The Emotional System

I have been considering the systems of horses and humans for a few years now and how they work when healthy and what happens when they malfunction. I worked with a mentor a couple of years back who helped me see that humans and horses do function on systems and this can be observed and understood.

The physical system is the one we have the easiest access to and seems pretty straightforward. Too often we start and stay here with horses and sometimes we get lucky and things basically work. Sometimes our incomplete emphasis on the physical causes train wrecks.

The mental system is incredibly important and often overlooked. People sometimes move into this place when they realize the need to find root causes and it is often consider training. Good training, what I’ve heard called education of the horse, will go to the mental system- poor training only considers the physical system which generally results in force.

The emotional system I find the most elusive and also the one the human might can cause the most trouble without awareness. In my search to better understand how this system works I’ve delved into how it relates to the human world. Humans have a more complex emotional system and being a human I have some experience sorting through emotional health as well as imbalance and trauma of my own.

Animals tend to have a more simple emotional world. If left alone they are usually emotionally balanced. In a healthy horse herd there is a leader (generally a smart mare) that takes care of logistics like where the best grazing and water is, when the safest time to drink, sleep and eat, there are follower herdmates knowing and sometimes testing their hierarchy order, and a stallion that protects the herd from predators or other roving stallions. Pretty simple life and everyone knows where they fit and what is expected.

When humans get involved we do things that create confusion to the simply ordered life horses are born into. Our horsecare can be confusing and stressful to a horse- being confined in stalls, separated from the social structure of a herd, inadequate or absent leadership (horse and human) ends up leaving the middle of the pack personality horses feeling insecure, and the dominant ones like they must take over at all costs to save everyone… and then there is the human training process and the human emotional systems themselves that create problems for the otherwise balanced creatures.

Finding the most natural way to keep horses as possible in our domesticated lives is key to starting with an emotionally balanced creature. Herdmates, access time grazing and fresh water, the ability to move about freely in the open air all are a good place to start. If a horse is kept in solitary confinement, has to go long hours without forage or doesn’t have a good herd leadership hierarchy you will be starting from imbalance before you add your own emotional system questions into the mix.

Most horse people accept now that the physical system of the human affects the horse. If we ride them out of balance we create that imbalance in their body. If we have a stiff side or injury or bad habit we will create blocks of movement and trouble and often over time if unaddressed leading to injury for them as well.

In the mental system if we do not stay on our mental toes 100% of the time – depending on the horses level of intelligence and leadership nature- they will take over the mental system and they certainly can begin to train YOU instead of the other way around. They can be so subtle and sophisticated about it so the human doesn’t even realize this is going on.

I believe the problems that leak into the emotional system however can be the most difficult to recognize and reverse and can put humans in the most danger as well.

When healthy and balanced in all three systems, a horse-human team enjoys working together, trusts the other to give their best and stays connected and thoughtful. They communicate clearly and honestly. Mistakes are quickly forgiven and forgotten; stability and connection is apparent. The emotions are things like joy, happy, confident, excited, peace, satisfaction, amusement… and even sadness, frustration, nervous, confused can be balanced emotions when based on reality. We should be sad at the loss of an old beloved herdmate, it’s ok to feel disappointment when we miss the mark or a fun adventure is canceled, a big event will bring some nervous energy, frustration is real at times (though must be handled properly) and I’ve been confused more than once by what my horse is trying to communicate to me.

Honesty within the emotional system is vital

First with ourselves and then with those around us including our equine partners. It is unhelpful to pretend one is not afraid, nervous or frustrated. The horses are a million times more sensitive to us and don’t understand the concept of dishonesty so they sense a disconnect that makes them uncomfortable and distrusting. Unfortunately this is the case even when the human doesn’t understand their emotional system and doesn’t realize they are being dishonest. Being out of touch with your emotions can be deeply problematic to your horse as well as your friends and family.

The malfunctioning of the emotional system creates bigger problems. This is when our feelings of fear, anger, mad, annoyed, anxious, vengeful, offended, hatred, jealous and the like take over our actions. We are headed to dangerous territory.

