One Trick Pony Alone in a Stall: A Therapist’s Lens on Horse Training

Sarah, you don’t write blog posts. You write book chapters.” Guilty as charged. There are topics that are difficult to convey in point form – this one especially.  So between my desire to be thorough and do justice to a nuanced subject, as well as try to make a dent in the decreased attention span caused by screen time and social media, here’s another meal for y’all to digest at your own pace. Consider it exercise for your mind – fight back against technology, reclaim your brain, etc.

Trauma Therapy as a Model for Horse Training?

One of the key principles I teach professionals who are working in human trauma recovery is the importance of having a broad toolkit to work from. It problematic on many levels to force the client to fit the model or approach used by the therapist, when in fact the therapy should be tailored to fit the client and their needs. To treat human trauma and adverse experiences effectively requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses the complexity at hand.

And there is plenty of complexity!

  • Body stuff: Nervous system activation cycles, self-protective responses, and thwarted survival efforts; psychophysiology, body memory, and armouring; neurological feedback and feed forward loops; epigenetics; neurotransmitters; somatic dissociation; hyperarousal and hypoarousal; somatization and complex health syndromes due to long-term survival or conservation physiology (gastrointestinal issues, migraines, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, etc.); primitive reflexes; fear of one’s body or sensations; head/brain injuries and other injuries
  • Emotional stuff: Shame, depression, anxiety, panic, fear, terror, rage, guilt, low self-esteem and self-worth, learned helplessness, emotional dysregulation, grief and loss, overwhelm or flooding, numbing, inadequacy, inferiority, sense of not belonging, sense of not being wanted, sense of not deserving to exist
  • Cognitive stuff: Core beliefs, cognitive errors, faulty thinking patterns, memory and attention issues, flashbacks, nightmares, learning difficulties, paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, difficulty with time orientation and dual attention, being able to mindfully observe one’s experience from a place of witness, narratives we tell ourselves, meaning making, assumptions, cognitive dissonance
  • Relational stuff: Insecure attachment, submission and other appeasement behaviours; power and control dynamics; enmeshment, codependency, avoidance, distancing and other boundary issues; distancing-pursuing dynamics; betrayals and distrust; intergenerational trauma patterns and family of origin issues; invisible loyalties and entanglements; trauma bonding and other re-enactments; activation related to touch, closeness, and separation; communication difficulties and conflicts; co-dysregulation; fear of annihilation or loss of identity
  • Behavioural stuff: Addictions, disordered eating, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, self-harm, sexual issues, acting out, acting in, conditioning and reinforcement, other management strategies or defensive accommodations, lack of agency, external locus of control, lack of consent and choice, stress and calming signals
  • Personality stuff: Challenging traits, ego state fragmentation, dissociated parts of self, lack of a consistent inner “adult” self, inner turmoil and conflict, switching
  • Window of tolerance stuff: Reduced tolerance for calm, pleasure, and distress; thresholds of tolerance; confusing being in the faux window with being in the actual window of tolerance
  • Neuroception stuff: No inner map for the felt sense of safety, hypervigilance (everything is a danger or threat), hypovigilance (there are no dangers or threats)
  • Specific stuff related to different types of adversity: intra-uterine and birth-related trauma, pregnancy loss, other early developmental trauma and separations, surgeries and hospitalizations (especially procedures done in the first 5 years of life), anaesthesia effects, falls, injuries, motor vehicle accidents, developmental disruptions, chronic stress, abuse, neglect, micro-aggressions, hate crimes, targeted attacks, animal attacks, suffocation, dear death experiences, military service, frontline work, suicide, homicide, witnessing abuse, bullying, religious trauma, colonial trauma, sexual trauma, medical trauma, ritual abuse, human trafficking, migration, separation or divorce, foster care, adoption, having parents with unresolved trauma, mental health issues, or addictions
  • Intersectional stuff: The interplay between gender, sex, sexual orientation, religious, political, age, skin colour, ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, colonialism, appearance, physical ability, level of education, financial means, and species-based forms of discrimination and privilege

And on, and on, and on.


