“Look, but Don’t Stare!” Lessons from the Past Self.

It is something I find myself saying a lot lately.

‘LOOK!  But do not stare!”

The difference is huge.  The difference rests somewhere the the realms of fixation, stress pathologies and pain addiction.

Horses strongly oppose pain.  Pain comes in many forms, from the obvious kinds like physical injuries and the invisible kinds such as mental and emotional pain.  Some people even go so far to say that you can have spiritual pain, that is a place I do not think all my readers are ready to go to yet!

I was with a lady and her horse the other day.  At the appointment was a friend and colleague, another trainer in this area of Spain and we are working together to help this lady and her horse.

Her horse is a typical case of neglect and abuse seen here in Spain.  He had a very rough go in his life until one year ago when he was bought by this lady, a loving, caring and compassion British expat.  She is new to horses and set about carefully learning what she needed to know to provide a life for this horse that keeps him happy and healthy, as well as learning the ropes of riding.  Her aspirations are to enjoy the Spanish Campo (countryside) together and that is all.  Absolutely appropriate for a horse with such a background to aspire for a future of gentle and peaceful exploration.  Other horses should be so lucky!

I was invited by my friend to attend the meeting because we suspected that this horse and owner team would benefit from a combined approach of two like-minded yet unique trainers.  I was very happy to attend, what a wonderful situation of collaboration!

I listened to the story of this horse and ticked all the boxes;
– History of abuse
– History of neglect
-Was easy to work with in the beginning
-Recent situations caused the horse to spook and bolt ending in an accident
-Recent turn of events have created ongoing issues, seemingly too big to deal with alone.

It all corresponded with a past blog I wrote, an idea I have long held in my mind.  Traumatised horses, once you peel back the layers of abuse, often have underlying emotional problems residing in them.  It can be confusing and bewildering to an owner to watch their beloved companion go from Sweet and Calm Rescue to Rampaging Spook Machine, seemingly in a matter of months!

I am here to say that this is normal!  This is also healthy!  It is a matter of the horse slowly performing an ‘Exorcism’ upon their memories.  Think of all the times in their life when they were terrified, but their abuser forbid them to act upon it, they can now act upon it.    All the times in their life when the horse felt too much uncontrolled energy or emotion, and was met with only containment at the device of mechanical pain of a harsh bit, tie down, strong kick or vicious pull, that horse is now allowed to feel that energy and emotion fully.  It is the ‘unbreaking’ process.  Putting the horse back together.  The healing.  The healing can often be ugly to look at, comparable to crying or hysteria in humans.

It makes sense that when a traumatised horse finds a softer place to live, with an owner who will not trap, contain or shut them down, that they totally regress and finally act upon all those trapped instincts.  It can be like a Pandora’s box.  Once you open it, a whole host of emotions and behaviours can explode out!  It can take days, weeks, months or even years for this ‘box of stored trauma’ to empty itself.  I have seen it happen with my own horse and with others.  The length of time it takes to pass its course depends entirely upon how deep are the wounds upon this animal, the skill of their handler in navigating this confusing minefield of trauma pathology and the individual character of the horse.

It makes sense because this is a healing mechanism I have put myself through many times.  Like a lot of horse people, I have a past which is not always a happy story to say the least.  When I finally began to discover that I was unaware of these past hurts, and how they were influencing my life day to day in a negative way, I began a vast research in emotional pain pathology and healing mechanisms.  I have found that the same general rules seem to apply to all mammals.  So when I look at a horse who is going through something tough, I can empathise with them.  I know innately the way they FEEL.  Because in the end it is a feeling, not a thought.  An emotional experience is not intellectual, it is quite physical.

Once you pass through this fire, the other side is an amazing place.  Healing!  I don’t want to be all butterflies or rainbows on you, but truly, I PROMISE you that the other side of this ‘Emotional Exorcism of Trauma’ is wonderful.  There is trust.  There is safety for both sides.  There is an understanding and a love between the human and their horse because that horse knows who is responsible for their healing.

Ahh!  Maybe I just lost a few people!  You would be surprised how many horse people absolutely refuse to partake in such ‘wooly’ discussions of ‘magic and emotion’.  For me there is nothing magic, mysterious or intangible about this stuff.  This is basic emotional law.  Look at the work of Dr. Panksepp on Mammalian Brain Emotional Theory.  All the science is there.  It is very concrete, recognised in the scientific community and what is more we can WORK with this science in Horsemanship!  Throw it dismissively out the window as ‘Post-Modern Horsemanship mumbo-jumbo’ at your own risk.  Leave your prejudice aside and you may be surprised what the horse can show you.

