adult with horse

Engaging the CARE System

Engaging the CARE system

Due to the advancements in Neuroscience we have been able to better understand the emotions of our equine learners than ever before. With this new knowledge it’s vital we adapt and grow our training and care systems, the more we know the better we can do for our equine partners. We already know that Positive Reinforcement is the way to go when it comes to training. We know this is a forgiving, kind, safe, and effective means of communicating and motivating our equine learners to participate in our training. We have learned that not only is it effective but it works within the brain/body systems (SEEKING and PLAY) to make a happier, more resilient, more engaged learner.

But did you know there is another brain/body system that we should be paying attention to in our animal partnerships? Of the 7 major systems only 4 feel relatively good to the individual (when stimulated appropriately) – SEEKING, PLAY, LUST, and CARE. SEEKING system is what we engage when training, having the horse learn to problem solve their environment to earn reinforcement. When done right, positive reinforcement techniques often frequently engage the PLAY system as well. The LUST system we should leave alone, let the horses take care of that among themselves. It may mildly interfere with your training if your mare is in heat or you’re working with a stallion, but there are many management techniques for both of these situations. Mostly we want our horses to sort that out in a natural way among their herd.

The CARE system, however, is frequently overlooked when discussing training. This system not only feels good, but is vital for the mental health of the animal. If the CARE system is not satiated a horse may develop anxiety problems, especially around separation from their peers, or it may present as depression, shutting down, or restlessness, hypervigilance (easily spooking), or general feelings of insecurity. The CARE system is vital to social animals like equines, for their feelings of safety and comfort.

Many people struggle with horses who exhibit separation anxiety related behavioral problems – not wanting to leave their peers, their farm, balking on trails, bolting home, or being over-threshold when out of sight of their friends. In these cases what we’re seeing is that the horse’s CARE system is only being fulfilled by their equine peers. They are dependent on their herd to meet their emotional CARE needs. It would be unkind, even cruel to push a horse beyond this threshold, and often include a good deal of fall out behaviorally. We also want to be sure we aren’t using positive reinforcement to coerce a horse beyond their threshold for comfort and safety. By luring a horse with food outside of their comfort zone we not only set ourselves up for failure, but we also poison the food – at some point the need for safety in their peers is going to outweigh the desire for food. Now the food has become something the horses see as a risk, not an opportunity.

So what do we do about all this? The answer is simple, we need to be a source of engagement to their CARE system as well. By stimulating the hormones, by engaging the emotions, by creating the bond that lives within the horse’s individual CARE system we become the source of safety and comfort the horse is seeking. This does not, ever mean reducing, replacing or removing their equine herd. No matter how hard we try we will never be able to replicate or artificially supplement what horses get from one another.

So how do we become a source of CARE for our horses? The first key ingredient is a tough one, TIME! Time is hard for us humans, it’s one of our most valuable resources, but being so valuable it matters a good deal to those who it’s given to. By sharing space and being present with our horses, by spending time with our horses we become a part of their social unit. Not as another horse, but as another being who chooses to share their valuable life with one another. Coexisting creates a beautiful, gentle, force-less connection between beings.

We want more than this though, while it’s a vital first step it isn’t the only step. We also need to make sure the time we spend together is as valuable to the horse as it is to us. Do you ever sit and watch your horses in awe of how magical, perfect, and wonderful they are? They bring us such joy. We need to stimulate a similar feeling in our horses about us. We can do this by ensuring our shared time is wonderful.

A key way that horses develop social bonds is through mutual grooming. If your horse is comfortable with you spending time physically connecting can reach new, deeper levels of connectedness. While we touch, letting our presence bind us together, we also want to make sure it feels good, non-invasive, and is done with full consent. We love our horses and often want to reach out, grab them in ways that feel good to us. We want to stroke their face, hug their neck, and get lost in their mane. Our horses would much prefer we scratch their withers or their bum cheeks. Much less romantic to us, but feels so much more wonderful to our horses. We can explore our individual horses and find what feels good to them. They are all unique. Try rubbing, scratching, or grooming specific areas and watch your horse’s reaction. If you stop, do they seek out more? Do they make groomy faces? Or do they step away and toss their nose at you like a pesky bug? Find what they enjoy and spend time making them feel nice.

Another way horses show their social bonds is in sharing resources. This is one of the biggest things for horses, their resources are their life-line. Most horses in domestication have learned that resources are limited and need to be defended through violence. To see horses sharing resources shows great trust in their peers and their access to resources. This doesn’t mean we need to graze with our horses, but we can take our horses to a sweet, extra special grazing spot. Ever sit in the sun while hand grazing your horse on the nicest part of the lawn? Just magic. But we not only share resources with our horses, we provide them! This makes us extra special, almost maternal. We are a source of comfort and safety emotionally, but also fulfill their physical needs. With no need to assert “dominance”, we are not competition for their resources – we ARE the resource and everything they want.

When being with us is stimulating their CARE system we become a source of comfort and fulfillment for our equine partners. Ensuring they feel safe and engaged with us as their friend, their peer, and their provider, knowing that with us not only are they physically safe, their needs are met, and they are loved.

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