This means that human trauma therapists need:

  1. To engage in multi-level awareness and recognize the layers of intersecting factors that are involved;
  2. To address their own “stuff” that gets activated in the process of working with clients (also called counter-transference) so that it does not negatively impact the client or interfere with the therapy;
  3. To be grounded in a variety of treatment approaches that they can draw on to work with what is coming up, where possible;
  4. To work in the proper order, from the bottom up, in stages, recognizing that a foundation of safety, stabilization, and subcortical regulation need to be in place before doing deeper or more complex work; and
  5. To recognize when something is outside of their scope of practice and either work in a shared care model with other professionals collaborating on the same case, seek consultation or supervision, engage in continuing education, refer to other options, or end treatment altogether if it is not the right fit or the right time for a particular approach.

Historically, purists were highly valued as being experts in very specific areas of work. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to be effective in the human trauma therapy world if one is a one trick pony, especially one that isolates themselves and does not collaborate with others. It behooves us as therapists (see what I did there?) to continually be growing, learning, doing our own personal growth or healing work, and expanding our knowledge as the field continues to evolve, new research comes in, and different modalities and perspectives become available.

There is no shame in re-evaluating and adjusting one’s practices, not having all the answers, or acknowledging mistakes and learning from them. Knowing everything there is to know about the aforementioned categories of trauma and adversity “stuff” is not a necessity (would it even be feasible in terms of the investment of time, energy, and finances required?), but knowing that these various factors exist and recognizing when they may be showing up is essential in providing effective treatment.

However, saying “I do X and only X” and refusing to allow in new information is not a badge of honour to be proud of in these times. We are held to a particular standard and can lose our registration or license to practice if we lapse in any of the above areas (also called misconduct), because clients are vulnerable and the power differential in the dynamic means that the professionals have great responsibility in assuming their role.

Clients trust us to do our job, to own our “stuff” so that we can help them with theirs, and to know what we need to know to help them as effectively as possible (or to know where to obtain that information, seek consultation, or refer out). It is not misconduct to focus exclusively on one therapeutic approach, of course; there are a number of valid reasons why some therapists have chosen to do so that have nothing to do being narrow-minded, ego defended, or set in one’s ways.  However, if we do only use one specific approach, then it is all the more important to recognize the limits of our scope of practice and reach out to collaborate or obtain support.

The Million Dollar Question

So why is this not the norm when working with horses?

  • Why are horse trainers, coaches, instructors, and others (as the professionals called in to help) not held to the same standards as human therapists, when their role in some ways is similar?
  • Why are equine professionals not expected to learn more about the “stuff” listed above, in terms of how they apply to mammals in general or humans and horses more specifically?
  • Why aren’t equine professionals taught that that having only one approach to addressing equine issues makes for a very limited toolkit, and that no one approach is a panacea? And encouraged to collaborate with others or refer out when something is beyond their scope? (that is, why are so many of them one trick ponies alone in a stall?)
  • Why are they not required or encouraged to do their own personal work and examine the impact of their attachment patterns, personality traits, past trauma or adversity, early parenting experiences, dysregulation, or residual fear or activation from past horse-related trauma, on their training methods and on the horses, clients or students they are working with?
  • Why is the awareness of counter-transference not taught to equine professionals as a normal part of working with horses and their people, and what to do with it when it shows up?
  • What hubris, pride, shame, ego defense mechanisms, triggers, or other barriers or blind spots lead to an equine professional thinking that they are not somehow part of the equation when working with horses or people and horses together… that the issue solely lies in the horse and/or the client? Or that collaborating as part of a shared care team is somehow verboten, a sign of weakness, a risk of competition, or a potential threat to one’s livelihood?
  • Why do many equine professionals collude with their clients’ projections and blame of their horses, as opposed to helping their clients recognize how the horse is often symptomatic of its past and current humans and environmental conditions (a shift human therapists help parents make all the time when presenting their child to be “fixed”)?

After all, the interpersonal and inter-species neuroscience clearly lays out that we all ping off of one another in complex ways. We are mammals; how we are and what we do affects others, just as how they are and what they do affect us. We share the same brain structures for emotional responses, have similar reactions to stress, and thrive when we feel safe in relationships. A lot of the “stuff” listed above applies to other species than just humans.

DeAraugo et al. (2014) conducted an interesting study in 2014 that looked at the impact of the humans’ attachment style on the lens through which they interpreted equine behaviour and the training methods they used. There was a direct link between people who had a particular interpersonal and educational background and whether or not they believed the horse was being dominant and needed to be put in its place, or that the horse was simply responding to confusing cues from the human (aside from other factors, such as the impacts to the brain, nervous system, and attachment security that occur as a result of early weaning, isolation, confinement, deprivation, frequent moves or loss of friends, lack of sufficient turnout space, and so on). More research is currently being conducted in this area (Merkies, personal communication, 2019).

