How Horses Can Help
Horses tend to stay at a low arousal level. They prefer not to be overly anxious, not to have to be watchful of their environment, and not to do anything terribly complex. However, they do experience the different shifts in arousal we discussed in earlier blogs.
How to Identify the Horse’s Arousal Levels
A horse whose brainwaves approximate the human's Delta state will be sleeping; sometimes laying down, sometimes standing up. Yes, horses can sleep standing up!
A horse who is in a state that is similar to the human’s Theta state may appear to be daydreaming or looking off into the sky.
A calm horse whose arousal levels reflect the same levels of a human’s Alpha brainwave levels will show a relaxed posture, calm eyes, and ears tilted slightly forward. They will be watching and engaging with you, but will be clearly very calm. They may seem to be only mildly interested in what is going on, and will clearly not be anxious or nervous.
A horse who is mildly aroused and whose brainwave patterns most approximate those of a human in the Beta state will have its head up, an alert look in its eyes, and its ears pricked forward to pick up on any sound.
A horse who is quite excited, is learning something new, or is engaged in competition will approximate the human’s Gamma state. It will have its head up, ears forward, and eyes bright and interested. It will respond to any subtle shift in its surroundings and react accordingly.
Horses take their emotional and arousal cues from their riders. So, whatever state the rider is in, the horse will typically mimic that state. The therapist can then make observations to the client about how they are feeling based on the horse’s reaction to that client.
Similarly, a talented therapist can assist the client to change their arousal state by choosing an activity that will prompt a particular state in the horse. Clients also tend to mimic the horse once a bond is formed.
Thus, if you want to increase the client’s arousal, choose competitive activities that encourage Gamma wave activity.
If you want to decrease arousal, use activities such as rhythmic, slow grooming which help the client and horse both get to a Delta or Theta state.
If you want to encourage the Alpha state, choose medium tasks such as thorough grooming, tacking up, or steering the horse while on leadline.
Shifts in Brainwaves As a Function of Movement
Several studies have been conducted that monitor shifts in EEG activity in riders. Overall, what these studies find is that activity in the frontal cortex (the part that tells the rest of the brain which state it should be in) is increased after as little as 20 minutes in the saddle.
What we see is an ability to shift from one brain wave pattern to another is made easier and faster after time on the horse.
Those with ADD/ADHD brain wave patterns tend to come closer to what we call “normal." They spend less time in the Theta state and more in the Beta and Gamma states. Thus, they learn better, retain more easily, and show improvements in their ability to self-monitor.
At TROT, we have seen patients reduce or even eliminate dependence on medications to manage the ADD/ADHD. We see patients improve in school behavior and get better grades.
And we have wonderful compliance. Folks who are riding are having fun as well as re-programming their brains to function more effectively.