Relaxation and Endorphin Release for Performance Horses
By Charlotte Cannon
Adrenaline vs Endorphins
Any living being that wants to achieve peak performance must get out of survival mode where fear is the motivator and adrenaline release fuels the escape. Escape can be physical, running away; or mental, going super introverted and hiding. Fear stops learning, fear tightens everything, fear releases adrenaline and when adrenaline runs out, the individual just quits and resigns themselves to whatever happens. This is not where we want our horses or ourselves.
To achieve peak performance, one must first relax, getting out of survival mode and into a positive thinking/processing mode, and get and endorphin release. Endorphins are more powerful pain relievers than morphine, can cause you to run faster, jump higher and last far longer than adrenaline ever will. And endorphins are a renewable resource in the brain, as opposed to adrenaline which is in finite amounts. Endorphins give an overall feeling of joy and well-being.
It is the endorphin state that the greatest performances are made, it’s the Zone.
Extrovert vs Introvert
First we must know a bit about basic personalities to accurately read your horse. Most horses and people have a personality tendency to be either more of an extrovert or more of an introvert. Confidence or lack of confidence can push us to extremes in both directions. Confidence is often affected by how we perceive ourselves, others and our environment. For this reason, we must always be reading and adjusting for our horse, as he is multidimentional like we are. His personality may appear to change in an instant. Use strategies to communicate with the horse you have in the moment, not just the horse you ‘usually’ have. By addressing his needs accurately, your horse will become more confident in you as his leader and will become more ‘balanced’ in his personality.
- emotions on the outside
- emotions, feelings and opinions are easily seen and recognized
- easier to read
- often vividly expressive
- radiate energy, some people or horses will find them too much and be pushed away
- must learn to bring their life/energy down when necessary
- may blow through subtle cues and thresholds
- offer lots of answers, guessing for the correct answer
- may freak out
Strategies: go faster or they will get bored, use variety
- emotions on the inside
- emotions, feelings and opinions are difficult to see and recognize
- harder to read
- often appear flat, dull, uninterested without expression
- draw energy
- people can miss
- may appear aloof, reserved, stuck up and push others away
- hides inside
- must learn to bring their life/energy up when necessary
- may get stuck in comfort zone and refuse to move or stretch
- often won’t answer until all information is processed and they are confident they know the right answer
Strategies: go slow to build confidence to ‘come out’, use patterns/repetition
Everything has a mind/body connection. Learning to read clues in the body is the key to knowing what is happening in the mind.
The mind has three normal fear responses:
Flight is the horse’s most basic response to fear. A horse will run away without a second thought, it is their first survival response. Flight Line refers to the distance an individual horse will run before submitting, or giving up, and allowing themselves to be eaten. This is arguably the distance that adrenaline will send them to survive. In the past we often used this idea against the horse to exhaust him into submission, as in lunging or round penning where exhaustion and submission was the goal.
Fight is what the extroverted (emotions on the outside) horse will do if there is no easy flight available. If a horse is pushed into a fear/survival mode and they cannot run away, they may fight. With these horses, intimidation has often been used to push them into submission.
Freeze is what the introverted (emotions on the inside) horse will do if they perceive flight is not an option. Freeze is frequently misunderstood, and often people think these horses are relaxed and fine, not frozen in fear. Freeze looks like eyes open and staring, muscles rigid, ears rigid, mouth dry and still. The feet may be still and the horse may appear motionless, but the mind is doing all it can to protect itself and be invisible. This is often the most dangerous of these three because the people may be caught off guard by an ‘out of the blue’ explosion. This is where many intimidated horses go to avoid more pressure.
Hierarchy of Needs
A horse, being a prey animal and innately unconfident (lest he be eaten), has a different hierarchy of needs than most people.
Safety is complete survival mode. Safety is all about fear. If a horse is trying to solve a threat to its safety, it will get a big adrenaline release.
Comfort is both physical and mental. Discomfort blocks relaxation and endorphin release. Solving comfort issues allows the horse to move out of an adrenaline state and into an endorphin state.
Food is sought after safety is achieved, lest the horse fears becoming someone else’s food. Eating is where most horses find their first endorphin release. Many horses only feel endorphins when they eat, so they become crazy over food.
Relaxation is all about achieving the endorphin state, and showing the horse the endorphin state feels better than adrenaline state. We first use the ‘eating’ posture and motion (licking and chewing) to help our horses achieve relaxation. Often horses learn to use food, the posture and movements to cope with stress. Lip-licking and chewing is a signal that the horse has gone from dry mouth/fear, to salivating again. Salivation is an excellent clue that a horse is achieving endorphin release. Allowing the horse time to really process through the first big endorphin releases is vital to confident play. Achieving this state becomes easier and easier, and they become ready and wanting to play faster and faster, if you allow them the opportunity to go deep and process. They will release current stress, as well as baggage from the past, during these sessions. Yawning, stretching, shaking, deep breathing and rolling are all ways that you can see releases happening. Only through relaxation are you able to achieve maximum performance in your horse and yourself.
