Being Herd- The Nemo Story
Updated: Feb 6
“Unlocking Nemo’s Head”
There are moments in one’s life that change the direction of your path. This is the story of one such moment for me.
For a horseperson, mine is a pretty typical story. I was fortunate enough to have been able to start riding horses when I was 5. I loved it, but mostly I loved being with my horse. By 13, my hormones kicked in and I lost interest. I didn’t really think about
horses much for the next 30 years. Just too busy.
When I was young, I rode hunter/jumper because my dad was really into it. After each day’s training session, I would sneak off the property through a gap in the fence and ride my quarter/ thoroughbred horse Ebony Joseph on the trails in the nearby hills. It was always my great joy to be with him as I felt deeply connected. I was looking to relive some of those wonderful days.
In the late 1990’s, our businesses were going well and my kids
were pretty grown up so I started fantasizing about owning another horse.
My search led me to Nemo. He was a 6-year old black Arabian, 14.2 hands and very athletic with an active mind. My heart leapt when I saw him cantering around the arena. It looked like he was floating, and I longed to be on his back and ride like the wind.
After the vet checked the Vet he told me, “He is going to be an exciting ride”. I thought, “That sounds good to me”, so I bought him. We were together for 18 years until his death in 2016.
When I first brought him home, I figured that a horse was just a horse. I assumed that all horses were attuned to the natural world and therefore should be comfortable being ridden on trails. It didn’t even OCCUR to me to ask the sellers if he had ever been trail ridden before loading him on my trailer.
Despite how great he looked in the arena,
on the trail it appeared that he was SCARED of EVERYTHING.
It quickly became obvious that I was in serious danger riding him anywhere but the arena. Nemo was a very quick and athletic little Arab but he just couldn’t pull it together to walk down a trail. After several scary trail rides of tripping over his own feet, spooking, running though my hands, refusing to go near water and managing to dump me at nearly every turn, I finally called the previous owners. Apparently, he had been a show horse and had only been ridden in the arena. It took me years, but I would eventually find out what this really meant.
Some Necessary Science Stuff-
Recently I started researching the brain. At first, I found the term “Neuroscience” to be intimidating but I soon realized that many of the general concepts are quite easy to understand and applied directly to my situation with Nemo.
One of the most interesting things I learned was about the Autonomic Nervous System which includes the Para-Sympathetic/Sympathetic Nervous System spectrum. The terminology is sounds complicated, but the concept is quite simple.
The Para-Sympathetic Nervous System is a energy state commonly referred to as “rest and digest”, on the low end of the excitement scale. The whole body is close to the state of homeostasis. (Homeostasis is the place where all living systems function biologically and physiologically the best, this dynamic state of equilibrium is the condition of optimal functioning. Basically, we all feel our best here.)
The Sympathetic Nervous System is a higher energy state commonly referred to as “fight or flight or freeze” on the higher end of the excitement scale. Animals cannot “think” when they are stressed. You can’t “reason” with them. They simply “react”.
I refer to the situation like a thermostat where the heat gets turned up and down depending on the information coming in from the outside world. Sleep and blind panic are the two endpoints of this spectrum with many states in between (curiosity, active attention, alert, etc.). Horses typically move up and down the spectrum throughout their day.
When I purchased him, Nemo had had NO time being on the trail. He completely lacked the motor skills needed to navigate the natural world. (Motor skills allow coordinated movement appropriate for the situation the horse finds itself in.) Being on the trail, out in nature, was as foreign to him, and as stressful, as being in the middle of the ocean.