Direction of Attunement in Equine Therapy, by Claire Dorotik M.A.

Horses have, for some time now, been showing promise as a complementary modality for humans experiencing psychological distress. As the unconscious guarding that is so typical of human interactions is absent from these horse-human relationships, people often develop an affinity and camaraderie with their equine partners. Especially in the case of trauma, the hallmark neurobiological changes, such as increased excitatory neurochemicals, and exaggerated startle response, tend to obfuscate human social dynamics. As these particular individuals often feel outside of the human experience, and even detached from the self, they typically find a kinship with horses that extends beyond a cognitive congruence. Physiological changes register a calming response, and mitigation of some of the trauma effects while in the presence of horses.

Similarly, several studies have indicated that human-animal touch, and the resultant syncing of mind and body responses to be integral in trauma recovery, (Brooks, 2006; Perry, 2006; Van der Kolk, 2003; Yorke, Adams & Coady, 2008). This response has been particularly strong in human-equine interactions, (Bass, Duchowny & Llabre, 2009; Davis, 2009; Schultz, Remick-Barlow & Robbins, 2007).

Yet, while physiological attunement, as registered by a resonance of typical barometers such as heart and breath rate, is common in horse-human relationships, the direction of this attunement is somewhat up to debate. Is it, in fact, the horses that attune to the traumatized person physiology, demonstrating a spiking of the excitatory neurochemicals involved in a flight response, or is the reverse true, whereby the person’s physiology begins to mimic that of the horse?

To answer this question, we must first understand the nature of the horse, and how physiological responses are thereby dictated. The horse, in many ways, is primed to startle, and having depended on this system historically as a means of evading environmental threats, will revert to it almost automatically. Yet this response is also designed for repeated use, and therefore, must be used sparingly. To be sure, a horse frightened by something, will only flee so far before he turns around to “check” the nature of the threat. Should the threat not be actual, evading it would compromise future flight. This habitual fleeing and checking, characteristic of all horses, actually fine tunes the physiological system to detect threat with incredible precision. What this essentially allows the horse to do is detect with unique clarity, what is actually scary, and what is not. Now, enter the traumatized human. Clearly, the physiology says one thing, yet the reality is housed quite differently. There is no actual threat.

Let’s assume for a minute that this person was actually a horse, demonstrating a disparity between what is otherwise known as truth, the physiological responses, and what is reality. The foremost example is the young untrained horse who spooks at something that the older, more trained horse already understands. In this example, does the older horse’s physiological response show symmetry with that of his frightened stablemate? Assuming that it does would also assume that no learning had occurred in the older horse, that is, that the older horse had not already learned that the frightening object is of no harm. And this response has likely been adaptive for the older horse, as he has preserved his flight response for objects of actual harm. Further, social learning models are not exclusive to human, and younger horses do learn by witnessing older ones responses to novel information.

So if the answer is no, and the horse when in the presence of another horse experiencing a discrepancy between physiology and reality, as traumatized people often do, would not attune to this horse’s responses, why would the situation be different with a person? Would it not also run counter to the horse’s inherent nature to resonate with this person?

While horses can be tremendously healing, and offer an inimical connection, not typically possible in human relationships we must, in understanding this process, do justice to the horse. That is, we must understand his responses according to his hard wiring, and mostly, we must not assume that it is he who sync with us.

Claire Dorotik, M.A. is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, weight loss, eating disorders, addictions, and dual diagnosis. Claire utilizes equine facilitated psychotherapy from a psychoanalytic perspective to offer clients a unique method to understand themselves. Claire has written extensively on the topics of the psychology of weight loss, food and substance addictions, trauma, and equine therapy.  Her first three books, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond, NO SECRET SO CLOSE: A True Story of a Father’s Murder, A Mother’s Betrayal, A Family Torn Apart, and The Horses That Turned It All Around, and ALL KIDS ARE BORN THIN: A Parent’s Guide To Understanding and Preventing Childhood Obesity, are now available on Amazon Kindle.  Further information on Claire, or her upcoming books, can be found at

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