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What My Horse Showed Me About Stress

#crossovermethod #healingjourney #stress Nov 09, 2023

“Horses don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."  -Pat Parelli, Founder, Parelli Natural Horsemanship

Most people who are having ongoing challenges with food are trapped in some form of chronic pain, whether it’s emotional pain or physical pain, or both.  The inner and/or outer pain is causing their body to release stress chemicals, which are unpleasant sensations that register as a sense of unworthiness, irritation, frustration, anxiety, anger, panic, or loss of hope.  Experiencing these unwanted states without an end in sight makes people feel very anxious. They are living in a state of anxiety just about all of the time. 

Once you’re in it, it can be hard to see.  I didn’t realize this was the case for me, until it was made obvious when I saw it reflected in my young mare, CC Diamond.  Helping her helped me, so I wanted to share the methods I tried, and the way I found success, for both of us.  What I learned is surprisingly relevant to successfully self-regulating health and weight.

As a horseperson and student of Parelli Natural Horsemanship (PNH), I learned to handle and train horses based on their own language, outlook, needs, and feelings.  Just like we’re learning to see things from our body’s unique point of view, with natural horsemanship, learning to see things from the horse’s point of view was key. 

PNH develops an understanding about horses based on a philosophy that “The dynamics of horsemanship can be obtained naturally through communication, understanding and psychology.  In contrast is normal horsemanship, which is sometimes obtained through mechanics, fear, and intimation.” – Pat Parelli, Founder, “Parelli Natural Horse-man-ship.”

For example, with PNH, the rider may cue the horse to go forward by first imagining the desired movement, letting the thought (which the horse can sense), travel down to the legs and then, if the horse hasn’t already responded, gently squeezing the horse’s sides rather than kicking to go. 

Horses are especially sensitive to predatory energy, which is perceived as life threatening.  Horses are prey animals built for flight, and humans are in the category of predators (meat eaters). Building a deeply caring friendship with a horse built on trust, mutual respect, and the concept of partnership  is what natural horsemanship is all about.


Problems encountered with horses are solved differently with this philosophy of empathetic relationship building with a horse and prioritization of the quality of the relationship.  For example, if the horse tends to throw its head up while being ridden, more traditional horse trainers commonly use “tie-down” equipment attached to the bridle, which mechanically repositions and lowers the horse’s head.  Problem solved?  

In contrast, natural horse people would observe that the horse’s head is high because of its emotional state, like feeling anxious or nervous.  Therefore, tying it down would only subvert the horse’s real feelings and trap the horse into doing what the rider wanted.  While you might get a version of “obedience,” a trusting partnership could not be built this way.  You may have seen videos of equestrians riding bareback and bridle less, and that’s because a very high level of trust, communication, and cooperation has been attained within a sturdy partnership.

With PNH, the goal is to respect the horse’s feelings and use strategies that help the horse feel more confident, so the horse relaxes and feels safe enough to lower its head, not using force to make the horse change its head position, no matter how she feels. 

A too-high head would be seen as a “symptom” of an uncomfortable emotional state and would be solved by going back to nurture the foundation of the relationship.  The relationship always comes first. We “back it up” by returning to trust-building activities that initiated the horse-human partnership from the beginning.  In human terms, we initiate cues of safety.

In a similar way, with The Crossover Method, we are entering a process where it is important that your real feelings are heard, seen and felt, rather than ignored, suppressed or repressed, like using a new diet to force control and cause weight loss.  With a 97% relapse rate, we know in advance it is not a lasting way to lose weight or gain health, and certainly not a way to build an empathic, trusting relationship with oneself that can carry you through all your life stages going forward.


Horses communicate primarily through body language, which is like a canvas for their amazing perceptions. I felt I had a pretty good understanding of how to communicate through body language with horses.  However, I bit off a bit more than I could chew when I rescued a young, petite, untrained, agile, high-spirited and alpha (likes to be in charge) Arabian/Welsh pinto mare.