Disclaimer: There are real honest moments for fear (coming upon a grizzly bear or mountain lion on a trail ride) and things (like injustice and suffering of innocents) that we should be angry about, however even in these cases we still must use our heads- the mental system– to safely navigate through the danger or anger.

When we move to acting out of fear, anger, vengeance etc we lose our ability to function in a healthy thoughtful way. We damage the relationships around us. We lose trust and connection.

Most horse people know that fear is one of our worst enemies with horses. If we operate out of fear horses sense it and they either join and begin acting out of fear themselves or they deem us untrustworthy because we are afraid when nothing is truly dangerous.

When we work with a horse in anger we cannot connect and communicate openly, we blame and fight instead of work together. We assume their responses aren’t giving their best and we punish them. (This is true for human relationships too; the horse-human relationship is simpler to examine because horses have more honest responses than other humans with their own emotional system imbalances). When trust is broken the protective layers must be built in, horses (and humans) will avoid, shut down, or sometimes fight back to protect themselves.

When horses fight back humans are in the most danger. Sometimes this is obvious as in biting or striking but often it’s more subtle in bucking, rearing, or throwing the rider from the saddle at an ‘opportune’ moment. Horses have the ability to spook and keep their rider in the sweet spot- balanced safely through the evasive protective maneuver, or they can twist just a few inches and toss a human into a tree, jump or rail. That doesn’t mean a human is always well enough balanced and athletic to stay on or a loose girth/cinch can’t mean a fall. But I’ve ridden a fair amount of honest spooks and I’ve certainly been intentionally dumped (deservedly). There’s a difference.

Dishonesty will get us no where. When your spouse asks what’s wrong and you say “NOTHING!!” You aren’t fooling anyone. Pretending you don’t have fear also doesn’t fool your horse. This builds layers of distrust. Don’t lie. Not to yourself. Not to your horse. Not to your husband. And not to God. He knows.

Unfortunately people (myself included) have learned in the short term we can get away with avoiding the malfunction. Shutting it down, pretending it’s not there, ‘don’t go there’, run away, distract… or get a tool of force (bully) that hides the root issue… It seems harmless at first- but you become a prisoner to the thing you try to hide. And gradually that little corner you try to keep in a box and avoid grows and spreads until you have few places you can exist honestly anymore.

Facing the malfunction is step one. And you may need time to work through the process. It IS acceptable to tell your husband: I’m not sure why I’m so angry right now can I get back to you when I have had some time to think it over? And if you have too little emotional reserves and find yourself angry with your horse- it is wise to quit for the day and regroup before you cause lasting relationship damage with a critical frustrated session.

Fear is probably the number one killer of healthy relationships. Fear of injury, fear of loss, fear of not having what it takes, all of these are self defeating and bring about the very thing they try to ward off. Facing fear (and other malfunctioning emotions) honestly is vital in the healing and rebalancing of the system.

The only antidote to malfunction in the emotional system i have found is TRUTH. When we apply TRUTH the system begins to reboot. Sometimes it takes many applications and time – this is a good reason to do this quickly and often before wrong feelings can take deep root. The farther off course the emotional system gets the longer the road back to balance and health.

The biggest hinderance and a subject too big to cover here is that many people today have lost hold of TRUTH. It’s become relative in our culture. We all get to pick what’s true for us. Our feelings rule and become truth which is completely backwards/upside down and will build a life on a foundation of shifting sand. TRUTH hasn’t actually become relative any more than not believing in gravity makes us able to not be subject to it. But it’s left our culture at a loss for facing emotional system malfunction which has created deep problems in relationships and brokenness all around us.

Instead of TRUTH being applied many have inserted ‘self-talk’ … you remember: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me!

If that’s true then you’re good to go. But you may not be good enough (yet), you may not be very smart, and if you’ve been behaving like an angry arrogant jerk then probably people and your horse don’t like you. No self talk – based on what you hope to be true but isn’t -will ever heal your broken emotional system.

Maybe you don’t know all you need today- maybe the truth is that you are learning and improving and trying your best. Maybe you have have hurt relationships from being critical, nagging, responding in fear and insecurity- the truth is you can begin new patterns and honestly make the effort to emotional health and balance. Give those around you (your horse) time to trust the new direction.

