Close Encounters with the Amygdala

I live in a rural town and don’t travel much. But last month, I found myself driving my truck camper through St. Louis.

In heavy traffic.

In heavy rain.

In darkness.

I grew disoriented and nervous. My heart rate increased. My hands gripped the wheel tightly. I missed an exit. I needed to turn off the music to focus.

Eventually, I pulled over, checked out the directions, took a breath, and got back on the road. In another 30 miles, the skies, the traffic, and my head were all clear.

What happened? And what does it have to do with horses?

Despite our mammoth differences, horses and humans share some similarities in the basic development and composition of our nervous systems.

We both have autonomic nervous systems (ANS), the largely involuntary regulators of our organs, muscles, glands, etc. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the chief elements of ANS.

Read more about the ANS here.

Horses AND humans have amygdalae

The sympathetic nervous system is engaged in fight-or-flight situations, like scary driving or road rage moments.

“Our human brains can both help and hinder our reactions. We can create untold worry and anxiety by creating catastrophic stories in our head,” said Dr. Steve Peters.

On the flip side, he added: “Our ability to think and use education and knowledge about the biochemistry of anxiety and the role of the mind-body connection increases our ability to apply coping strategies. This has a direct influence in stopping reactions caused by lower brain areas.”

In other words, I used my awareness (frontal lobe engagement) as well as my past experience as a driver to get a handle on the situation and not panic.

Horses have scary driving moments, too, but with no big frontal lobe they will necessarily react differently.

Take, for instance, a trip to an arena. The scene is full of scary possibilities:

Unfamiliar and potentially confining grounds.

New horses.

Loudspeakers.

High-flying flags.

Strange smells.

Many horses, especially those new to the experience, will respond by engaging their sympathetic nervous system. Their heart rate and breathing will increase. They will hold their head high. They will want to move, move, move. (Or, if they are like my mule, Jolene, they may freeze stiffly.)

“Evolutionarily, the horse works most efficiently by a ‘false positive system,’ said Peters. “Everything is a potential predatory threat until proven otherwise. Thinking would actually detract from the speed and efficiency of this built-in survival mechanism.”

We can help our horses with a new arena experience by:

letting them move

letting them graze

letting them look around

letting them smell.

If we rush them, pressure them, or deny them movement, we will likely make them more anxious.

“Lacking the cognitive brainpower associated with a highly developed frontal lobe, the horse has to undergo exposure therapy,” said Peters. “When they are exposed to the fearful stimuli and discover no harm comes to them, or when they can experience a new situation without becoming overwhelmed, our chances for progress and positive outcomes are high. It is important that the outcome is perceived as good by the horse. It may take a large number of these positive outcomes to rewire the horse’s response, from a fearful one to a calmer one.”

I managed in St. Louis because I’d been in that situation before and I got my head around it. I got nervous, but I handled it. I noticed that just as horses do, when my senses were compromised, I got more antsy.

As riders and owners, we can observe as our horses toggle back and forth between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It’s up to us to give the horse good experiences and teach it how to manage.

Learning to Embrace Discomfort

Randy Rieman

“Your circle of comfort and your horse’s circle of comfort – they must constantly expand, otherwise they will shrink.”

That’s what horseman Randy Rieman once told me. I’d thought I could hang out in comfort, where my horse and I would coexist blissfully and enjoy a lifetime of happy riding.  Turns out, it ain’t so. Turns out, we must experience some discomfort in order to appreciate comfort.

What is comfort?

  • Comfort is a place, a situation, a feel where nothing bad ever happens.
  • Comfort can be a protected environment or a state of mind.

We can all be guilty of keeping our horses in that perpetual comfort circle, where nothing is allowed to rile them. But from a neurological perspective, experiencing discomfort may reap far more benefits than rutting oneself in comfort.

Comfort has its neurological home in the autonomic nervous system. Read more. This brain feature is responsible for parasympathetic (“rest & digest”) and sympathetic (“fight or flight”) responses as well as homeostasis, the system’s ability to maintain internal stability. That’s the closest scientific term for what we call comfort. If you think of homeostasis in terms of temperature, it’d be that office-friendly, 70 degrees.

The hypothalamus, part of the brain located under the thalamus in all mammals, is the modulator or thermostat for homeostasis.

In the Evidence Based Horsemanship diagram (at right), co-authors Dr. Steve Peters and Black describe the ideal learning environment as one that takes the horse to a state just outside its comfort range.

Evidence-Based Horsemanship diagram
Evidence-Based Horsemanship diagram

It’s a place where:

  •  the horse feels curious and a bit concerned
  • the horse’s ears and eyes will be alert; its head will be above its withers

Ideally, when that moment of learning (and discomfort) is over, the horse will automatically return to its homeostasis and there will be a rush of dopamine (one of the brain’s feel-good neurochemicals). It’s the rainbow after the storm. Read about trailer-loading and dopamine.

Oh, what a feeling!

Horses, like all mammals, crave dopamine. But they don’t get it without feeling stressed first.

“If you never get a horse out of his comfort zone, he’s never going to seek comfort. I help riders learn how to find that dopamine release with their horses,” said Black.

Turns out our homeostasis range or comfort zone can expand or shrink depending on our exposure to different situations and settings and how we manage there.

“Sometimes, with your riding, you have to show your horses that they can live through panicky situations,” added Dr. Peters. “They won’t be reliable unless you put them in those situations and offer them a chance to find comfort or a way back to homeostasis on their own. They will grow and learn when exposed to more situations outside their comfort. But the range of their homeostasis will be very small, if we insist on keeping them there.”

What about Rider Fear?

It’s up to us humans to overcome whatever issues we have with our own comfort and discomfort, in order to do what’s best for our horses.

In the opening clip of 7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman, the Ray Hunt protégé says:

buck_brannaman4
Buck Brannaman

“Fear is a big thing that just owns some people. It can be overwhelming,” he said.

Brannaman implores his students to work with their horses at full speed and to learn how to use flexion and the one-rein stop. Read more about bolting and rider fear here.

“You do need to get a horse to where you can open him up and go. A horse is pretty incomplete if you can’t just open him up and not have him lose his mind. I like to practice dialing him up and dialing him back down.”

Or as the Italian poet, Dante, said some 700 years ago, “We must overact in some measure, in order to produce any effect at all.”