Many Answers to an Obvious Question

Unfortunately, traumatic re-enactments are common in the equestrian and horsemanship world (well, in the human world in general, really). We so often fail our fellow mammals (human or otherwise) when we do not see what is happening through a trauma lens. One issue is gaslighting, where person A makes person B out to be unstable, weak, irrational, or at fault for what is actually a very reasonable response to mistreatment, stress, or confusing behaviour. Blaming the victim occurs towards horses as well, where we claim a horse is naughty, willful, being deliberately disrespectful, and needing to be controlled or shown who’s boss, when in reality how the animal is reacting makes sense given the past or current external conditions or treatment it is receiving, and given the impact of those factors on its brain, nervous system patterns, attachment dynamics, and executive functioning. It is far easier to deflect and blame the victim than to face the discomfort of looking at oneself.

Other reasons for failing to see how the horse may be symptomatic of the humans (and the need for equine professionals to have more awareness of the “stuff” above) include the systemic injustices, speciesism, and entrenched views still held by the majority of society that humans are at the top of the pyramid and the rest of the living world has to adjust around us. Seeing animals and nature as commodities that exist to serve us is the very anthropocentric perspective that has led to the climate and environmental crisis of global proportions that we are seeing today. Animals therefore are not seen as deserving the same consideration as people; they are still second-class citizens in the eyes of many. Acknowledging that non-human animals can also experience trauma (especially at our own hands, even if unintentionally) can bring up a sense of our own shame and guilt, resulting in using minimizing, denial, and other defence mechanisms to cope.  Claiming that animals are suffering from trauma or other adverse experiences and therefore deserving of “therapy” like humans is written off as anthropomorphic, even though it is known that non-human animals do experience trauma in similar ways. When faced with information that contradicts our own sense of ourself, or puts us in touch with uncomfortable feelings, we cope with the resulting cognitive dissonance by doubling down on our position and rejecting new information.

In many circles, the prevailing belief is still that horses need a job or need to earn their keep to have any value, and for most people that means being ridden, being entered into various disciplines or equestrian sports, or being “worked” in some other way. Activities on the ground with horses are seen as inferior or not good enough (“oh, you don’t ride?”). If you are not working, you are useless and a drain on resources; there is no value in the relationship itself, your needs do not matter, idle hands are the devil’s playground, and do as I say. For how many horse owners, trainers, breeders, boarders, and riders does this echo the messages they themselves may have received from significant attachment figures about their needs or value – not just parents, but teachers, religious figures, sports coaches, and so on?

In many cases, the goal of the trainer, coach or instructor is to get the horse (and/or rider) to a specific level of performance by strict deadlines. This often requires that shortcuts be taken to find the quickest route to the best outcome. Unfortunately, the degree of “stuff” that is disregarded in the process can lead to longer-term issues for the sake of short-term gain. Do the ends justify the means? Human therapists know that deeper healing, recovery, resilience, and improvements in performance requires time, patience, and tolerance for small increments of change as well as setbacks. Lots of it. Often, human therapists are under externally-imposed deadlines as well (such as limits to number of sessions or length of time that one can be seen in therapy due to funding or agency performance metrics). The struggle to do right by clients and be as effective with the time that is possible requires human therapists and clients to adjust their goals and expectations to be more realistic, not force things along before they are ready. Even when there are no externally-imposed deadlines, many human therapists struggle with seeing their clients struggle, and pressure themselves and their clients to be further along due to what it brings up for them (namely inadequacy, incompetence, and helplessness). Again, this comes at a cost.  Recovery, growth, and resilience take the time that they take, and this will differ from nervous system to nervous system.

The desire to win, be seen with respect and admiration, and gain the external validation of others, can result in verbal, emotional and physical abuse towards the rider and the horse in an effort to discipline, control, and feel a sense of authority. If the rider, owner, or horse have also experienced past or present trauma and adversity, then all bets are off as to what happens next as nervous systems activate in response to the danger or threat posed by the offending human(s). Self-protective responses and complicated cycles of co-dysregulation can play out, resulting in escalating tempers and the increased use of force, restraint, or pain (emotional or physical) to achieve certain goals.  This, too, can be a re-enactment for not only the client, rider, and horse, but also for the equine professional, who may have experienced similar pressure or treatment to perform in order to gain the love or attention of a parent or caregiver.

