Anxiety, Insecurity, Panic,
Refusal, Fear, Stress, Reactive Mind
I'm sure we could all think of more along that line, but those are a pretty decent list of completely UNWANTED responses in our horses...and ourselves. It actually causes me a little pain in my neck just reading them.
After my ride yesterday, I sat with my husband, at home, and processed my thoughts with him.
Me: So, Cowboy has always hated going into water, right? And, we came up to Fishtrap Lake during our ride. And a couple of the other horses went in and started splashing around. And, usually I'd pressure him in to going in, too, right? But today I stood back and let him watch the other horses and waited for him to show interest, relaxation, and curiosity and, sure enough, he did. He really enjoyed watching them. After a little bit, he wanted to get closer and stepped closer on his own.
Husband: Did he go into the water?
Me: No, but he went up voluntarily, about 2 feet away, and showed no signs of panic. So, I got off and walked down to the water myself and he followed me, very relaxed, and we just stood there as I petted him and praised him for being so calm.
(Photo: Me standing by the water at Fish Lake, petting Cowboy.)
Husband: That's perfect. You want him to have new, positive experiences in situations that he usually fears. [Picks up his book to read.]
(Photo: Cowboy looking at Fish Lake after we left it.)
Me: [Not satisfied to stop there.] Because, usually, I'd make him go to the water, but it's always unpleasant and his heart is pounding and it's a fight. But then, when he gets in, he sees it's okay and eventually relaxes. But today I told Cowboy, I know it's crazy to talk to your horse, but I told Cowboy that the ride was about him...and me...and building trust.
Husband: Yep. [Thinks to himself, as eyes glaze over, "Oh no, she's starting to talk about talking to her horses. I really need to read my book."]
Me: [Realizing I sound like a parent who might come to our clinic to get help for their anxious child, or themselves, I finally see the correlation. Maybe, just maybe, there's something to learn from human anxiety and its treatment that could be applied to horse anxiety and its treatment. And, sitting across from me is my husband, a psychiatrist, who specializes in helping people past their anxieties.] Do you think horse anxieties are like people's?
Husband: I don't know.
Me: Can you explain what happens in a human panic attack?
Husband: Sure. [Seems to be eager to talk about one of his favorite topics.] There are cells, deep inside the brain that release norepinephrine, it's adrenaline, and that is released throughout the brain and affects all the major structures of the brain such as the cortex, which is where thinking goes on, so people have scary thoughts. It affects the hypothalamus, which is what controls heartbeat, breathing and, of course, those go up in a panic attack. And then, norepinephrine stimulates nerves that go to the peripheral nervous system, which creates the shaking, sweating, and all those sorts of things, as well as the gut which can go into spasms and become part of it. That can go on from anywhere between ten minutes to two hours, and then, those people experiencing a panic attack will be drained, but it will replenish itself in a few hours.
The interesting thing is, while panic attacks usually start in some kind of situation of fear and anxiety, after a while, the thing that's really painful is that people fear having a panic attack itself--they fear the feeling of anxiety, and then they can become housebound.
Me: How do you stop a panic attack once it's started?
Husband: You have to start with a top down approach, so you go to the thinking part of the brain and start to rethink what's going on, re-frame what's going on, learn new ways to relax, learn to control at least one physiological parameter, because in a panic attack physiology is out of control. This tells the brain, I might be partly out of control, but I'm not totally out of control. And, eventually, you have to begin to expose yourself to feared situations, in small doses, so you can begin to re-experience them as more pleasurable now.
Me: So, for instance with Cowboy, panicking about water or anything else, how would that apply if they're already at the feared object?
Husband: If they're already there, try to get them to relax without having them go further. Don't let them run away. For humans, you have to get them to recapture some bodily function that they can control. Eventually, you want them to experience the feared situation as a pleasurable situation.
I'll stop here because I haven't formulated a post about what this means for horses from my own, personal observations working with them. My husband did add that when a person (or horse) is panicked or in flight mode, you cannot accomplish anything positive. It's over. The work always has to be done in small doses, and small accomplishments, that build on each other.
As always, I welcome your thoughts about the correlation between human and horse panic attacks. Thanks!
(Photo: The falls at Hog Lake, our destination on yesterday's ride.)