Humans however are slightly different!  We have the Emotional Mammalian brain, that we share in great similarities with all mammals.  But in recent Millenia we also grew a pre-frontal cortex.  This pre-frontal cortex or ‘complex modern brain’ that I colloquially refer to likes to make plans, perform assessments, and analyse.  This part of the brain is also associated with reward based learning and behaviour inhibition.  Check these scholarly articles:


Plain talk:  humans can get addicted to feeling bad!  Just like a drug, if you go too long without that addicted high, you start tapping your arm searching for a vein and looking for a conspirator, a dealer to help you get that high.  You tell the sad story again, someone else frowns and nods, hugs and consoles, and there you go, there is the comfort you were missing.  But it lasts only a moment.  Unaware to you, the same person who empathises with you also labels you as ‘damaged’.  There can be an unspoken detachment prevalent in most forms of empathy.  Some may not agree with me.  I speak only of my experiences in human behaviour after living in several countries, working in multicultural communities for over ten years.  The same person who empathises with you, if not a trained professional, may also be thinking  ‘Gee I am glad I do not have this problem’.  If someone empathises with you, and offers you a potential solution to consider- this is different.  This may be altruism.  Someone is trying to pull you up, to heal you.  If you are someone who is absolutely not prepared to let go of your negative energy, that would feel patronising, not altruistic.  For this reason, I am very careful when listening to people telling their historical pain stories.  I prefer to redirect them to the present moment, and maybe to the future, or if not- say almost nothing at all and just listen.

People get addicted to feeling bad.  Just stop and think.  Do you know of anybody that seems to enjoy complaining, and does it with you regularly?  Can you think of anyone who constantly talks about abuse that happened to them in childhood and perhaps uses it as an excuse for less than excellent behaviour and choices today?  Can you think of anyone who seems to enjoy repeating the same sad story over and over again?

I can think of horse owners who’s horses bolted with them maybe 5 or 6 years ago and they allow that memory to hold them back from certain activities today.  This is a red flag for me.  I understand if something awful happened with your horse 1-3 months ago and it still makes you worried.  But several months or many years ago?  You cannot hold a horse ransom to the behaviour they displayed years ago.  The same you cannot hold a human ransom to behaviour they displayed years ago particularly if they have shown you a clearly defined progression beyond that behaviour today!  There must be allowance for forgiveness.  Ride the horse you have today is a phrase I often repeat to myself.  I allow the horse to surprise me, for better or worse, and try not to label it a concrete way of being.  Whatever shows up in the horse might be there for a moment, for a season or for a reason and I am just glad the horse is contributing to the conversation! It is a miracle that they communicate with us!

Yes, just like horses, a traumatised person is equally in need of a healing.  The difference in healing between the horse and the human is this;

HORSE:  I am traumatised, here- this is my story!
TRAINER/COACH:  Thank you for showing me.  Here, let me release that feeling for you.  You don’t have to keep it any more. 
HORSE:  Wow.  Thanks. I am glad I let that go.  I feel better now.  What is next?

HUMAN:  I am traumatised, here- this is my story!
COACH/THERAPIST:  Thank you for showing me.  Here, let me release that feeling for you.  You don’t have to keep it any more. 
HUMAN:  Wow.  No thanks.  I would rather hold onto it.  I need the attention I get, when I tell this story, how will people know I exist if I don’t?  I don’t know how to feel good.  So I will stay with feeling bad because it feels familiar and I seem to get attention (reward) and comfort (reward) when I tell my traumatised story.  If I stop telling and repeating my story, where will I get my attention (reward) and comfort (reward) from? 

Of course, these above examples are HIGHLY simplified and of course individual variances occur.  You get the occasional horse that takes longer to let go of a trauma mechanism, and then you get the occasional human that lets go of a sad memory pretty quickly and easily.

But the example is clear enough.

Look at your past.
But be careful not to STARE at it!

If you start to stare, you enter into fixation.  Fixation is looking for the payback, positive or negative.

If you see a horse get ‘locked’ onto a scary stimulus, be very careful.  They are emotionally ramping up and building.  It can be insidious because usually a horse who is ‘locked on’ has been traumatised in their past, or been hardwired through their character and lifestyle to lock on, freeze and build.  This building can result in explosive and often highly dangerous behaviour.  Such an issue is not fixed through trying to train the behaviour.  The issue is fixed by stopping the behaviour from existing through carefully practised emotional management Horsemanship techniques.

These techniques are surprisingly simple and straight forwards.  Sort of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she learned that she had the tools she needed to go home the whole time, the Ruby Slippers.   Often the tools you need to get the thing you most desire have been with you the whole time.  You just needed the right person to tell you about it, at the right time. 

Once you recognise the problem, you can stop staring and start LOOKING and then actually SEEING!

Once you see the problem, it is easy to let it go.

Can you let go of your past easily?  Or is this something you need guidance with?

If you need guidance with your past with horses, if you want to stop telling that obsessive story over and over again, to move on with a safer and calmer Horse Life, write to me.  I can help you!

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