The equine professional, horse owner, or equestrian may also have learned to mask fear behind aggression or appearing competent, so as not to appear weak or experience the pain or terror associated with helplessness or defeat. Overriding and muscling through is valued in Western society, and is a common response to chronic adversity, not receiving support, and not getting one’s needs met. Being stoic has survival value, but comes at a cost. These management strategies are also pervasive in the equine industry. After all, most were taught that when you fall off a horse you get right back on… never mind the head trauma, physical trauma, and emotional trauma that are present. Just do it. Or else… what? You’ll be shamed and perceived as a failure. You won’t fit in. You’ll develop a fear that you’ll never get over and your riding or coaching career will also be over. You’re fine, you’re overreacting, keep going.

The truth is that high impact falls and other horse-related injuries can have lasting impacts even if a rider does get right back on – and especially if they get right back on and do not allow enough time for the body and emotions to recover from such an intense shock. One can only override for so long before the effects show up in the horse-human relationship… or elsewhere. But the drive to appease or please authority, feel a sense of belonging, and strive for achievement can lead anyone to disregard their own needs or injuries for the sake of avoiding the pain of rejection, humiliation, punishment, or judgment. This is especially true if one was taught as a child to buck up, not cry, not show emotion, and that being hard on oneself and others was the only way to progress.

Finally, if relationships for us trigger a neuroception of danger or life threat (as in, people were not safe), then it will feel far more comfortable for an equine professional to be that lone pony in the stall than to dare seek out and join a larger herd and risk being vulnerable by exposing their weaknesses to the others, even if horses find safety in numbers and group cohesion is needed for survival.

In short, our unresolved stuff is what leads many to unconsciously self-select into their chosen careers.  And our unresolved stuff is not only a health concern for ourselves, but can be a welfare issue for others – including animals. The global One Health – One Welfare initiative speaks to precisely this fact.

Trauma Recovery for Horses and Horsepeople

Thankfully, there are specific trauma therapies that can help resolve equine-related and other types of trauma for humans (that might be negatively impacting the relationship, effectiveness, and performance of owners, riders, horses, and equine professionals).  This includes, but is certainly not limited to, integrative approaches like Somatic Experiencing®, EMDR®, touch work, attachment rupture and repair work, and parts work, among other options that address greater proportions of the “stuff” listed above.

Even more encouraging: there are new efforts being made to integrate such mammalian neuroscience-based approaches into helping animals recover from their own trauma or adverse experiences. For instance, I have written about adapting Somatic Experiencing®, polyvagal theory, and attachment theory for horses and the horse-human relationship (Schlote, 2017a, 2017b and 2018) and have released introductory educational videos exploring these concepts in relation to working with a horse with a fear of objects. The series, entitled Beyond Behaviourism, looks at the importance of bringing in an understanding of the neuroscience and enhancing learning theory with other promising practices, such as the Constructional Approach Training for Horses and Intrinzen work. The exploration of the inclusion of these approaches and frameworks into horse trauma recovery is ongoing and very much still in its infancy.

Similarly, EMDR® has been adapted for trauma recovery in non-human animals, including horses, by psychotherapists Fabienne Lannes-Gillibert and Annick Bordat of the Institut Emanasso in France. Furthermore, there are researchers and doctoral students that are exploring additional applications of attachment theory in horse-human interaction challenges. These are not the only new innovations that are available and being developed for helping resolve trauma in horses, of course. There are many new techniques and approaches, as yet unresearched, that show promise and are deserving of further investigation, a full listing of which is beyond the scope of the present article.


What is important to note, however, is the following: just as the human psychological field recognized the limits of a strictly behavioural view in understanding and treating the complexity of trauma, so too is there an increasing need to shift beyond traditional and even behavioural models of horse training to add in modern innovations that are based in psychophysiology, polyvagal theory, attachment theory, somatics, bodywork, and other concepts. This is not to say that learning theory does not have a place in working with horses; in fact, the opposite is true. A foundation in learning theory and how and when to apply positive and negative reinforcement is a necessity – as is recognizing that there is more going on than classical and operant conditioning (cue the “stuff” at the start of this article). And yet, what most commonly happens is that rather than exploring the virtues of integrating multiple approaches to horse training, equine professionals and horse owners commonly pick one camp and exclude all others. Slings and arrows are thrown from all sides, each claiming their way is better. Ivory towers, politics, polarizations, and guru culture abound. In reality, having more than one tool in the toolkit is immensely helpful, as is knowing the limits of different methods as well as their strengths and when to use each one.

