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.