• Heather Hanlin

How Can A Horse Help Me Think? Executive Function: Strengths and Challenges

I'm standing in a sandy round pen enclosed with sturdy pipe panels. In the pen with me a curious horse looks my way, ears pricked, and begins to walk towards me. What happens in my brain at that moment? Any number of things can happen depending on which part of my brain has the strongest response. I can become afraid, and tense up, my eyes narrowing. When that happens the horse stops, ears flicking back and forth as she reads my body language and tries to decide if I'm safe to approach. I might become curious, my face relaxing and opening, as I consider what the horse might be thinking. In that moment the horse takes a few more steps and reaches out with her nose. What is the difference between these two states? It is how active my brain is in determining whether I feel safe or not and whether I should react, as in run, or engage higher level thinking skills and try to figure out what this enormous creature might want with me. Many of these higher level skills fall into a category called "Executive Functions."

Executive functions are what we are using most of the time when we are doing what we call "thinking." We are directing our attention, often to a problem, holding elements in our working memory, setting goals and making plans related to the issue. But right now, standing in the round pen, or anywhere else, my senses and the lower parts of my brain are assessing safety. I'm reading the horse's body language (but not as well as she reads mine). Meanwhile my prefrontal cortex, the area where executive functions happen, is pulling information into my working memory, what do I know about this horse? About horses in general? My attention is focused on the horse, and I'm making a plan about what to do next. Maybe more than one plan so if the situation changes I can be flexible.

I happen to know the horse across from me quite well. Her head is low, her ears are relaxed. My heart is beating in a steady rhythm, my breathing is relaxed and slow. Heart rate and breathing are controlled in the brain stem, and signals travel up to the prefrontal cortex with information about the state of my body. Suddenly a bird flies out of the bushes, the horse startles and jumps forward. My eyes take in the sudden movement of the bird and the horse, and my heart rate and breathing speed up, sending a danger signal up through the mid portions of my brain to my prefrontal cortex. The horse stops, head high, and looks all around, her breath coming in short snorts. Her much smaller neocortex is also evaluating the situation, asking "am I safe?" We both have noticed that the sudden movement was only a bird, I say out loud, "it was a bird." Calming signals from my thinking brain are telling my brain stem to calm down. I can also take a conscious top down approach and deliberately slow my breathing. This is a way executive function operates in emotional regulation. My brain is taking in information I'm not aware of all the time and only sending the most important or confusing information to the thinking areas of my brain for processing.

Brains develop from the inside out and bottom to top. The last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions live, as it is the top most, outermost section of the brain. This is why teens sometimes need to "borrow" their parent's brains, or why working with younger children can sometimes feel mentally exhausting when adults have to do much of this executive function thinking for them. Gifted brains make the whole process much more complex. One aspect is asynchronous development, where some areas develops faster or slower than other areas. Often the abilities to direct attention and regulate movements and emotions are what gets slowed down. This slower development can mean impulse control issues and emotional outbursts.

In some gifted brains the lower end processing can be more sensitive. Sounds might seem louder or more abrupt. Light might seem more intense. When this sensory information becomes overwhelming it can be difficult for the thinking prefrontal cortex to be able to calm the lower regions of the brain. The complex and slower executive functions can’t keep up. Working memory is quite limited in how much information it can process. If multiple birds had burst from the bushes all around us, the horse and I would have had a much more difficult time figuring out what was happening and calming down. Especially if there were ten birds and my working memory can only track five. My nervous system will still be activated by the unidentified rustling behind me. This is where things can get tricky. If my prefrontal cortex can't send calming signals, the middle brain will essentially close the information gate, taking the prefrontal cortex “offline.” This allows faster reaction times. Conscious thinking is slow compared to the rest of the brain, and is therefore not helpful in "flight or fight" mode. But when this happens it also means that calming down from an emotional outburst can take much longer.

This is where working with horses can be quite beneficial in developing greater executive functions. This is especially true for children who are developing their executive functions, but adult brains keep changing as well. Traumatic experiences can have an impact on executive functions. In most situations we are practicing our thinking skills in ordered learning environments. Working outside with horses adds a level of real world practice, while still being a relative safe place. There is also the added layer of challenge in working with a large animal in a complex environment, something gifted brains love. As I deliberately slow my breathing, thinking about relaxing my muscles, the horse can sense that I’m calming down, and she starts to calm too. This little dance happens over and over in the round pen, where if I become dysregulated the horse will too, and instantly show me by reacting. When I practice calming down, I can see the horse calming too. I have to practice directing my attention to know what the horse is doing. I use my working memory to remember what I need to do next to consciously regulate my body. Thinking about slowing my breathing slows my heart rate. My muscles relax and the horse walks over to me, touching me with her nose. She can feel I’m safe to be with because I can use my executive functions for self control after a bird flies out of the bushes.

Want to learn more about brain function?

Check out Dr. Bruce Perry

Or Dr. Virginia Campbell

More on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?

Read the blogs at Natural Lifemanship

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