How to Relax your Horse (and Yourself)
I'm sure you've felt it before the back coiling up like a spring, legs braced and stiff ready to bolt, the neck jams tight against your rein, your own heart gets set off, racing a thousand times a second, then panic sets in, you stiffen, your chest tightens, your breath hastens or stops all together. Your horses sense of danger sets off your own instinct to survive, your horse is now wondering if there actually should be something to worry about because it can feel your heart racing and the fear emanating from you. Your horses fear feeding yours and your fear feeding your horse adding fuel to the fire. The slightest movement, a stick fall, a leaf caught on the breeze, a gunshot in the distance and all sense of control will be lost as your horse flees blindly from whatever perceived danger they initially caught wind of.
How do we unravel this set of events? How can we step in and change this scenario before it unfolds and then its just a case of pure skill, how well can you just hang on?
Well, from one perspective there is a lot to be done with building the relationship, establishing yourself as a trusted leader, showing your horse how to process its emotions without reaction but that's not what we are going to talk about today. Today we are talking about the vagus nerve.
This is something I accidentally figured out with my 3rd horse King. He was super flighty, sensitive and mistrusting of people. He only let me ride him for fear of what would happen to himself if he didn't and mostly he lived in a state of anxiety on the brink of losing control of himself at the drop of a hat (literally) anything that dropped would set him off. I got really good at hanging on, like really, really good, like half the time you saw me riding King I was half off the side of him as he took the bolt trying to pull myself back into the saddle with the one rein I still had hold of. And there was one truly important lesson I learnt with King: never let your emotions become involved in the situation.
If ever I got excited, scared, enthusiastic, tried to muck around and have fun, any kind of high erratic emotional state, bam I'd be on the floor, frequently winded, that boy had some skill. He drilled it into me so strongly that to this day, if people get too excited, chaotic and carried away around me, I feel like I'm going to fall off a horse. (seriously its a problem!) As a result, I stumbled across a few tricks that worked really well to quickly and effectively drop my levels of anxiety, heart rate and respiratory rate, EVEN WHEN I can feel my horse coiling up ready to freak out, and EVEN WHEN I am scared I am going to fall off (however, not when I've had too much coffee, although I do have a trick for that as well). And I didn't understand the science behind what I was doing until I became a naturopath and learnt about the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve (nerve from the brain) which is in control of your parasympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of rest and digest. It is that deep relaxation feeling that you get from eating and then you want to lie down and have a nap on the couch. The sympathetic nervous system is kind of like the opposite of the parasympathetic nervous system it gets stimulated by fear and threats on survival to be triggered into fight or flight. Stimulating the vagus nerve can block your trigger into fight or flight and keep you in that relaxed state even when your safety is potentially threatened.
3 ways to stimulate the vagus nerve
- HUMMING, CHANTING AND SINGING: Have you ever found yourself in a stressful situation and started humming or singing. I do this a lot, in fact if you see me riding a nervy horse you will probably hear me humming. When I'm stressed at work or in traffic I start humming. Its a sure fire way to instantly drop my stress levels so that I can focus and concentrate.
- STRETCH YOUR HEART MUSCLE: Have you ever looked at something like your pets, your kids, a friend, family member or partner and just thought argh I love it so much I just want to squish it and love it and hold it tight and never let go!! This is your vagus nerve and oxytocin in action. Problem is its the result of an external stimulation and therefore subject to your environment. When we meditate, we practice recreating these feelings of love and gratitude. We literally create these feelings with in us so that we can express them outwards not the other way around. Regularly practicing love and gratitude flexes these muscles so you can call on them when you need them when stressed.
- DEEP BREATHING: When an external stimulus makes you feel threatened it will trip you into fight or flight, tighten your chest and make your breathing quick and tightened. By taking control of your breathing through breathing exercises you can pull yourself out of this spiral and get yourself back into a relaxed, deep breathing state. There are a couple of exercises I use: forcing your breath out through your teeth so that it engages your diaphragm and makes you breath out hard and slow. Another way to reset your respiratory rate is to breath in for 7, hold for 7 and out for 5. These are 2 exercises that you can use when your horse is on the brink of panic to help bring them back down.
Doing breathing exercises with your horse is so effective in building your relationship together. In fact, when I practice it at the halt every ride I can tune my horses respiratory rate into mine so together we can get into a state of flow to better synchronise and harmonise our movements. I practise taking those deep breaths until my horse lets go of its breath and takes a deep breath with me. I got this working so well with my horses that when we would go to competitions, when I go down the center line and halt, I take a deep breath so that my horse takes one with me and together we sync up our respiratory rate for the rest of the test, creating synchronised, harmonised, relaxed tone in our movement instead of the jittery, nervous energy that normally comes from being out with the pressure we put on ourselves to do well and the new environmental stimuli for our horses.
Health benefits of regular vagus nerve stimulation
Being able to control and stimulate our vagus nerve can vastly improve our performance and relationship with our horses. It can also reduce anxiety and overcome rider fear and help us get that foot in the stirrup and swing on even though our brain is saying no, no, NO!!! It does take practice to get this kind of control over our vagus nerve and create vagal tone. The good new is, that regular practise also has some resounding health benefits. In the brain low vagal tone can contribute to anxiety and depression. In the gut it can lead to indigestion, IBS and other stress associated digestive upsets. Working with your vagus nerve can lower your heart rate and risk of heart disease, lower your blood glucose, support your adrenal function, reduce systemic inflammation and promote your bodies detoxification processes. It influences the release of oxytocin, which is the hormone that makes you feel love for other people and responsible for social bonding. It helps to get you into a state of relaxed concentration and movement, which is what we are trying to do when we ride. Vagus nerve stimulation also normalises stress hormones and reduces excess cortisol.
Other practices that promote vagal tone
- Positive social relationships
- Tai chi
- Getting sufficient EPA and DHA from your essential fatty fish oils
- Getting sufficient zinc.
These practices aren't anything new, we're just getting new science on why they are so effective. Being able to be in control of how stress affects your body and being able to switch yourself out of the sympathetic nervous responses by practising these exercises, making sure you get the right nutrition can boost your health and athletic performance.