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.
I came to understand that just because he looked like a trail horse did not mean his brain had the necessary experience to handle the information (sensory input) that was coming in from the outside world. EVERYTHING he saw was a new, potentially threatening thing. In addition, he was literally figuring out where to put his feet with each step- like a human ice skating for the first time.
Because his brain was coping with so many new experiences at once, he quickly became overwhelmed and over-reacted to everything, shying, stumbling and tripping all the way. Nemo’s brain was so stressed with the new environment that he was up in his Sympathetic Nervous System (his thermostat was turned up) most of the time when we were out. This was bad for both of us.
At the time I had no idea what he was going through. I just thought he was high spirited or perhaps had had a bad experience with his previous owners.
Learning takes place best when an animal is calm and alert, but Nemo was spending most of his time on the trail scared. Not only was it a terrible experience for both of us, but he wasn’t learning how to navigate the outside world much.
He acted scared going up and down hills, passing a tree or a rock, being near water or seeing a big shadow. I found that once he was spooked up into the Sympathetic Nervous System it was nearly impossible to get him to calm down all the way to homeostasis. He was just “checked out”.
Even though I didn’t understand all this at the time, I did understand how dangerously unprepared he was for trail riding. This, of course, put ME on edge and sent me up to MY Sympathetic Nervous System. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew enough to understand that WE had a big problem. I had no idea how to solve it but I was determined to try.
So, our true journey began
Nemo inspired me to begin a journey of discovery. It has been thrilling. Nemo has been gone now for several years yet the drive to learn and share this information is as strong as ever.
Nemo and I started with simple obstacles in the arena, graduating to more and more complex ones. We rode 4-5 days a week on trails, up and down mountains, though water, traversing dense forests and over and around hundreds of obstacles.
We had many harrowing experiences on the trail, but through the next several years he slowly developed the motor skills he needed and became more confident. He and I began to feel much safer on the trail.
But there was still something missing.
I could not figure out his most annoying habit. While on the trail, he would swing his head from left to right and right to left almost continuously. He would swing it back in forth for the whole trail ride. He was not noticeably anxious or nervous. He just swung his head back and forth “with intent”.
It felt unbalanced and uncomfortable to ride like this. I began to wonder if there was something mentally or physically wrong with him, but I was pretty sure there was something going on that I just couldn’t see... yet.
Through those years I attended clinics with and studied the work of Tom Dorrance. I rode with many clinicians- Ray Hunt, Dennis Reese, Parelli, Clinton Anderson, Buck Brannaman, Steve Rother and many others. Nemo and I became experts on attending clinics.
I learned a lot about feel, timing and release of pressure. It was worth every penny I spent and every minute in the saddle. I was confident these clinicians could help me figure out how to stop his head from moving back and forth if I just worked hard enough at it.
I was determined to learn to ride with a soft feel.
I did my best to “get to his feet”. I went around many bushes and trees on the trail. I got good at: “making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy”. I worked at everything I had learned. But there was still no answer to Nemo’s head situation.
None of the work we did slowed down his head movement on the trail- even a little bit. My frustration was epic. What was I missing?
Compounding my confusion was the fact that in a clinic setting, in an arena with many things going on around us, he never moved his head back and forth. He was the best little clinic horse ever. I couldn’t even show the clinicians what he was doing.
On beautiful spring day, we were going down the trail and, once again, his head was swinging side to side. Once again I was frustrated and I said to him firmly, “What are you looking at?”
In that moment it suddenly occurred to me to look EXACTLY where he was looking.
I didn’t just glance with my eyes, I turned my head and REALLY looked. In that moment his head came quiet.
I could tell that something very big had just happened. It was one of those real “AHAH” moments that you remember forever. Every time he would look off into the forest, I turned my head to follow his gaze. One tends to forget that your horse is watching you just as much as they are watching the trail ahead because of the nature of their visual field. Because of his reaction, I knew he could feel I was really looking.
I was dumbfounded- such a simple fix. Could it really be that easy?
From then on, whether I was on the ground or in the saddle, whenever he began looking around, I would follow his gaze to where he was looking. It ALWAYS worked. His head came quiet. I tried this with my other horses, and they all responded exactly the same.
I knew I was on to something profound that no one was talking about…yet.
Since I’d never found a clinician who taught this, I realized that I probably had to do my own research. This research led me to Equine Ethology (the study of horse behavior based on how THEY experience the world around them) and Dr Marthe Kiley Worthington, author of Horse Watch- What it is to be Equine (and many others).
As I continued my education, I began to understand that horses are actively communicating with each other in the herd all the time. When in the saddle, the horse is actively communicating (or attempting to communicate) with the rider about things (potential threats) on the trail. Up to this point I had not been able to hear him because I didn’t know how to listen.
Nemo was teaching me that horses are NEVER autonomous (comfortable being alone). They are always in a herd mentality and always communicating with each other. Horses never daydream like humans. Being prey animals, they are always on alert- even when resting. Their brain and senses are fine tuned to pick up the first indications of a threat- much more so than humans.
Horses live 100% in the present as their lives literally depend on it in the wild.
It turned out that all this little horse wanted me to do was to BE part of his herd and pay attention. All this time he had been looking out for us as we went down the trail. Since I wasn’t looking, he felt alone- and alone is the scariest thing there is for a horse. All I had to do to make him comfortable was to stay engaged and be present as an active member of his herd.
Over time he became very quiet on the trail and anywhere else I took him. If he did become concerned, I simply stopped and acknowledged his concern. This immediately brought him back to a quiet place or, as we say in the science world, back to Homeostasis. We saw squirrels, deer, elk and a bear or two but since I was WITH him, he never got overwhelmed.
Nemo and I did this for the rest of his life and our bond and rapport was strengthened 10-fold because of what he taught me.
Once I learned about this, I HAD to find out more. I learned there was an additional field of science called NeuroEthology- the study of how an animal’s behavior is shaped by their central nervous system (CNS includes the brain and all sensory neurons) and their World View.
I have devoted the rest of my life to studying and teaching Equine Ethology, Neuroscience of the horse, Learning and Memory, Horse Speak®. By studying the central nervous system, I soon found out that Nemo and all living beings seek Homeostasis(Calm).
My research, observations and hands-on teaching have shown me that when a horse really feels you are with them as a herd-mate they are willing to follow you. A true equine partner/leader must include ALL herd-mates (the horse and yourself). This means all the participants of the herd need to be engaged and present while at the same time respecting each other’s participation and space.
The best thing is that this work is completely technique neutral. It enhances all training techniques. Going into the show ring with a quiet attentive horse is much better when competing- or doing cow work or just moseying down the trail.
The title of this story was “Unlocking Nemo’s Head” but the truth is Nemo unlocked MY head on so many levels.