Archive Post: Sensory Overload!

My husband, Tye, and I were recently in Chicago, where I grew up.  He is a fifth generation Montanan, and whenever we travel to a city, we inevitably begin discussing how differently our early experiences cause us to experience the world.  From experiencing time and distance to processing and filtering information.
    Whenever we talk about this, the last point, filtering information, makes me think about horses and the process I witness so many go through while in training with me.  Tye has always noted that I have what he views to be an unreasonable ability to block out things that are not important to me at that moment.  A television that is on but I’m not watching, a change in my usual view while driving between the barn and the house, and so on.  Tye on the other hand, takes in so much sensory information, that I kid with him that he needs to learn that not everything is about him!  Or, at least not important to him.  We credit these differences to the environment in which we were raised.  I spent time in an urban environment, where if one takes in all of the sensory information available (lights, noises, smells, etc) one would never get to sleep and would be overwhelmed all the time.  Tye grew up in a quieter, more rural environment, where there wasn’t a lot of miscellaneous noise.  If a car drove by, it was likely it was coming to see him or his neighbors, not just through traffic.  And certainly a siren going by at night was reason to wake up.
    I’ve been living in a range of somewhat to extremely rural environments now for going on eight years.  In this time, I have learned that I should try not to filter so much information out, because that causes me to miss things.  However, I’m still very good at blocking out the insane amount of birds that live in the rafters of my indoor arena, and I still miss most of what Tye notices.  Tye, however, hasn’t spent much time in a city.  When we visit one, he feels overwhelmed by sensory information, and after a few days feels drained and exhausted.  It all feels important to him, even though much of it isn’t.
    What could this possibly have to do with horses? A lot, but in this article I am going to specifically discuss the shut down horse and the spooky horse, which I believe are on the same spectrum.  A shut down horse is not taking in any information.  They have figured out that the best way to survive is to tolerate and not to engage.  What people often think of as a spooky horse, is taking in too much information, as they are not confident and centered enough to know what matters and what does not.  However, I find they are the same, as a shut down horse will spook violently when something does penetrate their consciousness (they can’t block it out any more) because they weren’t processing everything leading up to it, so it was a surprise that they don’t know what to do with.  It’s just that what most people describe to me as a spooky horse is a horse that spooks in rapid succession, and so I just read this as it takes less to penetrate their consciousness, but they are still just as shut down, and not filtering information properly.
    To put it another way.  A shut down horse (in the classical, bombproof-until-he-wasn’t sense) is me growing up in an urban environment.  I learned that taking everything in was dangerous, and didn’t make me feel good, so I learned to only let certain things in.  But, if something really out of the ordinary happened, I could be very surprised!  For instance, if there were a tree down in the road, Tye might notice it a quarter mile away because the skyline wasn’t quite right, I might not notice it until I ran it over with my car.  That thump would certainly be startling!  This skill of shutting down and shutting out is a great form of self preservation.  Until it’s not.
    The horse that is spooking every step at even the leaf fluttering, is Tye in a city.  He doesn’t realize that the leaf is not important to his life at that moment, and responds as if it has the same importance, and offers the same threat, as if a lion stepped over the hill.  This isn’t necessarily because the leaf is scary (just like Tye is not actually overwhelmed every time he hears a car drive by), but because the state of mind is not calm and confident enough to be able to notice the leaf, and decide that it isn’t important or a threat at that moment.  This is why flooding a spooking horse won’t solve the problem.  It will simply push the horse a little bit further towards the shut down end of the spectrum, by giving it one more thing it learns to block out.  It is also why horses spook at seemingly unimportant things.  It has nothing to do with the thing they are spooking at, but at the mindset they having while processing it (or not processing it).  It’s worth noting, Tye’s pretty nervous in the city, so when all this information comes in, none of it seems comforting.  Not unlike a horse that isn’t wholly okay with being ridden or led by a person.
    Often I see horses go through this spectrum during training that make it seem like they are getting worse before getting better.  An extremely shut down horse might move towards the spooky end of the spectrum as they begin to wake up.  This is like if I, being shut down from a city, then decided to consciously notice more while outside of the city, and suddenly was paranoid of everything because my practiced filters were removed.  Quite literally, I regularly see horses that are considered bombproof by their owners become hyper-vigilant spooky messes after a few days of training.  This could be very discouraging to someone watching, but the first time that bombproof horse (who, obviously wasn’t always bombproof or wouldn’t be in training) spooks unnecessarily at a bird I am generally elated.  FINALLY! They noticed the bird. 
    Now comes the next step.  Taking this now awake horse, and teaching them to be confident enough in themselves (and in me, as the person asking them to go somewhere) to know what is important sensory information, and what is not, and not to panic when something comes up that is unexpected.  What we want is a horse somewhere in between me and Tye.  A horse that notices most everything, so they aren’t taken by surprise easily, but isn’t so overly sensitive to the world that they worry about things that don’t matter.  This takes a certainly amount of comfort, self awareness, and certainty about who they are (and who we are!) to achieve.  I know exactly what to block out and what to take in while I’m doing something I know well and am confident doing, and at those moments I’m not victim to becoming unnecessarily shut down like I might walking through Times Square.  The same goes for Tye, who when he’s doing something he is confident in and feels good about doing, is not worried about every little sound, as suddenly he can filter appropriately.
    Obviously, if it is this hard to achieve in two fairly functioning humans, this isn’t an easy thing to achieve with a horse.  But, the more confident they are in themselves, what is expected of them, how best to interact with their people and their world, and the more options they feel they have at their disposal, the less a horse will need to succumb to one of these other coping mechanisms that are not nearly as healthy.  And certainly not as fun to ride!