You need to breath… and so does your horse!
Holding your breath isn’t a cessation of breathing but a tension that comes about due to fear or stress that constricts the muscles around the rib cage, making breathing naturally and deeply difficult.
Noticing your horse is holding its breath is your first indication that it is not at ease with you and its environment. For this type of horse generally, if something changes in their environment, such as a loud noise, a tree branch falling, a bird fly into the air close by, it will likely switch them into flight mode.
The flight response or stress response is a complicated sequence of hormones that are triggered for self preservation from an environmental threat which, in the wild, would be a predator. Different areas of the brain work together to perceive the threat (amygdala) and to recognise and alert of potential threats from previous learnt experiences (hippocampus). Healthy development of certain parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) help to quiet the part of the brain that is alerting the body of a potential threat.
Studies are coming to the forefront that show that chronic ongoing stress and fear at an early age affects the development of the prefrontal cortex that buffers the stress response and has long term repercussions of the architecture of the brain as an adult.
This to me highlights the responsibility we need to show for the safe and calm learning environment when breaking a horse for their long term mental stability and ability to calmly process stimuli safely. The use of fear based, bullying tactics should be left behind as we continue to develop our horse training skills.
So what has been determined to help process stimuli calmly and safely?
Social support and breathing.
One study was done on children where a stressful stimuli was put in front of them in the form of angry faces. (From previous studies we know that horses can interpret mood and emotion from our body language and facial expression). When the mother was present there was less activation of the part of the brain that perceived the threat and more activation of the area of the brain which controls our emotional responses to stress (prefrontal cortex) so we don’t get too stressed out. This is called social buffering.
This relationship between the two areas of the brain doesn’t become well established until maturity and adulthood. This has the potential to affect the horses emotional and mental stability when weaned too young and can train in a pathway of reaction to stimuli before we even look at introducing training.
This also highlights the importance of showing up in our horses life especially if they are younger (and when I’m saying younger I mean under 10) as consistent support that they trust because we are offering that “social buffering” for them. Taking away the intensity of the threat so that they can process their environment more calmly.
This social buffering also occurs in relationships with our partners and what could also be called a “bond”. If we are or our horse is in a group we/they know and a familiar environment, we/they cope with stress much better than if they experienced the same stress alone. This is crucial to note when we are in the “getting to know you” phase of a new horse, settling them in to their new environment and routine and getting to know their new paddock mates. Its generally not until a couple of months later that the true personality of the horse starts to come out and they start testing boundaries as they get comfortable with you and their new environment.
This social buffering I notice time and again with my students that have taken time to spend with their horses. One of our first recommendations when getting a new horse is to spend time just handling and being around them without trying to ride them. The affect this has on their level of alertness and tension is huge!
It doesn’t happen overnight. Think of any relationship you’ve ever had - it takes years to forge. Ideally we are trying to avoid tripping up that cascade of hormones and neural pathways into a flight state by making our horses feel safe because they are with us. Then when they let go of their stress and tension they can breathe deeply again and we know they feel safe and confident in us and their environment.
When I was competing I would train my horses to breath with me. I would sit and take deep breaths until they took a deep breath and then I would pat them to reinforce the behaviour. I would get it so that we could enter the arena and halt salute and while I was at the halt I would take a deep breath and so would my horse. We could then slow our respiratory rate and heart rate and focus our heightened energy and nerves into our performance together making for a smoother test with less errors and better flow.
I also use this with horses I don’t know, often getting it on the ground first and when I’m backing horses. Helping and showing a horse how to process their emotions, their frustration, anxiety and tension is about 70% of getting horses to work with us in partnership.
Some exercise to improve your bond and create social buffering
Our walk, halt, back up exercises.
Sitting in the paddock with them while they graze.
Guiding them confidently through situations that make them nervous.
Spending time grooming them.
Using encouraging and positive tones, body language and facial expressions.
Becoming aware of when they hold their breath and develop tension is key. So spending time just watching them and noticing how they look when they are relaxed and how they hold themselves during a perceived threat. Where this gets tricky is when they’ve learnt to shut down. (Read about what a horse that is shut down is like here).
Breathing exercises to practice around your horse.
Breathe in and as you breathe out force the air slowly between your teeth, this engages your diaphragm and encourages you to breath deeply.
Breathe in for 7, hold for 5 and out for 5. This is also a good exercise if you’re nervous as it resets your respiratory rate.
Breathe in for 10 and out for 10
When you are doing these exercises ask them to stand beside you and not eat. When they take a deep breath give them a pat and let them eat. If you’ve been doing it for a while and they haven’t taken a deep breath take them for a walk and try again.
We can rarely begin to comprehend and understand what our horses have experienced in their life. Often by the time I see them they are damaged and broken by their experiences with people.
When we don’t know the history of our horses
My students ask me why does my horse ...? And mostly I can’t say exactly why, I can’t read their mind and see what they’ve experienced that has shaped their coping mechanism that way.
The best I can say is that there is hope; we can recondition their responses to stimuli. But it does take time and patience and as always prevention is better than cure. This is the main reason I prefer to take the time with horses to training their trainability, to help them cope with their big emotions and to create a positive and encouraging learning environment with clear, will established boundaries.