Partners in Healing: Highly Social Mammals

How can a connected relationship with the horse help the client heal? The answer lies deep within the mammalian brain, in the brain’s limbic system and its body-based partner, the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The limbic system is a set of related structures found in the mid-brain of humans and other mammals. It is located between the primitive, reflex-driven brainstem, and the topmost layer of the brain, the cortex.

Limbic neural pathways develop early, before verbal and logical capacities; they form templates for attachment and belonging throughout life. Trauma, family dysfunction and violence can set the brainstem, limbic brain and ANS on a permanent “false alarm”; imprinting the mind-body system with hyper- or hypo-arousal, impairing the development and functioning of the reasoning cortex (Szalavitz and Perry, 2010). Limbic patterns are especially impacted by interpersonal violence, when humans who should provide safety are abusers.

Moving a person from trauma to healing requires restructuring of emotional response. This must come in the form of new experiences that engage and soothe, or “regulate” this sensitive limbic region of the brain. The book A General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini and Lannon, 2000) explains the neurological re-wiring that can happen within a bonded relationship. Limbic neuroplasicity – the remodeling of affective neural pathways and responses — requires three stages:

  • limbic resonance, defined as a shared empathy in which two mammals become attuned to each other’s inner states
  • limbic regulation, defined as  reading each other’s emotional cues, adjusting to each other and soothing or regulate the physiology of the other
  • limbic revision, defined as adaptation to healthier template for future relationships

(Lewis et al. 2000)

“Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiologic rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change one another’s brains through limbic revision – What we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.”                      (A General Theory of Love, Lewis et al. 2000: 177)

Limbic revision does not just change our feelings or ideas about relationship; it literally changes the brain and creates new neural pathways that can only be born of new experiences. One of the most exciting discoveries of the late 20th century is that the neurons that make up our brain and nervous system are much more adaptable and regenerative than previously thought. Even the primary and secondary level neural pathways can essentially “rewire” themselves, given the right opportunities and conditions (Doidge, 2007). Neurons are uniquely designed to change in response to activity. Neural networks change in a use-dependent fashion. Chaotic experiences during sensitive times of a child’s development create chaotic, dysfunctional neural organization that persists into adulthood; the good news is that neural systems will change for the better with dedicated amounts of focused repetition. (Perry, 2008)

Trauma specialist Perry (2008, p. 42): “A neural system cannot be changed without activating it, just as one cannot learn how to write by just hearing about [it]… without practicing.”

“What has been wounded in relationship must, after all, be healed in relationship.”                                 (A Shining Affliction, Rogers, 1996, p. 265)

Can the working bond with the horse create such emotionally corrective experiences?

Research by Panksepp (1998) has proven that the limbic system is remarkably similar in humans and other mammals, enabling pair bonding, parenting behaviors, imprinting and enculturation of young, and everyday social community bonds. Horses keenly sense limbic activity and ANS arousal in others. Horses and humans are “highly social” by nature, a cornerstone of our long alliance (Grandin, et al. 2009).

Highly social mammals need contact with others, for their own neural regulation. In extreme circumstances the ANS signals fight-or-flight; during times of safety it can ‘rest and digest’. For these extremes and all the states in between, social mammals attune to each other— for validation of concerns, reassurance and comfort. Belonging with, and counting on others, is essential for highly social mammals, whose brains rely on the regulating power of relationship (Lewis et al. 2000; Siegel 2010). Without social connection the brain suffers.

In addition to similarities in sub-cortical brain areas, horses and humans share similarities in social structure. Wild horses live in small, family-based bands, sharing a wider range with hundreds of other bands that make up a herd (Grandin, et al. 2009).   This helps to explain the vast relational memory that horses have. They readily recognize dozens of clients, sometimes after only one distinct encounter.

Horses are prey animals, reading humans limbically at [physically] wider angles of view, better than humans can read them, with a narrow field of view and an overdeveloped neocortex getting in the way (Grandin, 2005). Key facial expressions are universal to cultures throughout the world. This assures a limbic connection between therapist, client and horse; the client being particularly transparent when limbically connecting with the horse. This seems remarkable, since feelings are often expressed facially in milliseconds and fade almost immediately (Lewis, et al. 2000).

Limbic similarity allows a person and a horse to form an evocative and memorable connection. The client experiences emotional regulation within a real-life working bond with the horse. The bond is not sentimental (though it is often full of feeling) nor is it a one-sided fantasy bond. It is a palpable bond of attention and respect which person and horse maintain, and it enables working safely together on challenging, even risky tasks. In truth, all tasks with a horse are risky when we lack such a connection!


Doidge, Norman. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.

Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine. (2005). Animals in Translation. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books.

Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine. (2009). Animals Make Us Human. Orlando, FL: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.

Lewis, Thomas, Amini, Fari and Lannon, Richard. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, Inc.

Panksepp, Jaak. (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Bruce and Hambrick, Erin. (2008). “The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics”.

Reclaiming Children and Youth, Volume 17, No 3.

Rogers, Annie G. (1996). A Shining Affliction: A Story of Healing and Harm in Psychotherapy. New York: Penguin Books.

Siegel, Daniel. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Random House, Inc.

Szalavitz, Maia and Perry, Bruce. (2010). Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Moncler

    Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to check out your blog on my iphone during lunch break. I love the knowledge you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how quick your blog loaded on my phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, wonderful site!

  2. ティンバーランド 靴

    Good job! I have found many articles to read but you do a good thing. That is a boy. Thank you so much for sharing the delicious post. Expect your next article.

  3. Wowio.Com

    Woah! I’m really digging the template/theme of this website. It’s simple, yet effective.

    A lot of times it’s tough to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability and appearance. I must say that you’ve done a superb
    job with this. Also, the blog loads very fast for me on Firefox.
    Superb Blog!

  4. lol chinese cosplay

    This is usually a really great site content, im delighted I came across it. Ill be back off the track to look at other reports that.

  5. truck parts

    Your article truly emphasizes some important areas. This kind of detail should certainly educate your other readers too.

  6. Lollpop

    I would love to re post this entry on my own website will that be okay

  7. hgh review

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this site. I am hoping the same high-grade site post from you in the upcoming also. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own site now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings fast. Your write up is a good example of it.

  8. luxury patio furniture

    Please let me know if you’re looking for a article author for your site. You have some really good articles and I feel I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write some content for your blog
    in exchange for a link back to mine. Please shoot me an email if interested.


  9. vip loan shop

    You could certainly see your skills within the work you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  10. vps

    Love your blog..

  11. Willis

    Nice read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some research on that. And he just bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

  12. checks

    pleasant post, keep up with this interesting work. It really is good to know that this topic is being covered also on this web site so cheers for taking time to discuss this!

  13. Jones sabo s

    Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it is truly informative.

  14. zazzle

    I have seen fantastic sites and I have seen not so brilliant blogs. This site is very informationrmative in many ways and certainloy ranks in the former category. Really appreciate the information your providing use avid readers!

  15. Laser

    Really clean web site , regards for this post.

Comments are closed.