Staying present can help with fear: am I OK RIGHT NOW? This is also TRUTH. Stay tuned to what IS not what you think could be in your nightmares. Very often our fears are based on a past experience or a future imagination. Do not allow a past experience to claim your present. Do not allow an imagined future to destroy your success working with a horse or human that hasn’t actually harmed you. Work with what IS happening and talk about the situation at hand- with the horse or person you are working with. It is unfair to punish someone for your imagined potential injury. It is ok to be aware of past patterns but deal with them honestly and allow the space for the present reality.

Anger and frustration usually come from putting goals ahead of relationship. Feeling like there isn’t enough time to do things slowly, step by step and allowing for the process. Humans are usually the slave of Chronos the god of never enough time, running out of time, and time is money.

Being clear and demanding of our horses and those we work with is a good thing, we should have high expectations of performance! That is an honor- we love working for someone who believes in us. However being critical and nitpicky is counterproductive and makes humans and horses feel like they can never please and why bother trying.

TRUTH has helped heal a lot of brokenness in my emotional system and I still continually work on it when a malfunction occurs. I have the good fortune of learning that I’ve been created on purpose for a purpose. That God loves me, has a plan for my life and even when I face obstacles and setbacks they will be used for my own good. He has set a time for these things and no matter how I fight I won’t get there before it’s time, and I can’t screw up so badly that I miss the time either as long as I stay sensitive best I’m able to how he leads me.

For me this is where the composite horseshoe meets the road. Do I believe it or not? Is it just a nice story that makes me feel better or is it the TRUTH of the universe. I don’t have a faith based on fairy tales and nice ideas. Actually it’s been built on blood, sweat and many tears — taking small steps and seeing real transformation and applying concepts and watching what happens. My brain is way too scientific and logical to buy into fairy tales. I need results. And each step gives me the confidence to take another one. That is what faith is- a building of a life one tested step at a time gives way to more confidence as the stones stack up into a firm foundation. A life built on a rock that is solid, balanced and healthy over time.

This enables me to walk in freedom and it allows those around me (equine and human) to be free from my fears and imbalances. I want my horse to choose to partner with me in freedom. I want the people around me to be able to be honest with me and want to work with me as well. I want freedom, stability, peace and joy. It enables me to (on a good day) give up trying to manipulate and control everything and everyone — playing God.

It is counterproductive to assume everyone else around me must create an environment where I’m never challenged and am always comfortable with. If I want an environment of freedom around me then I must go first!

Below I’ll share some of my favorite truths that have helped to bring my malfunctioning emotional system back into alignment with what I know.

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:28‬

“For we are his workmanship, creates for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭2:10‬

“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭1:7‬

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
‭‭Philippians‬ ‭4:13‬

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭19:11‬

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans of good things and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭29:11‬

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart…”
‭‭Ecclesiastes‬ ‭3:11‬

5 thoughts on “The Emotional System

  1. One thought…. we know we live in an imperfect world. That includes animals. When left alone I think we can expect imperfection there as well. So I wonder Just how balanced they are……. if they are really “emotionally” balanced for the most part. It would be interesting to observe herds and see just how “fair” things are. And how one determines that. Just a thought- I’m not jumping to conclusions.

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    1. I think I wrote: If left alone they are usually emotionally balanced.

      I believe that to be true. There are always exceptions. I also believe that ‘fair’ is a more human construct. I know my horses don’t seem to consider the concept of ‘fair’ in the way humans seem to.

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  2. Your ‘stay present’ and ‘am I okay right now’ is a strategy I’ll use. I’m becoming paralyzed with fear riding alone with my horse – my anxiety is feeding into her, causing both of us to distrust. In contrast, when riding with a trail friend her energy (I guess mine, too!) settles down to 2 or 3 from a 10. I’m reading through Priscilla Shirer’s book, “Fervent” on prayer that’s also really helpful.
    I love your blogs, they bring me good and hopeful tears and smiles – connection. Glad to be led to the brush strokes of your life in God’s masterpiece!

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