Why horses can teach us
how to deal with trauma
Delphine Dépy Carron, printemps 2021
You’ll be familiar with the scene from any typical wildlife programme. A herd of horses is idly grazing in scrubland in the heat of the day. Suddenly, one lifts its head, ears pricked. In the distance a puma has started to run at speed toward the group, targeting one of the young colts. Instinctively sensitive to the presence of a predator, one horse alerts the group and they swiftly gallop away. A decent head start means they escape the threat and, before long, the horses are idly chewing from pastures new. It’s a typical example of survival and the fight, flight or freeze response that lives within us all.
I’ve been reminded a lot of this fundamental response in recent weeks as we have all been feeling the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. No one has experienced anything quite like this; it’s been disruptive, threatening and, yes, even traumatic for many. Whether you have survived the illness yourself, had to deal with the horror of a loved one ravaged by this new disease, or simply been struggling with the constraints of lockdown, trauma is commonplace during this health and humanitarian crisis—and we’ve had more time than usual to reflect on and wrestle with the effects of the extremes of grief, scarcity and isolation.
Just like that herd of horses, we are mammals and, while we are not faced with puma’s around every corner, the pandemic and the stresses and strains of modern life mean that we know what it is like to feel similarly under threat. And our bodies react accordingly. We have the same need as those horses to be secure, to feel we belong to our own groups, whether families or communities, and to solve problems that avoid suffering trauma. We can learn from horses, too, in how they adopt individual roles within the group that make their communities stronger, understanding that their survival depends on it.
Trauma can unite us— and tear us apart
Trauma is not an event but an automatic response of the nervous system to a perceived overwhelming threat. A baseline of trauma can inspire collective action, such as neighbours helping each other during the pandemic or volunteering. Or it can lead to feelings of self-preservation, kick-starting that fight or flight response that is both isolating and damaging. Trauma can also be an outcome of the freeze response. Horses often stand still and shake violently after an incident such as the stalking puma. This releases energy and helps them to rebalance and restore their nervous system state. Human beings can similarly freeze—trauma can leave us immobilised—but rather than shaking to release that energy, we have learned to suppress our natural behaviours, frequently internalizing issues and becoming trapped in a cycle of despair.
Fight, flight or freeze reactions come directly from our autonomous nervous system. The responses mean our brains can repeat these helpless, hopeless feelings internally so that our neural pathways begin to believe they represent who we are. In periods of high anxiety, we allow ourselves to imagine many different futures. We project our fears, confusing ourselves with a story which we play out so convincingly in our heads that it becomes an acceptable version of the truth.
So, there’s not much that we can do about that, right? Well, it might be an automatic biological response but we do have control over how we handle it.
@HiMage / Thomas Carron
As a neuroscientist and in my work using animals for assisted coaching I have helped people to see these situations as a challenging opportunity rather than a threat. When we are in a state of fight, flight or freeze and feel immobilised or powerless, we might think we are unable to find solutions or generate new ideas. But in such situations we can tap into a state of ventral parasympathetic control, by simply digesting what happens and showing up in the present moment. Living in the here and now means we don’t feel anxious any longer; we can avoid catastrophic dramas, and just accept where we are. And if we free our minds by avoiding thoughts about what might happen, we can imagine new solutions, transform our activities and be better able to care for others. Suddenly, there is a world of possibilities.
Horses show us how to live in the present
Wolves, dolphins and horses are just some of the mammals that act as a community in response to threats. They stick together because they know instinctively that acting outside of the collective, shutting down and becoming isolated, is far less effective—there’s safety in numbers. And research shows there is a link between physical pain and “social” pain, such as rejection or loss. Emerging evidence suggests that experiences of social pain—the painful feelings associated with social disconnection—rely on some of the same neurobiological layers that underlie experiences of physical pain.
Here’s where horses come into their own. To collaborate with a horse, it is important to be fully in the present moment, with your emotions, body and mind all aligned. Let me tell you about Peter, a busy senior executive with a broad range of responsibilities a complicated personal life, Peter was far from being fully present in the here and now. Life was so fast-paced, he was highly stressed and always aware that his endless task list was unfulfilled.
Having introduced Peter to a horse coaching session, there was an obvious disconnect. Horses are highly sensitive to threats—and with someone who is not present and aligned, the horse will assume you are hiding something and is unable to collaborate. Through regular breathing and coaching exercises, Peter was able to not only to be more present, to better interact with the horse, but also improve his relationship with others, becoming more agreeable at work and kinder and more compassionate at home.
This kind of coaching has been particularly effective on the Craigberoch Business Decelerator courses run by my friend and colleague, Gib Bulloch, on the Isle of Bute. By concentrating on space, rhythm and deep breathing—and allowing horses and nature to inspire—participants are better able to welcome what happens and handle their emotions so that they can decelerate to innovate.
How to tackle trauma in a crisis
Here are three ways you could manage your own trauma in disruptive times:
Live in the present. Embrace the reality of today, rather than making assumptions about the needs of tomorrow. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that life is often unpredictable and demands us to adapt. Deep breathing, connecting to our own bodies and minds is a pragmatic way to look after our own health and wellbeing so that we are better able to help those around us (at home and at work).
Mix it up. Einstein’s theory of madness was doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. There is little doubt that uncertainty and change need us to live in the present and be open to new opportunities. For example, those companies that switched their production of gin to hand sanitizer during the pandemic have profited as well as contributed to improving a difficult situation.
Connect and collaborate. Developing a community of support can create ideas that help us rethink how we organise ourselves and our companies. Research studies have shown that connection to others is linked to positive outcomes, particularly in times of stress and trauma. And there is further evidence that social experience can have a central role in the way an individual responds to trauma from our early days onwards.
Once we are functioning as the “best version of ourselves” we are more able to handle personal traumas. Horses can help us get there. Above all, be open and collaborate with others—then you can be sure to outrun your own version of that puma.
 Parasympathetic nervous system: The part of the involuntary nervous system that serves to slow the heart rate, increase intestinal and glandular activity, and relax the sphincter muscles.
 Eisenberger, N. The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nat Rev Neurosci 13, 421–434 (2012).
 Schultz, Katie & Cattaneo, Lauren & Sabina, Chiara & Brunner, Lisa & Jackson, Sabeth & Serrata, Josephine. (2016). Key roles of community connectedness in healing from trauma. Psychology of Violence. 6. 42-48. 10.1037.
Neuroscientist and executive coach, Delphine Dépy Carron, has been helping leaders, intrapreneurs, teams and organizations to reinvent themselves for more than 20 years. Studying intelligence, she discovered how animal intelligence can be a powerful source of inspiration and development for humans. She is regularly asked to help organizations develop emotional intelligence, leadership, relational intelligence, and creativity. Her programs involve working with horses or dolphins to accelerate awareness and promote sustainable behavioral change. Delphine is also a horse coaching trainer at HEC Paris School of Coaching.