Monday, June 8, 2009

Tao of Equus - Dissociation, Waking up and Spike

A few months ago, BJ and I were with the horses. I can't remember what brought it up, but he talked about a prey animal that freezes and seems "gone" before it is even eaten. When he talked about it, something inside of me broke and I just cried. I couldn't explain why. I just cried and cried.

Today, I was reading in the Tao of Equus, and she talked about that very thing.
"Dissociation protects us from the impact of escalating arousal. If a life-threatening event continues, dissociation protects us from the pain of death. It causes a sort of dreaminess in which there is no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that is happening. This singular condition is not the result of any mental process. It annihilates fear, and allows no sense of horror in looking round. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivore; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent creator for lessening the pain of death."
She talks about the a scene in the movie, "The Horse Whisperer," where the trainer forces the horse to lay down.
"To the casual observer, it appears an unruly horse can be "fixed" in record time by this impressive trick, However, the act of forcing a prey animal to lie down by typing up one of his front legs, dragging him to the ground and sitting on him in this vulnerable position until he submits causes such an intense fear reaction that the animal's entire nervous system short-circuits. The result IS a sudden change in personality. The horse acts like a zombie, which to people who prefer a mooching-like mount, appears to be a miraculous cure for chronic disobedience."
As I read this, I again was filled with terror and tears. I went through that exact thing, and I became a zombie.
"This tactic appears to take advantage of a biological process that shields all mammals from feeling the impact of an attack. After all, when a large predator succeeds in pulling a horse down and immobilizing him, it usually marks the end of the battle. This reaction differs from common shock because an animal can freeze before any physical damage occurs, and, under certain circumstances, can remain in a lesser form of this dissociative state after the danger has past. Some tribal hunting cultures believe that nature has shown the utmost compassion in providing a mechanism that allows a prey animal's soul to leave his body before the heart stops beating, thereby sparing him the pain and horror of being eaten. Traditional equestrian-based culture in Siberia have been known to perform similar moves on horses about to be sacrificed with the expressed intent of releasing their spirits BEFORE striking the fatal blow. To look into the vacant eyes of a horse that has been subjected to this technique is to know there's some truth to these notions."
She goes on to talk about how this tactic frightens the animal to within an inch of his life. He loses the will to live, and he doesn't care what you do to him anymore. I know what that feels like. I know it! I wish I didn't, but I do.

Her next story is about Spike, a horse that had been a trail horse. He was dull and listless. He had a glassy, distant look in his eyes. Spike didn't seem to care about his owner one way or the other, no matter how often she rode him. As the author began working with him, he slowly came back to life.
"His eyes began to twinkle. Soon he was whinnying and running up to Bonnie when she approached his stall. Much to my own surprise, however, the formerly quiet, complacent gelding became difficult to manage for several weeks as a result of these efforts. Once he woke up form his dissociative trance, he wasn't automatically willing to defer to Bonnie's authority, and he didn't seem to remember some of the things he had learned in his previous mindset. Spike, in fact, was a completely different horse. I decided to treat Spike like a three-year-old. He was more stable and trustworthy than a young colt. We were simply revisiting activities he had learned in a dis empowered state, retraining him from this newly awakened perspective. As I watched this process, I began to understand how severe a personality change the training techniques had induced in him. If laying Spike down had separated his mind and spirit from his body, then correcting this injustice was akin to soul retrieval. Any skill he learned in his previous state of dissociation seemed to be a vague, dreamlike memory at best."
That makes so much sense! I feel like I have spent the last year re-learning things I knew, and yet somehow forgot. In the hands of a gentle trainer, I have woken up from a state I have lived in almost my entire life. I have had to relearn some very simple things...

I don't even have words to describe all of the emotions and thoughts racing in my mind. I wish I could. I think it would help me, and maybe so many others. I am very grateful for this book that has helped me find words to describe it even though I still haven't found my own yet.


  1. Wow, that gave a lot of good insight that helps me understand more of what you've experienced. I remember thinking that you had a sudden change in personality. It was confusing at the time but makes more sense now.

    It also helps me to understand the dissociative disorder, at least what it is and why it happens. I've seen frightened animals suddenly seem vacant. I can see how some of the things you've described to me before are the same dissociation.

  2. I'm reading that book too and I'm appalled that people do this to horses, plunging them in dissociative state for years. Just sick.