Play is endorphin release with positive energy. Once a horse has relaxed, he will become confident enough to seek play. Play looks different in different horses. It is first dependent upon how extroverted or introverted they are (in general and in that moment) and how confident they are in themselves, you and in the environment. Play could be a race (Secretariat or American Pharaoh), a jumping course, a dressage test, a trail ride, a liberty session, etc. Play is all about big endorphin releases. If you are the one with which your horse finds joy and play, you become the trigger or icon of endorphin release. Your horse will crave your company because it feels great to him.
Horses want and need balanced leaders. Without a balanced leader to follow, the horse will take over to feel safe. We must develop ourselves in 3 areas equally to become great leaders;
Love – Language – Leadership
Love must be developed to convince the horse first that you are not a predator (there to eat him), and that you want to fulfill his needs. Love draws, brings the horse closer.
Leadership must be developed to convince the horse that you can establish predictable rules and boundaries to keep the two of you safe. Leadership drives, pushes the horse away.
Language is your communication with your horse. Language is all the ways you communicate; body language, tools, voice cues, etc. You want to inspire the horse to want to be with you, to want to offer to do things and perform for you. You want the horse to feel so great with you, he can eat, relax and play.
If you are Love heavy (compared to Leadership), your horse will see you as passive, weak, a pushover, not a solid leader and will look to himself or somewhere else for leadership. You will tend to attempt to lead by getting the horse to love you with kindness, scratches and treats. Often the horse will become bossy and pushy, feeling no rules and boundaries.
If you are Leadership heavy (compared to Love), your horse will see you as a predator, something scary from which he must escape or hide. You will tend to lead with dominance and intimidation. Often the horse will go introverted at first, but then become explosive later, feeling trapped and unable to think or move.
Language/communication is built as you study the horse through instruction, books, observation, trial and error, etc. The more ways you know how to communicate, the more easily your horse will understand and respond. One must always be aware whether the communication technique they are using is creating draw or drive. You will be either building Love or Leadership. Balance is the key to everything. Just like you must deposit money into the bank to be able to withdraw it later, you must put deposits (draw) into the horse to later be able to withdraw (drive) him.
Physical Clues into the Mind
The body of the horse gives us loads of clues into the mental state of our horses. We must learn to read these clues as they are the way our horses are communicating back to us.
Head Position – adrenaline/endorphins
- Higher than withers, brain can and often produces adrenaline
- Lower than withers, brain cannot produce adrenaline
- Nose/upper lip sifting the dirt, horse is finding endorphin release
Eyes - leadership
- Horse’s eyes higher than person’s eyes, horse is leader
- Horse’s eyes between person’s eyes and belly button, shared leadership
- Horse’s eyes below person’s belly button, person is leader
Eyes – emotional
- Triangle/pointy top – fear/anxiety -adrenaline
- Round – soft/relaxed/blinking – endorphins
- If the horse is blinking, he is thinking. If he is staring off, not blinking, he is in freeze and may be in flight or fight momentarily
- Closed/Sleeping – this is processing. Do not release or give instructions during processing. This is the time where changes in responses can be made.
Feet - Mental
Front feet correspond to the left side of the brain. Crossing them lights up the left side of the brain (details, piece by piece, learned behavior, intellectual thought, transitions, leads).
Back feet correspond to the right side of the brain. Crossing them lights up the right side of the brain (big picture, patterns, rhythm, energy, emotions, intuitive thought, gaits, jumping).
Feet - Physical
Front feet wider apart
- Heavy on forehand
- Struggle to think
- Less emotional control because it takes 2 steps to flee (shift weight back, then push)
Back feet wider apart
- Balance on hind end
- Thinks easily
- More emotional control because he can flee at any moment, so has a moment to think
- Physical (left to right) and emotional balance
- Front feet – intellectual thought/left brain balance
- Back feet – intuitive thought/emotions/right brain balance
- Out of physical (left to right) and emotional balance
- Front feet – intellectual thought/left brain out of balance
- Back feet – intuitive thought/emotions/right brain out of balance
Upper Muscle Chain
- All muscles on the top of the body
- Left brain, analytical thinking, details, transitions
- Ends in poll, poll tight, head flipping if issues
- If longer than lower muscle chain, horse will respond vs react, no emotion vs emotion
Lower Muscle Chain
- All muscles on the bottom of the body
- Right brain, energy, patterns, quality of gaits
- Ends in tongue, mouth issues
Relationship of Upper to Lower Muscle Chain determines how the horse in thinking in the moment.
