What can we learn about Parenting from Horses? Part 1

Parenting is a lot like caring for horses. As I was out amongst the horses today, I had a few thoughts….i am in awe of all the experiences I have with horses. They are remarkable creatures that connect on another level, another dimension even. I have never left an encounter with them not being deeply affected. They respond to our bodies, thoughts and emotions more than they do our words. They know when we are sincere or when we are lying to them. And they know when we are congruent, meaning when our outward behavior matches with our inward feelings. Because they are prey animals, they have heightened senses to keep them safe from predators who may want to eat them. I am not sure how their brains are wired differently than predators, but clearly their awareness of their surroundings is heightened beyond what we can even imagine. People who have trauma, however, may have an easier time understanding how prey animals respond due to their overly developed fear response.

Fear is universal, an amazing integral system keeping creatures from harm. I don’t know exactly how it works in other animals, but in humans our brain uses several parts to assess danger and create a response. Our thalamus decides where to send incoming information. Next, our amygdala decodes emotions and determines possible threats.  If there is no threat, our sensory cortex interprets the information and then the hippocampus stores and retrieves conscious memories and processes the stimuli to establish context. However, if it is a threat, or even feels like a threat due to prior trauma, the amygdala will set off an alarm. This then alerts the hypothalamus which activates the “freeze” response and then decides quickly to “fight” or “flight”. The traumatic event or this new event is then stored in the amygdala instead of making all the other connections. Kids and adults with complex trauma develop a heightened fear response due to how these memories are process and stored.

Ok, so what does this have to do with parenting? When I first developed my parenting curriculum, it was geared towards those parents who were caring for children with complex trauma. They needed to understand what had happened in their child’s brain, and what a non-traumatized child can handle, theirs probably cannot. This curriculum was based off the plethora of neurodevelopmental research that has been made available over the last several decades and then refined to fit the vocabulary of parents. As I began to teach this class on a regular basis, I was practicing most of it on my own children who were mostly untouched by trauma, and it was working well for them too. It created deep connections between us and helped them especially during the times of fear to become calm enough to process whatever behavior or heart issue we might be dealing with.

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