The Limbic System and The Horse as a Healer

ROTH Foundation class part I, Psychology Project

by Emily Jaderberg

The limbic system is one of the main evolutionary developments from certain reptiles evolving to mammals. Located right under the cerebrum, it is a complex set of brain structures on both sides of the thalamus. The limbic system, which is often classified as a “cerebral structure”, is the part of our brain that is closely linked to feeling of emotions. It supports a variety of bodily functions which includes adrenaline flow, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction. Horses and humans have limbic systems remarkably similar to each other and we can see similar emotional patterns in parenting behavior, bonding, imprinting and socialization of young and everyday social community bonds.

The horse as a species is a prey animal. Their survival highly depends on having a sensitive limbic system and being able to feel limbic activity and autonomic nervous system arousal in other herd-members. For example: The ANS signals a “fight-or-flight” response when a predator comes around, and when it is safe to rest. This is why social mammals attune to each other – for validation or concerns, reassurance and comfort. To feel a sense of belonging and to depend on each other is essential for highly social mammals, whose brains rely on the regulating power of relationships.

“Both horses and humans have limbic systems that are remarkably similar, and both are highly social and need contact with others for their own neural regulation.”—Free rein Australia

Because of these similarities within the limbic system, working with horses from therapeutic standpoint allows the horses to relate to the limbic system in humans. Since the horse does not have a largely developed neocortex (analytical brain), it enables them to come from a nonjudgmental place reflecting others behaviors. They respond to what is happening in the moment – based on comfort and safety. The natural state of rest within the horse species combined with being nonjudgmental can create a healing space of calm and trust. This allows limbic revision to take place – a way for a person to safely create new neurological pathways of how to respond to certain emotional patterns.

“Moving a person from trauma to healing requires restructuring of emotional response. This must come in the form of new experiences that engage and soothe, or “regulate” this sensitive limbic region of the brain.” (human equine alliance)

There are a few key ways how the limbic system can show up in relationship between horse and human.

Limbic neuroplasticity – the remodeling of affective neural pathways and responses, which requires three stages:

Limbic resonance, defined as a shared empathy in which two mammals become attuned to each other’s inner states.
Limbic regulation, defined as reading each other’s emotional cues, adjusting to each other and soothing or regulate the physiology of the other.
Limbic revision, defined as adaptation to healthier template for future relationships.

I would like to share my own experiences I had during class at Zuma’s Rescue Ranch.<–Participation and observation is implied from ‘experience’. I will bring up examples of how I found experiences related to neuroplasticity during our training week.

I want to start off with my own participation working in the round-pen with Ruckus, a 5 year old Icelandic horse gelding. I was feeling fairly calm when we went to pick him up at his pasture. We had just learned a lot of information about the Reach Out procedure, and my mind was working on reminding all of the steps. Before it was my turn to go in, I got the chance to walk Ruckus in the arena for a while, which gave me the opportunity to connect in with him. I felt calm and worked on setting positive intentions for the round-pen session. When I got called in, I felt my stomach turn a bit and all of a sudden I felt nervous. We entered the round pen and started our orientation. This is when I introduced him to the four directions. During this process it seemed that he really connected to me and I felt more grounded in my own energy. As I was sending him I felt my own adrenaline go up as I was not sure of how to place myself in a correct position in the round-pen. This in turn resulted in Ruckus increasing his speed, and he started running faster. I was not sure of how large my own circle within the round-pen should be, and I ended up on the wrong side of the driving position. With help from Anna, I made my own circle smaller to find the right placement. It was not until I relaxed my body, lowered my breathing and softened my eyes that Ruckus calmed down.

Here I believe I see an example of limbic resonance in action. I felt very calm and comfortable being right next to him. When it came to driving him away, I experienced an adrenaline rush and I felt nervous. Ruckus accurately responded to this and started going faster and faster. Looking at it from a perspective compared to wild horses, being able to respond accurately to a high adrenaline rush coming from another horse could be a matter of life or death. Only when my own adrenaline went down and I became more relaxed that Ruckus did the same. He was very much like a projection of what was going on inside of me. Ruckus is a very sensitive horse, and I learned that only from keeping a stable energetic connection can he gain peace and confidence in the round-pen with me.