For instance, both positive and negative reinforcement can be done well or unskillfully. Positive reinforcement can be used to control and can induce anxiety, agitation, or food-related aggression in response to treat seeking for specific behaviours. Negative reinforcement can be used to control and can induce flooding and learned helplessness. The timing of each is important, as is recognizing the horse and human’s thresholds of tolerance, nervous system states, and attachment patterns.

What past experiences contribute to black and white thinking about horse training methods? What past adversity has shaped people to become polarized as opposed to seeing the shades of grey?  For instance?

  • For those who look down on negative reinforcement and exclusively rely on +R: have past negative experiences led to unresolved charge around raising your energy / pressure, resulting in avoiding anything that could be perceived as “negative”?  Is there a fear of becoming or being perceived as violent, not recognizing the difference between pressure and abuse, not recognizing the difference between assertion and aggression, not recognizing the difference between anger and intensity, or fear of connecting with the bound activation related to incomplete fight responses? Were appeasement behaviours (being nice) the safest option at any time in the past (instead of mobilizing fight or flight energy, which were deemed impossible, unsafe, or punished)? Were you taught that being assertive was bad or even that feeling angry was bad?
  • For those who look down on positive reinforcement and exclusively rely on -R and +P: have past negative experiences led to seeing dominance, authority, and discipline through force and obedience as the only ways to experience respect? Or has a lack of empathy, appreciation, praise, or emotional support from parents or caregivers resulted in a tendency to dismiss the validity of these needs in yourself and others? Were fighting and freeze responses (disconnecting from emotions and closeness) the safest options in the past, where social engagement was deemed unsafe or uncomfortable in any way? Does it feel safer for you to feel hardened and detached as opposed to vulnerable? Do you interpret “softness” as “weakness”?

Learning theory proposes that there is a place for both when done well, and that addressing complex issues may require the careful application of both along with other techniques within a strategic behaviour management plan. The Humane Hierarchy certainly supports this idea, as well as the importance of addressing antecedent factors that are contributing to behaviour – I propose, as many others have, that this includes the impact of deeper, more intrinsic human factors as well. Horse training is really about human training (or, really, humans healing their “stuff”), because clearly said stuff affects our reaction to others and selection of training methods.

And, now, we are starting to see that other approaches may also have merit, and that different approaches may be warranted at different times or in different orders (as proposed by most human trauma experts and neuroscience research). For example, the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (see slide. diagram by Dr. Bruce Perry, above) emphasizes the importance of interventions that help regulate the brain stem and limbic system before cortical thinking, learning, and performance are possible. If you try to get a human (or another mammal, for that matter) try to perform or learn something when they are dominated by the dysregulated survival parts of the brain, this is the neurological equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

Coming Together

This “chapter” is not intended to malign, alienate, shame, discredit, or call out equine professionals, horse owners, or equestrians. If you have made it this far and find your back is up or that you are feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to pause, breathe, and be curious about your reaction to what you have just read. If you can, shift out of the mental story you are telling yourself and track the sensations in your body until they shift and release. Notice what happens then – our state often determines the story we believe.

Rather, I am hoping that bringing a trauma lens opens up new avenues for conversation so that we can see our common humanity and mammalian-ness. That we can support one another for our own good and for the good of the horses. Shedding light on what is unconscious or unspoken can be uncomfortable at first as we see the dust, clutter, and broken items in our own inner closets. No one said personal growth was easy or sexy. But doing so can lead to a sense of hope when we recognize that there are steps we can take to re-organize and repair, and that there are resources out there to help us do it.

We all have stuff. It’s ok to name it and own it. To quote Ram Dass, “we’re all just walking each other home.” What can we do to make this walk more comfortable for one another? What can we do better? We owe it to ourselves, our clients, and our horses. We all fare better when we are all faring better. And there is room for all of us in the herd – we all have something to offer.

Sarah Schlote