Horses are very social, and their sense of safety depends on belonging to a herd. CC Diamond had been kept isolated from other horses; alone, starved and neglected.  Her teeth hurt, and she didn’t respect or trust humans.  She had been trying to figure out as best as she could, how to survive in isolation without a social system, and the result was a stressed-out, hypervigilant, defensive, untrustable and dangerous mare.  Practically the only edge I had was that she was small, and I had been best friends before with a horse I trained.  The whole four years I owned her, were a door-opening chapter for me.  

After moving her into a social, herd environment, and giving her the nutrition and veterinary help she needed, I started her basic partnership training.  One of the first tasks was to teach her to walk beside me respectfully, like a dance partner; and not running me over, racing ahead, trying to kick me, or lagging behind. 

To get in synch with each other as partners is a concept of having equal respect for each other’s ideas. I want to walk you through some of these natural horse training concepts as you will encounter aspects of them again with my Five Essential Skills of the Crossover Method™.


Basic horse training often takes place in a “round pen,” a contained, safe, sturdy, fenced in round enclosure, with a 60-70’ wide diameter.  In the round pen, when I would put CC on a long rope and ask her to go around me in a circle, she would quickly accelerate, going faster and faster, losing control.  As her emotions sped up, she physically sped up, too.  As she physically sped up, her emotions would speed up even more.

She would get very emotional and be unable to calm herself down.  Her head would be high, her body would get tight, her tail was raised up like a flag, she was not present mentally, and she would be unresponsive to my guidance.  Stress shuts off the logical, thinking brain and shift the entire body into its life or death survival responses (the sympathetic branch of the nervous system). 

She would get wound up so tightly, I couldn’t get the message through.  I tried to help her slow down and regain control (downregulate her emotions), but she was high on adrenaline and cortisol, the “fight or flight” stress hormones, as well as engaged in running away, a reactive fear response that certainly doesn’t involve thinking through the situation calmly!


Humans share the same emotions with other mammals, including horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, dogs, and cats.  “Dr. Jaak Pansett is one of the leading neuroscientists in the world today.  His work leaves no doubt that “animal emotions are the foundation of human emotions.” – Leigh Shambo, MSW, LMHC, equine-facilitated psychotherapist and author of “The Listening Heart.”

The bio-social-emotional system in the brain involved with emotion, memory, and homeostasis (your body’s ability to adjust to keep balance) is called the limbic system.  The limbic system or region of the mid-brain, is also called “the mammalian brain.” The limbic bond that mammals form with each other can also be formed across species, like the emotional bonds humans have with dogs or cats.

“Horses form strong and lasting friendships much the way people do—through the invisible chemistry of emotional resonance.” – Leigh Shambo, The Listening Heart.

As I witnessed CC going out of emotional control, there had never been a more obvious demonstration of sheer anxiety, that I had ever witnessed. I tried interrupting her as she sped up, but she would become more upset or blast right through it.

I tried going with it, even encouraging her to go faster, but that wound her up even more.  I tried asking her to circle more slowly and gradually, but she still lost control.  I tried keeping her at a walk, but there was no progress.  Again and again, I wasn’t finding the right answer on how to help CC. 

One day I confronted my own feelings about it.  The horse was anxious, but I was anxious too.  Hmmm…how interesting!  Was my anxiety causing my horse’s anxiety?  Maybe, but she was already in that state when I rescued her.  Was her anxiety causing mine?  Perhaps, but I realized as I self-reflected, that I was experiencing a ton of my own anxiety before CC entered my life. 

As I thought about my daily reality, of that time in my life, I had an “Aha!” moment.  This horse was a mirror of my own state of mind.  Up until that point, I had been unaware of having such an ongoing extreme level of anxiety. I was feeling it every moment of every day, and I was even having trouble sleeping, but I wasn’t consciously acknowledging it.  Like many of you, perhaps, I was just putting one foot in front of the other as I tried to manage all the variables in my life.