Another example I would like to bring up from class was a very special and emotional moment for many of us. It was when Havana, a ten year old rescue mare, took charge of her obstacle course experience and turned it into a healing session. It was during our second day of class and our classmates Helena and Mary had the opportunity to work with Havana during obstacle course at Liberty. The obstacle course session started off with a few trials, and at one point Havana turned around walked up first to Helena, and lined up to a heart to heart connection. After her and Helena’s experience she lined up and did the same procedure with Mary. As I talked with Mary afterwards, she described the experience as being one where she felt herself filled up with love and trust to make choices in her life based upon love. Helena’s and Mary’s experiences were a bit different from each other, but they both involved feelings of deep healing and love.

Here I believe is an example of limbic regulation. I was mesmerized by the way Havana stopped the obstacle course lecture and decided walk up to do a healing session based on love. With both Helena and Mary, she tuned in with their heart chakra, and from their experience Havana sent them a feeling of unconditional love. I believe that by tuning in with their heart and regulating that energy, she regulated both of their hearts to match up with hers. It was challenging to find more information on limbic regulation and how horses utilize this capacity in the wild. However I believe that by having the ability to tune in and regulate another horse limbic system enables them to calm each other down, and to avoid fight or flight in situations that first brought up adrenaline but at evaluation turned out not to be a dangerous situation.

Conclusion and thoughts

Through learning about the limbic system in horses I have found that it has helped me to a greater understanding in three areas. Understanding how wild horses uses the limbic system in the herd, how to relate that to ourselves as trainers, and how horses can assist humans to evolve and release negative patterns. This conclusion are my own thoughts on what I learned and how I have come to relate to and understand the research material that I found.

The horse limbic system one of the most important parts of the horse’s brain when being in the wild and living in a herd. The ability to relate to others in a herd through emotion and pick up on another herd-members emotion – whether it is a “flight or fight” emotion or a “its all good, lets rest and relax” emotion is one of their keys to survival in the wilderness. Horses in the herd are going to tune in to the horse which has the strongest attuned limbic system, which in turn would be the lead mare. Her ability to respond accurately to the environment around them, regulate others limbic systems, and hold a grounded energy throughout the collective limbic activity that comes up ensure their survival. It is important to take a horse’s acute limbic system into consideration while working with them. Since a horse will respond to your emotions, nervousness, and ability to be present, you will need qualities similar to a lead mare. You can only do this if you stay present – fully in your body, otherwise you will distort your awareness. Through this awareness you will learn how to stay grounded and regulate your own emotions which will allow the horse to do the same through limbic resonance and limbic regulation.

Being present in your own body while experiencing high limbic system activity allows you to associate a new positive feeling, which will allow the healing process to occur. A person who has experienced trauma in the past may have a set of preconceived patterns of how to respond to certain situations in life. The horse has a remarkably similar limbic system to us, and is through an evolutionary perspective incredibly attuned to others. While also lacking a larger development of the neocortex (rational thinking also related to our ego) the horse can without judgement walk a person through the experience of an emotion, and simultaneously bring this person to the present moment through limbic regulation. Only through limbic revision will a person be able to create a new neurological pathways for new ways of responding to an experience in life.

It makes sense to me that the horse has been with us on our journey on this planet for so long. I believe and feel deeply in my heart that in this wounded world we are living in, the horse might be the only one that can help us to evolve and truly heal ourselves and our planet.

CITATION
Partners in Healing: Highly Social Mammals – Human-Equine Alliances for Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://humanequinealliance.org/book-excerpts/partners-in-healing-highly-social-mammals/?doing_wp_cron=1416968351.2421579360961914062500
(n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://www.pathintl.org/images/pdf/conferences/national/2012-handouts/D4-the-heal-model.pdf
Nervous System and the Brain. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://www.horses-helping-troubled-teens.com/nervous-system.html
Limbic system. (2014, November 25). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbic_system
Horses Healing Trauma -. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://www.freereinaustralia.com/ptsd/horses-healing-trauma/

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2 thoughts on “The Limbic System and The Horse as a Healer

  1. Great article! I volunteered for close to 18 years with a therapeutic riding program with all sorts of disabilities and served on their board of directors for 7 years and witnessed the healing affects of these beloved equine companions! Thanks for this article! Keep up the great work that you are doing!

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