Supporting the Defensive "Purging" of a Horse

This question was posed by a student of mine and I thought it'd be a great way to start the week.
"During several of your training sessions with my horses, you reported that they were "purging." They were definitely different horses following this event. Could you explain what this is and how to tell when a horse is doing this.....and maybe why." Many horses I encounter have a level of continuous emotional containment. This creates mental stress and a physical tightness in their behavior.
So when I see horses whether alone, in a herd, with a human nearby, handled from the ground or ridden in the saddle and the movement looks disjointed I remind folks to learn how to break down the "big" picture of the general movement of the horse, into small pieces. Starting at the head: Noticing wide or unblinking eyes, and ones that look "blank" or empty. Notice if there are peaks above the eyes. If there is a clenched jaw, a continuous diagonal of the horse's head with his nose stuck forward at an odd angle, flared or rigid nostrils, wrinkles around below or above the upper and lower muzzle area. Tightnights or rigidity in the ears and inconsistent breathing. Neck: from directly behind the poll and jaw area is there a "swelling" or enlargement of the muscles. If you touch the length of the horse's neck does it feel rigid and long or exaggerated and shrunk up like an accordion. Is there a "U" even in non-u-necked shaped horses. Shoulders: Is there a bulge in one or both shoulders? Can you see a separation from where the neck attaches to the shoulder or does it look like one long "piece?" As the horse moves is there an actual rotation of the shoulder or does it look tight and stiff in the movement? Legs: Do the knees and hocks actually bend as the horse takes a step? At a halt does the horse stand balanced or with his feet point in for different directions? Does he move "leading with the hind end" first or does he move the steering end- his front legs- first? Does he stand with his legs underneath him or splayed out behind him? When he steps does it look like his body is aligned or does it look like his front and rear are walking in two different directions?
His rib cage and topline: Does it look like he is swelled up- behind the rider's leg (even without the rider on him) as if he is an inflated balloon? Does his breathing look rapid and quick even if he hasn't moved at a high rate of speed? Does the portion of his back where the saddle would sit look dropped and hollow from his whithers to his rump? Hindquarters: Does his hip (look at the stifle too) look like it is making a full 360 deg rotation forward or does it look like it stops early? Does each side move equally?
His tail: Is it clamped down to his rump, dramatically held to one side consistent, or rigid out behind him? This is the basic starting point of assessment. Most of these behaviors are apparent in horses that have learned to contain their response to the human. As you start to address helping the horse let go of defensiveness, concern, stress, worry, fear, and other emotions that cause them to physically lock up their body or "brace" as I call it, you see what I call the purge. It will appear that the horse is physically "melting" in front of you as you find the area or spot (it is different in every horse and every scenario) that allows the horse to physically let go of the tension, mentally soften and emotionally let down. I say that when you find the "right" spot of helping the horse let down, it is similar to pulling the string on a dog food bag; the string is very tight and keeps the bag sealed tight. But once you find the right way to release it, the whole thing unravels rather easily. Same thing with horses. Often you'll see this in many forms. It could be a massive change in the physical softening of the muscles and body parts, you'll see them blowing their nose, passing manure, passing gas, sighing, chewing, jaw movement, tongue dropping out of their mouth, lowering of their overall posture, cocking of a rear foot, and most important a softness in their eye. It will appear as they have "suddenly" become present again. It is as if they are able to release all of the containment that they often have been unintentionally taught by the human to hold on to. Does this mean all is forever well? No. Often the familiar is offered more frequently than the actual "new" experience. So at the beginning of supporting a horse through respectful conversations, you'll experience a rollercoaster of patternized containment in the horse's processing and efforts. When you interject and help them learn to purge, this may last a minute or two, then you'll see them resort to old habits again. Part of the "training" you are offering is to help influence an alternative response from what has become a non-thoughtful, defensive reaction. Think of it as offering cognitive behavior therapy for horses. As you refine your support, you'll start to see the horse let go of his containment faster, purge sooner, and then be able to maintain the softer mental and emotional experience for longer periods with less influence from you. The horse then learns to trust the influence you are offering with your communication as it offers similar support he would find within a herd.

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