As they say, if you’re not aware of it, you can’t address it.  Anxiety can look like worry, it can look like being preoccupied, or avoiding situations that might cause more anxiety. It can look like getting into a conflict with another person or being over reactive to what someone says or does. 

Sometimes, with all the hopes, dreams and emotions that go into going on a diet, when the weight is eventually regained, dieters can feel very, very upset.  They may feel trapped and out of options, while at the same time, battling the habits or other challenges that are causing their health to decline or their waist to expand. 

Year after year, with no lasting solution, relentless anxiety over continued health-compromising habits or weight gain with no end in sight can intensify, to the point of losing hope.  Weight gain itself can be very physically uncomfortable and emotional and scary. Having to get clothes in a larger size can be very upsetting.  So can becoming more physically restricted by the extra weight.

Of course, when we are in a chronic state of upset or anxiety already, it doesn’t take much to fire it up.  So, we can become highly reactive with only minor stimuli. 

Observing my horse in overdrive, it was easy to see how horrible this emotional state felt to her.  It was a turning point for me to find a way to resolve this for her.  She was suffering painfully through it, trying her best.  She was sweating and unable to help herself.  I, too, was suffering with a fully adrenalized nervous system, always poised on high alert. 

My mare showed me that in this state of mind, trying to think clearly, respond appropriately, or communicate positively, was very difficult.  In essence, on adrenaline she would lose her ability to think like a partner (with me), and instead just react.

When CC felt this stress, it would trigger her “flight or fight” survival response to a perceived threat, just as we humans also have this built-in (hardwired) survival mechanism in response to threat, or stress.  She was living in a state of self-defense and I realized I was too.

When a horse responds by running, they are expelling/detoxing the stress chemicals that are blocking their ability to think.  They are breathing hard with exertion, instead of the shallow breathing or breath holding that tends to accompany fear or anger, for example.  This is nature’s way of releasing stress. And humans can do the same, using physical exercise to help burn off adrenaline and cortisol, as a natural, positive way to achieving strides in stress relief.


Eventually, there was an answer.  Bringing in a sense of PLAY to our training sessions created more lighthearted, interactive fun, leading to trust and confidence.  It enhanced our relationship, to where I could successfully ask her to expand her comfort zone bit by bit.

For this part of her training, I at first used a clicker, a small, hand-held manual gizmo that makes a distinctive sound.  Clickers are used extensively in animal training (although usually not in PNH) to make clear to the animal exactly when they’ve done the right thing, that they found the right answer to your request.  "Click" marks the spot!

Many dogs are trained using clickers.  You click at the exact moment they respond with the desired action.  Immediately after hearing the click, the animal is rewarded with a small treat.

Click and treat. This shapes the animal’s behavior toward where you want it to go.  CC took to it immediately, it broke through her barriers to learning, and it didn’t take long before we had built more trust and I could continue her training without the clicker.  I became enchanted by her curiosity and sense of humor and our learning sessions took on an exciting new energy as the inner horse was revealed this way.


The trainer’s timing is critical here, because clicking either too soon or too long after the response, will mark the wrong spot, and confuse the animal as to what you were asking them to do.  It requires really tuning into the animal and being aware of their first impulse to try.  In other words, we’re recognizing and rewarding the effort, the living process itself, and not just the end goal.

This is a concept I use in helping people make significant health improvements, because we will need to clearly and accurately reinforce and reward ourselves when we try to take the right action.  Even if that particular action doesn’t work out the way we wanted, it can lead us to what does.  

We release the need to be "right" or "perfect" and put our attention and curiosity on what is being learned, and how it's helping us to grow.

~ Happy Ending:  CC Diamond eventually settled into herself and became the equine assistant to a children's speech therapist ~

For an overview of how to break free of overeating, emotional eating, dieting, and food addiction or simply transition to healthier habits, download my free guide, "REthink Weight Loss"


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