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The Carriage Commentator




International Para Driver Emma Golding has taken the relationship we have with our horses and theorised it into an analysis of the effect we and our equines have on the nervous systems. It's a great way to approach and think about the training, performance and relationships - October 2023

Co-regulation may be a current buzzword but the theory is grounded in evolution, biology and neuroscience and it explains a lot of what horse-people have known for centuries, things like ‘from the brain down the reins’ and the fact that if we want our horses to be calm or confident, we can’t be anxious or fearful. Co-regulation is relevant to all horse sports but even more so to driving where rather than just a horse-human relationship, we have everything from horse-human-human to horse-horse-horse-horse-human-human-human; that’s a lot of individuals all impacting each other at one time!

So, what is co-regulation and why do we as humans and horses have the ability to co-regulate with each other? Put simply, co-regulation is the way your nervous system affects another’s (horse or another human) and vice versa. When we’re talking nervous system here, we’re including things like heart rate, breathing, hormones, blood flow to certain parts of the brain and emotions. Both horses and humans have subconscious awareness of the nervous system states of others but for different evolutionary reasons.

First of all, us (for anyone who doesn’t know, I have a masters in Palaeoanthropology so I love this stuff!). We are social primates and have lived in groups not only for the entirety of our species’ time on Earth but for at least (likely much longer) the previous 4 to 5 million years of our evolutionary history. Being part of a social group was and is advantageous to our survival for reasons of protection, more efficient distribution of labour, communal care of children and those unable to survive alone, and sharing of knowledge. Social groups have rules that promote or protect social cohesion and being aware of when those rules have been broken, either by an individual themself or by others in the group, is highly advantageous. Think about things like collective embarrassment even if you don’t understand the faux pas committed or being around a couple that had an argument earlier in the day and are trying to hide it but you feel the tension anyway. This is your nervous system picking up on the states of those of the people around you.

For horses, the ability to co-regulate comes from their evolution as prey animals that in the wild generally live in herds or small bands. For them, awareness of danger from predators is vital to survival. If one horse picks up on something, a scent or a sound or something out of place, this will trigger a change in their nervous system, activating their sympathetic nervous system, as they get ready to run. In terms of survival of the best adapted, the individuals that would have picked up on this early warning through their nervous system reacting in the same way would have had an advantage. One difference between horses and humans in this area though, is the horse’s ability to return much quicker to a regulated state (where the parasympathetic nervous system is activated instead of the sympathetic one) than we are able to.

Two (maybe more) things possibly contribute to this difference: it is much more important for the horse, as a prey animal to conserve energy than it is for us, therefore once the threat that has caused their sympathetic nervous system activation has passed, they return to a parasympathetic state. For us though, our nervous systems tend to hold on to things that cause dysregulation because we have more complex brains that are focused on survival in a primate social group dynamic which is far more complex than the equine herd dynamic. Our advanced brains also often almost work against themselves, with the priority of the limbic system being purely survival and the cortex attempting to make sense of the world around us.

The examples I gave of humans and horses recognising nervous system states in others above were all ‘negative’ but the same applies to ‘positive’ states like relaxation, confidence and calmness and this is what we refer to when we speak about co-regulation. This is exciting because it means we can create a positive feedback loop between our nervous system and our horses’ influencing each other to achieve that relaxed, regulated state we want – without fear, stress or tension.

The ability of both of our species to pick up so well on the nervous system states of other individuals is what means that we are able to affect each other in this way. Most of the research to date has been into the effect of the horse’s nervous system on ours. Studies have shown symptomatic improvements and structural changes in the brain after individuals with PTSD have taken part in equine assisted therapy and increased social functioning in children with autism. From a horse training and competing perspective though, the most potential arises from the effect of our nervous systems on our horses’. There are different ways of bringing our own nervous systems into a regulated state (the most commonly used and accessible are breathing techniques and meditative or grounding practices) but when we do, we can have a positive impact on the nervous systems of our horses. For our horses, paying attention to the relationships between them, especially those they are turned out with or stabled beside, building their confidence in themselves and in us, ensuring they are free of pain and helping them to release tension (essentially removing stressors for them) can all help them to regulate their nervous systems more effectively more often.

Where this all becomes even more important in driving is because we have between three and seven nervous systems all impacting each other and feeding off each other. Those moments we have as drivers or grooms where we are in a state of ‘flow’ and it seems as though all of us, humans and horses, are acting in unison, are moments when our nervous systems are co-regulated with each other. Co-regulation may not create that feeling but it won’t be possible without it.

The more time we spend in the presence of our horse and human teammates when our and their nervous systems are in stable states, the easier it becomes to co-regulate with each other at times when it matters most. I believe it’s because of this that trusting, relaxed relationships are vital between all members of a driving team; one dysregulated nervous system can throw a spanner in the works but we can take responsibility for our own and for providing our horses with an environment that enables them to find this state in themselves.