While there is somewhat of a language barrier between you and your horse, we can understand their inner thoughts a little better by applying the Polyvagal Theory. We are all familiar with the survival strategies of Fight, Flight, and Freeze. I have written about these stress responses both about stress in horses and stress and anxiety in riders, and why understanding these automatic stress responses helps us perform better, as well as helping us train our horses more effectively.
Briefly, horses and humans both have a nervous system that is wired so that if we are stressed, we can automatically, instinctively and virtually instantly fine-tune our physiology so we can respond efficiently to stress. The Sympathetic Nervous System is like an accelerator that helps us fight or flee. It causes adrenaline to surge through our veins resulting in an increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tone all to heighten our chances of survival.
We know that the horse, as a prey animal, will generally prefer to run away from things that frighten it. They are a flight animal, and their main defence is to put as much distance between them and the threat. A horse in an unfamiliar environment is likely to be vigilant and easily startled. We have all experienced the Sympathetic Nervous System’s effects when we have a near-miss accident and feel the palpitations of our strongly beating hearts. Reversely, the Parasympathetic Nervous system is like a brake that slows our heart and breathing after a fright is over, or if the stress is the sort that you can’t get away from. A horse may freeze in response to fright but will often quickly try to run away. However, an abused horse that has learned helplessness in the face of pressure that they can’t escape from will not work with pleasure.
From the point of view of evolution, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is the oldest and most primitive stress response. The Sympathetic Nervous System evolved much later. So there is a hierarchy of stress responses, like a ladder, from the oldest Parasympathetic “Freeze” response to the adrenalin-based Sympathetic “Fight” and “Flight”, then through to the other most recently developed stress response which we call “Cry for Help” or “Connect”. The “Connect” response is also mediated through the Parasympathetic Nervous System but through a much evolutionarily younger branch. Just as technology has improved efficiency and effectiveness as it has evolved, so does our nervous system. The primitive “freeze” response is lifesaving if you are a mouse hiding from an eagle or saving yourself from a cat. But it’s a bit limited as you can’t make any other response than feigning death in that state. Unlike when playing possum, there are a few more options when the adrenalin accelerator is switched on.
“Connect” is a much more flexible and versatile reaction to stress offering many possibilities. Humans in this state can think and feel. Being mammals, horses come into the world with this need to bond and connect as a primary drive. And being a herd animal, they especially have a fine capacity to connect with each other as well as with us.
Parasympathetic “freeze” responses and Sympathetic “fight” and “flight” are activated through the stimulation of the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, coming out of the brain and cranium (skull) above the spinal cord. This important nerve is called the Vagus because it wanders over a large part of the body. It is the connection between the brain and the heart. It is also a connection between the brain and the face and vocal apparatus, both of which are involved in expressions and emotion, and therefore with a connection between us.