- Longer Upper Muscle Chain - respond, no emotion
- Longer Lower Muscle Chain - react, emotion
The mane is a mirror of the energy flow in the back. White ribbons of fascia, connective tissue, pull hairs to the right and left. The mirror effect means the top of the mane up by the ears corresponds to the hindquarters of the horse, and the lower half of the mane down by the withers corresponds to the shoulders and front end of the horse. If the mane splits at the top, the hind end isn’t as balanced as it could be; if the bottom half splits, the front end isn’t as balanced as it could be. The mane can and will change as you ride and things change.
The vaqueros used to roach all but the forelock and a handhold of mane at the withers so they could watch the balance in their horse develop without the influence of weight or ‘mane training’ to affect it. Ideally all the mane will fall evenly to one side. That side will be the ‘hollow or low side’ of the horse.
- Swirls are the first hair that forms and are the only hair rooted in brain tissue
- Swirls develop at the same time as the learning centers of the brain
- Swirls slow and/or focus energy
- 80% of horses have an identical swirl pattern – single face, poll swirls, flank swirls
- Look for balance in swirls, less balanced = more problems
- Hard - identical - emotional- adrenaline
- Soft - moving - relaxed – endorphins
- Hard – up/flagging (extrovert) or down/clamped (introvert) – adrenaline
- Soft – swinging, relaxed – endorphins
Circle of Muscles
Energy should flow around the Circle of Muscles in the horse starting with the abs, then flowing back to the hind legs, then up over the hips, up the back, over the withers, neck, poll, out the nose, back to the abs.
This proper flow creates relaxation in the horse. Each muscle group must start released, contract, then release again and refill with blood to be ready to contract again. If a muscle group is not released, it cannot fill with blood and be ready to contract in order. If it doesn’t horse must compensate by using the wrong ones or overusing some.
The non-released muscles are braces in the body. They correspond with braces in the mind. The more braces you have, the less efficiently the horse’s body and mind work. Getting the horse to release these muscles also helps him release the braces in his mind and find relaxation. Once relaxation is achieved, blood flow restored, them maximum performance can be achieved.
1. Playground of Safety (Dancing Pete Rodda) – most powerful
- Stand in center with focus not on horse
- Horse respects space – use Tick Tock to get out of space
- Horse may do anything he wants as long as he respects space and doesn’t pull on rope
- Wait for introverts to move; wait for extroverts to stop
2. Walk the Line (Dancing Pete Rodda)
- Walk back and forth with focus on cone, using stick as an ice cream cone to move horse
- Check for good/bad eyes, good/bad directions
- Move on to Safe Spot – directly behind, game of hot and cold
- Horse finds answer, you don’t make him do anything
- Standing Swirls – move from belly button energy standing still
- Walking Swirls – move from belly button energy in motion, checks eyes and roundness in circles
- Backup – honor you going forward or back
3. Crossing Feet (Gary Biggerstaff, Dave Seay, Parelli)
- Hind feet – right side of the brain
- Front feet – left side of the brain
- Work toward brain integration
- Especially useful in extreme introverts or extroverts
- Cross hind feet one side, cross front feet other side. Must be across the body, not same side.
4. Endotapping (JP Giacommi)
- Tap on an area until horse moves to a more relaxed posture, then release
- Horse will ignore, react, then relax
- Powerful b/c can tap anywhere anytime
- Teaches endorphin release from tapping cue
- Helps horse find posture for relaxation and endorphin release
- Teaches self soothing
5. Conditioned Response to Pressure (Tristan Tucker)
- Pressure can be sight/movement, sound or touch
- Using objects that normally cause fear/stress and teach horse to go to a more relaxed posture
- When horse finds posture, he finds endorphin release
6. Flexions (Dancing Pete Rodda)
- Start with baby flexions, releasing at the slightest try
- Draw hand to shoulder (standing on the ground) or to the mid thigh (sitting on the horse), initially wait for one release, then two releases.
- Following first flexion work, develop crossing hind feet, then front feet
- Once well developed, go back and hold flexions longer waiting for a certain muscle to release, or a certain balance within the body (Advanced Flexions)
- Horse may go into Processing (Dancing Pete Rodda) with simple or advanced flexions. Do not release during processing. Mind is going through and trying previous solutions. The only way to rewrite an answer is to hold until processing has finished and correct answer has been achieved.Using these exercises, I have established cue systems to help the horse find an endorphin release in stressful situations, where horses normally go into adrenaline (flight, fight or freeze). Learning to recognize the difference between adrenaline and endorphins, and how to create the one you desire, you can set your horses up for success