Benefits of Therapeutic Riding
This is Willowbank’s most unique contribution to horse/human therapy. It draws on Carol’s combination of training in medical molecular biology, dressage, and therapeutic riding, as well as life experiences.
Stress is currently a major issue in human health. The increasingly fast pace of society challenges our natural energy systems, although we are often not even aware of what is going on. This is because energy is managed by the midbrain and autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the system we have in common with horses. Reasoning and conscious awareness (human forebrain activities) are not required.
Basis body functions like breathing, heartbeat, digestion and movement all require energy, but they cannot all go full tilt all the time. Our bodies are equipped with two independent autonomic (ANS or spontaneous) energy systems. The first, a lower energy (parasympathetic or ‘routine’) system manages production of energy, and organ distribution of energy, as needed to support basic organ functions and the routine activities of life. This lower- energy system also feeds the body’s maintenance systems for growth, repair, and restoration of energy reserves.
The second autonomic (ANS) energy system (sympathetic or ‘emergency’) kicks in when stressful situations stimulate adrenaline production (and related hormonal etc. responses). The ‘routine’ energy system is shut down, but overall energy production is pumped up. This new energy is directed mostly to the specific organs, muscles and emotions involved in dealing with the stress. This emergency high energy ‘state of being’ takes over until the stress is somehow significantly reduced.
This worked fairly well when we humans were hunter/gatherers. The hunt only lasted an hour or two, until dinner was captured or the prey escaped, or the tables were reversed and we were the unlucky prey. However, the stressors of modern society are prolonged and often repeated. Our bodies are not equipped to keep on producing energy at this high level. Bits of our bodies begin to burn out.
How do we intentionally shut down the emergency response, so our ‘routine’ energy system can check back in, restore emotional balance, and get our body humming along happily again?
Biologically, the essential change is to regain control of the adrenaline production that triggered the high-energy response. This is exactly what happens while just sitting, relaxed and centered, on the back of a happy, healthy horse. As the horse walks (with a leader), waves of energy from the powerful hind legs of the horse, nudge the horse’s vertebrae forward and upward, in sequence. After a nudge , the vertebra springs back due to the elastic connections between vertebrae, and is ready for the next wave of energy.
You, the rider, are sitting on these waves of movement. Actually, you are sitting on two bumps (seat bones) on your pelvic girdle, which press gently around the horse’s spine. (Sit up straight on a hard chair and you will feel your seat bones!) Your seat bones, one after the other, get repeatedly pushed forward and up by the horse’s vertebral column. However, your pelvic girdle is tied to your spine at the sacroiliac . As each pulse of energy comes from the horse’s spine into yours, your vertebrae wobble, one after the other, all the way up to the top of your neck. This wave of wobbles moves all the ANS nerve centers (spinal ganglia) located on both right and left sides of each vertebra. Your entire autonomic system is stimulated, but YOU are not doing it –the horse is! YOU are just sitting, relaxed and passive. Your body is almost adrenaline free . Your high-energy emergency system gets the ‘Adrenaline? All clear’ signal, and your ‘routine’ energy system is able to check back in.
As the energy shift takes place, a few people have experienced a short (20-60 second) period when tears appear, or you become flushed, or feel vulnerable. These are body language for past experience of sorrow, anger, or fear respectively, and represent release from emotional stress. You will be rewarded with a wonderful sense of well-being. It may take several sessions for the results to become palpable. In time, your emotional state will start to shift – from anxiety to confidence, from frustration to contentment, from isolated to connected. Knots in muscles will loosen, and you will become more comfortable and relaxed. Your energy reserves will be restored and your body will begin to repair itself.
For centuries, people have noticed that riding a horse makes you feel good.
There are other examples with similar biology. A child in a papoose, swinging from a branch in a breeze, is happy. The child does nothing, and therefore produces very little adrenaline, releasing the high energy stress response, and rhythmic swinging stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in the child’s back and restores serenity. A child, close to mother, being rhythmically patted on the back, belches, and feels better as the ANS is stimulated and reaches the digestive system. Rhythmic walking is a well-known relaxant. Walking makes waves of motion travel up the vertebrae, again stimulating the ANS and restoring routine energy management.
Two things are necessary for the stress release effect. First, the stressed person must be relatively passive – doing as little as possible. Second, the vertebrae must be subjected to waves of rhythmically repeated movement, started at the base of the spine. While walking, the stress conscious person is doing something – walking. Some adrenaline, some neurological signals to walk, are still present and the stress release is less powerful. Sitting passively on a horse, you are subjected to relaxing waves of rhythmically repeated movements , resulting in a relaxing, stress releasing experience.
© Carolyn Miller, PHD & CANTRA Instructor