Emotions play a vital role in our day-to-day lives. They pretty much determine how our entire day will go; how we learn, how we interact with others, how we perform at work, etc… There are a variety of emotions, both positive and negative, that many of us have not been properly educated on, nor equipped to properly navigate through our challenging emotional states.
The same applies to our equine companions! From “primary” emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, anxiety, surprise, and fear, to more complex “secondary” emotions such as jealousy, grief, guilt, pride, shame, that require higher cognitive development and self-awareness — horses experience all sorts of emotions! There is just less scientific research and education on these topics. But, this does not mean emotional wellness is not an incredibly vital component that we, as equestrians, should take an extra step to educate and inform ourselves on!
As a rider, trainer, and responsible horse-owner, this should pose more of a concern to you than anyone else. Why? Because animals behave according to their emotional state. With that being said, it’s no surprise that emotions play a HUGE role in how our horses train, play, socialize, compete, perform, etc… Have you ever been able to predict how your ride is going to go from the moment you bring your horse in from the field? We can tell when our horses aren’t feeling 100% — whether it is their mood, attitude, or something physical.
Unfortunately, horses are not at liberty to verbally express their feelings. They also do not have the same cognitive abilities that humans do to work through their emotional states. They express themselves through their “native tongues”; body language and behaviours (i.e. appeasement behaviours, vocal signals, etc).
How can we support the emotional wellbeing of our equine companions?
With that being said, what can we do to support our horse’s needs? How can we support their emotional and physical wellbeing? SMELL! Smell is the one sense that is hardwired to control our brain in any psychological state. Smells can trigger memories and emotions, no matter the situation, more successfully than any of our other senses. It’s like the emergency reboot function on an iPhone!
Why? The olfactory bulb, the little thing in our brains that recognizes smells; is a part of the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that deals with emotions, memories, and feelings. “When you smell things, the olfactory bulb talks to the rest of the system, allowing your brain to make a connection between the smell and what you’re feeling or experiencing at the time.” (via Arizona State University). Have you ever smelled something, and instantly been brought back to an incredibly vivid childhood memory? That’s your limbic system working it’s magic.
How does smell support my horse’s emotional wellness? What kind of “smells” should I be using?”
Animals learn based on repeated action and rewards or punishment (R+/- and P+/-), similarly to the way humans learn. Science backs this one up too! Neuroplasticity [in humans], shows that cortical thickening allows us to sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections based on repeated practice. In layman’s terms; What you practice grows stronger. What we practice with ourselves, grows stronger; what we practice with our horses, grows stronger.
With emotions and emotional reactions, it isn’t as simple as “shutting down the negative emotions” or “practicing different ones”. Resorting to temporary training solutions such as spurs, a crop, etc, are “bandaids” to patch up certain problems for the time being. But, left untreated or not properly cared for, the “wound” cannot heal and will likely lead to further issues down the line. Similarly, with emotions we need to reprogram our brains, and our horse’s brains to be emotionally equipped for challenging situations.
There are a variety of ways you can go about “re-programming” and emotionally equipping yourself and your horse. One very powerful tool is essential oils. Their smells are incredibly utile, and an all-natural solution that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Essential oils are an awesome tool that have many benefits physically, emotionally, and they are an affordable option! In my next blog post, we will walkthrough the benefits of essential oils, along with a “How to” on using them. I will also be inviting a special guest to offer her expertise on the subject.
I know many of you will be very interested to do a bit more research on the topic of equine emotions, the science behind smell, and so fourth. Here are some articles I have found helpful:
- A calmer horse is just a sniff away by the University of Arizona
- Do Horses have Emotions? by Ryan Gingerich
- Effects of Aromatherapy on Equine Heart Rate Variability by Ann Linda Baldwin
- Can Aromatherapy calm competition horses? by ScienceDaily
- More articles under the topic “Essential Oils” on HolisticHorse.com
Till next time – tally-ho lovelies!