What is EQUUSOMA®?

Equus: noun, \ˈek-wəs\ A genus of the family Equidae that comprises the horses, donkeys, zebras, and related recent and extinct mammals [Latin].

Soma: noun,\ˈsō-mə\ The body of an organism [Greek].

EQUUSOMA® Horse-Human Trauma Recovery is the integration of Somatic Experiencing® in human-equine relationships, and has relevance for equine-assisted interventions, horsemanship, horse training, equine behaviourism, equitation / riding disciplines, equine health interventions, or other non-ridden interactions on the ground.

Offered with the permission and licensing approval of the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, EQUUSOMA® also brings together a variety of complementary frameworks, principles, and practices drawn from the:

  • Mammalian sciences: The polyvagal theory, attachment theory, various learning theories, ethology, psychophysiology, interspecies comparative neuroscience, and affective / behavioural neuroscience, the humane hierarchy, the 5 Domains model of animal welfare
  • Equine sciences: Equine ethology, equine behaviourism, and equitation science
  • Human sciences: Interpersonal neurobiology, developmental psychology, psychodynamic therapy, parts work / ego state work, somatic touch work, therapeutic presence, trauma-informed services, and trauma-specific treatment

In other words, EQUUSOMA® is an intentional blend of ways of being, knowledge, research, and practice to inform, improve, and enhance equine-human interactions in a variety of situations.

This model is particularly inspired by, but not limited to, the work of:

  • Peter Levine, PhD
  • Stephen Porges, PhD
  • Kathy Kain, PhD, SEP
  • Steve Terrell, PsyD, SEP
  • Daniel Siegel, MD
  • Shari Geller, PhD
  • Jaak Panksepp, PhD
  • Marc Bekoff, PhD
  • Bruce Perry, MD
  • Lucy Rees
  • Rachaël Draaisma
  • Among others

What is Somatic Experiencing®?

Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing® is a trauma resolution method that is grounded in an understanding of how mammals respond to and recover from stressful and life threatening situations. Originally created as an approach to healing trauma in humans, the science underlying the method has broader applicability in understanding equines and other mammals as well.

Somatic Experiencing® provides a gentle way of working with sensations, arousal and activation in the autonomic nervous system, and thwarted survival responses (procedural or implicit body memory) by building capacity to bear witness to what is happening inside in small, incremental amounts (titration). This process isn’t just about sensations, but also allows us to work with the over- and under-coupled emotions, thoughts, beliefs, images, sensory details, behaviours (including impulses, movements, and actions), and dynamics that are associated with different life experiences.

Building slowly, Somatic Experiencing® supports the ability to experience progressively larger thresholds of activation and embodiment in order to both respect and grow the window of tolerance. As we grow our resiliency, inner resources, and capacity to be with our internal experience and challenging external stimuli, the need for defensive or management strategies decreases (such as shame, dissociation, fragmentation/switching ego states, avoidance, resistance, intellectualization, pleasing, complying, addictions, disordered eating, stereotypies, overriding through willpower, projecting and blaming, and so on). This is very different from tolerating, putting up with, or muscling through. Our capacity to be more present to the fullness and goodness that life has to offer – relationships, pleasure, play, creativity, calm, excitement, joy, authenticity – can also increase as well.

One of the goals of trauma recovery is that of somatic renegotiation – having a different outcome to a familiar situation, or experiencing oneself differently in a familiar situation.  One example is completing in the present what did not have a chance to complete in the past, such as safely releasing and processing what is stored in the body, restoring the natural ability of the system to regulate, and experiencing a felt sense of aliveness or triumph (“I can!”). Experiences of triumph offer a counter-resource to past experiences of defeat and “I can’t”, which help shift our internal experience of ourselves. As Deb Dana says, “story follows state” – when our state changes, so too does the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and others (such as our loved ones, pets, horses, and so on). Although horses don’t tell stories in the same way we do, their felt sense of themselves also changes depending on whether they are attuned and responded to, whether they feel triumph or chronic defeat, and so on.

Allowing time for the nervous system to pendulate through and integrate each small shift in this process is important, so that a different felt sense of self in the moment can emerge. We work at the edges of the window of tolerance, so that there is something to work with but not so much that the nervous system goes too far beyond threshold. There are other forms of renegotiation as well, such as renegotiating relationship dynamics, or internal dynamics between parts of ourselves, and so on.

Trauma Isn’t Just About the Brain

Many approaches focus on the impact of trauma on the brain. This is important knowledge that informs our understanding of symptoms and adaptations and ways to intervene. However, there is more to trauma than just the brain – the whole organism gets mobilized and activated in the face of danger (or immobilizes under life threat). There is more information being sent from our organs and other systems up to the brain than the brain down to the rest of the organism.

As a result, an approach that understands the greater picture of survival physiology and how to support the organism towards not only self-regulation but also greater organization and coherence is crucial in order to develop resilience. This goes beyond grounding strategies or trying to induce calm through various methods when in fact something different may be wanting to happen.

Epigenetics refers to how past experiences affect which genes are turned on or off and to what degree, which impacts future generations – across species. Intergenerational trauma and epigenetic changes are additional factors to consider when considering what is happening in any given moment, whether in humans, horses, or both.

Safe Haven Relationality

The ability to regulate and accurately detect safety, danger and life threat (neuroception) occurs as a result of attuned attachment relationships early in development in various species. When the buffer provided by regulated caregivers is not present to help us navigate life’s hurts and losses, emotional and physical dysregulation ensue and relationships become scary, unpredictable, unreliable, and unsafe. Since fighting and fleeing are not possible for many infants, survival energy in the body consists either of high sympathetic charge or shutdown, like an on and off switch.

