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  • Writer's pictureAlex Gulland

The Big Freeze

Working in the field of Equine Assisted learning, means that I read many great books on the subject of how horses can heal.

One area that fascinates me, is how horses assist in the healing of people suffering from PTSD.

I thought I knew how this special type of healing worked.

However, I am currently reading an excellent book entitled 'Riding Home' by Tim Hayes.

This book goes into great detail into the role of horses, explaining why their assistance helps and why PTSD does not as far as we can tell. occur within animals.

When someone suffers PTSD, which could be caused by childhood abuse or a roadside bomb, or other such horrific events.

The reaction to these traumatic events, is that they are endured and survived with the help of the human’s left brain ego-defense mechanism.

While at the same time, the feelings remain frozen, buried and unconscious, in the person's emotional right brain - until they are resolved, uncovered or hopefully healed.

Until these feelings are realised they will forever be re-experienced anytime the person is emotionally triggered, by a sensory stimulus that is similar to the original traumatic event.

Fight, Filght or Freeze

With animals the hardwired response to life-threatening events produces three outcomes - fight, flight or freeze.

As humans we are all aware of fight or flight but we not so familiar with the freeze response.

If a horse is attacked or overpowered by a pack of wolves he / she will collapse and freeze.

Admittedly this reaction does not sound positive.

However, the good news, is that the horses brain will release chemicals that shut down their bodily systems, rendering them numb to the attack.

The even better news is that a predator that captures an animal that exhibits this type of freeze response, may well believe the captured prey to be sick.

Consequently, rather than risk their own survival by possibly eating the meat of a sick animal. They will leave it alone, providing the horse with an opportunity to escape.

When the horse comes out of their big freeze, and before he can run to safety, he will commence an involuntary shaking.

This shaking response discharges the physical energy that was frozen enabling the horse to flee.

It is thought that the ability of the horse to discharge the frozen energy is what prevents the horse from suffering from PTSD.

Post Trauma

Conversely, what often happens with a human suffering from a traumatic event, is that the experience becomes indefinitely frozen, only to be triggered at a later date - hence the word ‘Post’ in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Unlike animals, humans are left with a ‘thwarted freeze response’ which according to Dr Levine (Author of ‘Waking the Tiger - Healing Trauma’), is the basis for PTSD.

Dr Levine further believes that PTSD, is caused not by the traumatic event itself, but by the reaction of our brain’s neocortex to the event.

We humans do not experience the trauma, mentally and emotionally, then process what happened and then cathartically feel the painful emotions and move on to heal and recover. Instead we mentally and emotionally shut down, endure and tolerate the traumatic event and then continue our lives emotionally disabled and dysfunctional.

Non-Verbal Right Brain Communication

For someone to heal from PTSD, some kind of resolution and recognition to the original event needs to take place.

Remarkably interaction with a horse can be of immense benefit.

The human non-verbal right brain communication that is necessary for interacting with with a horse, enables a human suffering from PTSD to momentarily stop engaging in their left brain thinking.

The person’s physical movement and non-verbal interaction with the horse can help release a small amount of their painful but frozen feelings.

The emotional healing that begins with the non-judgmental acceptance of a horse, enables patients to begin to feel safe enough to be themselves and can help them on the journey to recovery.

PTSD triggers a loss of self and emotional regression and can literally take sufferers out of the present moment.

Horses however, are physically, mentally, and emotionally present every single day of their lives.

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