You can stop stress in its tracks and recover quickly from its fiendish grip. Scientists who study the human brain have determined that when you are stressed or scared, the immediate reaction is to run, fight, freeze or fawn (appease/go along with).  In this state your ability to think clearly and creatively is severely reduced. This is because the area of the brain that registers and processes emotions like fear is separate from and responds quicker than the part of the brain that uses reason to “tame” those emotions. But when you learn to recognize the moment you become more alert before it turns into alarm or full-blown fear, you can cut it off at the pass. Then with a calm, thinking brain, you can ask your creative, curious self, “what’s a more positive approach that will reduce my stress and lead to a better outcome?” and you’ll get your answer.

EXPLORE-The Horse’s View

Horses offer insight into how this works.

I raised the stick above my hip and knew immediately it was a mistake. The tricolor paint saw the movement of my right arm and began running for her life at the end of the lunge line as if shot out of a cannon. The sensitive mare was not familiar with my tool and saw it as a threat, immediately choosing to run first and think later. Lowering the stick and my shoulders to release the pressure, she slowed and then stopped. The tension in her body, with head high, eyes wide and nostrils flared were consistent with the fear and adrenalin surging through her body. Where there is tension, there is no learning.


The fear centers of a horse’s brain are in the same place as a human, but because their thinking brain is less developed, the ability to dampen the fear response with rational thought is limited and varies depending on the horse’s innate personality. To get the desired response, I need to approach with a less threatening posture and intention and then reward the response that keeps her calm and both of us safe so she will repeat it. If I bring the stick higher and come at her with a focus and energy that again registers as a threat to the horse, I will get the same fear driven response as before. Renowned scientist, author and specialist in creating systems to counter stress in certain animal populations, Temple Grandin calls this a “hyper-specific” response of the horse to their environment.

The Human’s View

Humans have a much more powerful “governor” on the engine of our fears and can generalize the experience of stress. No matter what is causing it, we can control how much we are affected by stress and, with curiosity and creativity, learn and apply a consistently effective approach to relieve it.

With the average amount of stress coming at us regularly (we’re not talking about trauma response here), the ability to pause and check in with the body allows us to come up with several alternatives to fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Instead of starting an argument with a loved one, we can take a moment to see what is really happening and find the patience and the words to express understanding. If our habit is to withdraw, then pause and come up with a course of action-do something! And if we are used to giving in to the wishes of others, learn to stand our ground and practice boundaries. For me, it has been an eye opener to see how quickly stress drives me to keep myself busy instead of sitting with my thoughts and exploring my needs and feelings.

DISCOVER-Sharing the Horse’s View with the Human

As part of the Life Lessons with Horses experience, my students are able to witness first-hand how their own body’s reaction to stress can be reflected in the horse. When a woman struggling to set boundaries in her life meets a sensitive, high energy mare like the one I described, the uncertain and hesitant approach of the human will send the mare’s feet in motion, prepared to exit at a moment’s notice.

Conversely, when a male student of mine who admits to feeling “a little unsure” around horses approaches the sensitive mare with an aggressive, hurried, take charge attitude, the mare again feels unsafe and paces back and forth at the end of the rope. The stress he feels registers immediately with the horse.

With the simple exercise I call “Your Horse is Your Stress”, I give each student an opportunity to see the immediate effects of tapping into their curious, creative, thinking brain. As the horse moves around them nervously, the student practices the simple act of deep breaths and shoulder shrugs. You begin by drawing the tension through your nose, raising your shoulders to your ears, followed by a release with a long exhale and dropped shoulders. The horse, being highly sensitive to its environment, knows this is different and lowers her head, licks her lips and “blows”, a soft exhale that signals a release of tension. Rinse, lather, repeat as they say and you will have a horse who finds it easier to think and respond in the presence of a calm, curious, creative human.

With practice, and the help of your teacher the horse, you can recognize stress in your body before it goes out of control with a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. While it is impossible to eliminate all stress from our lives, consciously bringing your response to the thinking brain allows you to get curious and create new, more effective approaches to managing it.

Practice the skill of relieving stress in your life with your equine teacher at Life Lessons with Horses.  

And REGISTER TODAY for our new class, “Managing Stress in Your Life (with Horses)” starting Feb 2020