Repairing attachment and boundary ruptures helps increase our capacity for connection and closeness as herd/pack animals and supports the release and metabolization of high survival states. This involves working with the components of attachment in mammals: safe haven, secure base, proximity seeking and separation distress. Experiencing co-regulation is an important part of the process of developing self-regulation and secure attachment.

Safe haven conditions are equally important for horses. What is their neuroception of their environment and the people and other horses in it? Do our interactions with them help them to be seen, feel felt, and get gotten, to quote Dan Siegel? Accurate enough attunement (and relational repair when misattunements occur) is a foundational part of developing secure attachment between people and also in horse-human relationships.

Safe haven conditions support physiological states that allow for optimal growth, functioning, performance, and enjoyment of life. When we address captivity conditions (both humans and horses are a domesticated and “captive” species), problem behaviours often cease to occur or soften and become more manageable as the body shifts from survival and shut down into social engagement, rest and digest. Setting the conditions is consistent with Somatic Experiencing® but also with the humane hierarchy developed by Friedman and Fritzler (2015). Address the antecedents before tinkering with techniques.

Integration of Parts of the Self

Like equines, humans have a life history, nervous system, and a personality that intersect in complex ways. One of the hallmarks of trauma is that it overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope. Fragmentation in one’s sense of self is not uncommon, resulting in a sometimes confusing inner landscape where different or even conflicting parts or ego states have different roles to play in support of our survival and protection.

Experiencing different ego states and mixed emotions does not necessarily mean that one has a dissociative disorder, though this may be the case for some individuals. Fragmentation occurs on a continuum, from small-d to large-D dissociation and anywhere in between. Exploring the reintegration of all parts of self into a cohesive whole, by befriending them and holding compassion for how splitting off each of these aspects of ourselves was an adaptation that benefitted our entire system, is an important part of trauma recovery.

Horses also can experience dissociation. It is unclear to which degree horses have distinct ego states like humans do, as the parts of the brain associated with the construct of the ego are less developed or non-existent in horses.  However, many mammals have the ability to recognize themselves as well as the ability to disconnect from all or part of their experience (whether when feeling safe, such as daydreaming or boredom; when in danger, such as disconnecting during various self-protective responses; or when experiencing life threat, such as when in freeze, collapse, etc.). Recognizing and helping humans and horses navigate these different states is another part of healthy horse-human relating and dynamics.

Paradigm Shift

Times are changing. More and more voices are coming together to speak out about the needs, welfare, and wellbeing of equines in various contexts. The American Veterinary Medical Association established the One Health – One Welfare initiative in 2007, which emphasizes that the wellbeing of animals, humans and the environment are deeply intertwined.  Unresolved trauma and attachment issues in humans can create a ripple effect in the animals and the world around us. The healthier, more regulated, and more connected we are within ourselves and in our relationships, the more connected and caring we are to the world around us. The healthier the world is around us, the better we feel and the greater the wellbeing for the other animals in it.  We all fare better when we are all faring better.

With that in mind, there is a growing trend towards fostering choice, voice, and agency where reasonably possible for humans as well as for horses, and towards understanding people and other animals for who they are as opposed to a set of labels or misperceptions. While many equine-assisted therapy and learning programs are conducted ethically and with regard for the horse in the equation, and while countless horse owners and trainers take the welfare and self-determination of their animals seriously, there is still work to be done. For example:

  • Equine-assisted interventions: Regardless of the approach or modality, healing with horses isn’t healing if it comes at the expense of the horse. Various relational and somatic reenactments of coercion, appeasement, exploitation, misattunement, triangulation, overwhelm, and overriding still do occur in an industry that means well and has the best of intentions, which have negative impacts on clients and equines alike. Misleading, dubious or pseudo-scientific explanations for what is taking place can also set up unrealistic expectations and create situations that can reinforce the perspective that horses are magic unicorns that can cure anything. To quote Kate Naylor, “deification is still objectification“; polarized perspectives, such viewing them as tools for our use (on one end of the spectrum) or supernatural beings (on the other end of the spectrum), are rarely beneficial for anyone involved.
  • Horse ownership, training, behaviour shaping, and performance: It remains far too common to blame the horse for behavioural issues, while deflecting attention away from the environmental and human conditions that have shaped those behaviours in the first place. Focusing on trying to punish or fix difficult behaviours while disregarding the humans’ role in creating those behaviours is similar to when a child or teen is taken to a therapist to be “fixed” when in fact their reactions and challenges make sense given their circumstances. Identifying others as the patient or problem without looking at the environment, oneself, and one’s role in the equation (or the role of prior caregivers and conditions) is known by a number of names in human-human relationships: scapegoating, projection, blame, and gas lighting.

We have all been there.  We get triggered or upset, become dysregulated, impatient, misattune, and have knee-jerk reactions. We misread, misinterpret, misunderstand, misstep and make mistakes. We feel not good enough, inadequate, or inferior. And I believe that we do the best we can with what we know and have at any given moment. We can’t possibly know what we don’t know before we know it. Naming some of these issues is not to shame or blame (I’m human too, believe me!), but rather to speak to some of the common pitfalls that can occur.

Let’s raise awareness about the complexity and rich nuances that exist as we work towards a better world for horses and humans. It’s not about any one of us doing it perfectly; it’s about more of us doing it imperfectly and being open to learning, healing, and growing. As uncomfortable as change can be, mutual vulnerability and embracing our common humanity (and mammalian-ness!) can be refreshing, freeing, and enlivening.

Come join us!

Sarah Schlote, MA, RP, CCC, SEP
Founder of EQUUSOMA®