starters, she learns best in small doses, with plenty of repetition and consistency, plenty of positive reinforcement, and plenty of space between training sessions. Initially I made the mistake of thinking that, as fast as she learns, she could handle lots of different learning in one session. I soon found that this is not the case. Her nervous system is sensitive, and too much information, too much "new," and she loses both her composure and the ability to retain anything learned. Less is definitely more.
Consistency in other aspects of her life is very helpful too- not so much to "avoid setting her off," but simply recognizing that it helps support her in being more balanced (see the earlier post on "Stability and Mobility" aka "Consistency and Variety"). Her tolerance for change is naturally increasing as she becomes more balanced and feels more secure, and she's better able now to handle inconsistencies without being stimulated into reactivity. In order to get there, though, we needed a lot of consistency in the beginning. Just like STABILITY and MOBILITY, change and consistency need to be in balance, and we each have different needs in that regard. When you can recognize and provide what your horse needs, they'll flourish. And a happy, balanced horse makes the most enjoyable partner.
I also taught her a simple task to do, something easy, which is part of our everyday routine: halter herself. Holding up the lead rope like a "bridge" I wait for her to put her head through. Once she grasped this, I had her do the same with the halter. She picked this up the first day I had her, and I reinforce it each time I want to take her anywhere (even when I could just as easily open a gate and let her get from one pasture to another herself, I find she does better with more structure, at least at this point.) This particular task both gives the horse something easy to do- which helps them access their "thinking brain" and regain confidence- AND by having them actively lower the poll below the withers, it starts to shift the nervous system from "fight/flight/freeze" mode (sympathetic dominant) to "relax/digest/heal/learn" mode (parasympathetic). The value of this simple task has been immense: when she would start to fly into frenzy mode, all I had to do was stand there calmly, holding up the rope- within a short time, she'd come over and put her head through, her brain shifting from reacting to actually thinking and being present....blinking, licking, lowering her head...ready now to interact. Now she has far fewer episodes of losing it and is quicker about coming out of them. She's becoming better at self-regulating, self-correcting. She has begun to recognize she has options of how to react when she feels triggered, and to pause and respond differently.
If only we humans were such quick studies! How often do we internally react when our buttons get pushed, buying into the story or drama, mentally spinning on and on, not recognizing our own capacity to self-regulate, self-correct...not recognizing we have a choice.
"If you can give a person something to do in a situation that feels out of control for them, you will help them- you will reduce their stress and pain."
~Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living
In the beginning when you are teaching anything, reward the horse profusely and make a big deal of them. When they associate a task with something positive, the sympathetic nervous system is subdued and the parasympathetic leads. As a task becomes an easy "no-brainer" for them and you graduate on to other things, you don't need to give a treat or make such a big deal, you and the horse just expect it as part of your relationship. Later as you train more difficult tasks, you can "go back to your foundation" with something simple and easy like this whenever you run into a sticky spot where you lose connection with your horse, or if they get upset while learning something new. Going back to something simple they already know will help restore their confidence, willingness, and ability to think clearly.