Training with Oxytocin

After reading the book Made For Each Other by Meg Daley Olmert, I should probably change the name of my blog. I brainstormed long and hard to come up with name “I Feel Good, My Horse Feels Good.” My other choices were “I’m Smiling, My Horse is Smiling” or “Training Horses the Way I’d Like to be Trained if I Were a Horse.”

All of my name choices revolved around how happy I am when I’m working with my horses. The reason I started my blog in the first place is that when I saw other folks working with their horses, neither they nor their horses seemed to smile as much as I would when I was working/playing with my horses.

As a re-rider (an adult returning to horses after briefly having horses as a teen), I was told by the current horse training methods that:

  • You must have a trainer
  • You must be the boss
  • You must never hand feed your horse
  • You must never let your horse into your personal space
  • You cannot be too nice
  • Spare the rod, spoil the horse
  • It’s OK to hit a horse because that’s how they communicate with each other

As an born envelope-pusher, I didn’t have a trainer, I viewed my horse as equal or more evolved, I did lots of hand feeding, I totally let my horse hug me while I hugged back, I used the rod as a target stick and I communicated by asking or inviting.

All this molly-coddling and lovey-dovey stuff didn’t get me trampled or bitten or bucked off. Instead, I’ve got four horses that paint with brushes in their mouths. They lay down when I point at the ground. They chase balls. They retrieve. They heel and recall better than my dogs, and they are lovely to ride. All of these things were achieved by me, a novice re-rider, in very short period of time with little effort and lots of joy. I had no choice but to start a blog. I had achieved relationships with my horses, even with difficult horses, that I was told would take years of experience and expertise to develop.

Without sounding too evangelistic, the joy I’m experiencing has been too big to keep inside. The joy comes in two parts:

  1. How wonderful it feels to have this relationship with my horse
  2. How quickly and easily it was established

After reading Olmert’s book, I now have an explanation for my success. My ego wishes it’s because I have special abilities or talents. It turns out, according to history, science and research, that I’ve merely tapped into a very special and powerful stream. No, not a stream of consciousness, or a stream of living water but an innate stream of the fabulous, feel-good hormone called oxytocin.

Oxytocin is the bonding hormone and is directly responsible for my joy, and now, I guess, for this blog.

This fabulous stream is activated in both human and animals simultaneously during friendly interaction. And during these interactions, our oxytocin levels double! (pg. 213, Made for Each Other) The key words being friendly interaction.

I think current horse training trends that advocate being the boss with the “whack’em, smack’em, chase’em, confine’em till the horse cries ‘Uncle!’ and joins up method, is a serious block to the flow of oxytocin. It’s doubtful that any horse sees being stomped at or waved around the round pen with a flag or flicked at with a whip as a friendly interaction.

Consider the possibility that  horses of today are being robbed of their opportunity to bond as closely as with us as we have with our dogs at cats. The reason, in my opinion, that horses usually do not experience this bond with humans is that our oxytocin is not stimulated when we look at them. When we gaze into the snuggly faces of cats and dogs and baby anythings, it has a direct effect on the stimulation of our oxytocin. We immediately want to nuture and cuddle and provide for the little ones because their faces remind us of how wonderful it feels to bond with our own young.

Horses, however, due to their size and to the societal influence that says you have to Be the boss and never let them take advanatage of you (blah blah blah), we’re not as likely to view our horses as something to cuddle or nurture. We often view them as a threat to our safety.

This is perhaps the reason for my joy and ease with my horses. Somehow I was able to by-pass the whole horses are animals we rule and dominate and see them more like my dogs or cats. I think this viewpoint was powerfully activated the moment I began using predominately positive reinforcement with my horses.

I have a strong hunch that positive reinforcement attraction-based clicker training is a mega oxytocin-flow for both horses and humans. For the horse, the process of accepting treats from the hand may activate the bonding mechanism (oxy-flow) that a foal has when it’s nursing. There may even be certain nerve endings activated in the muzzle. No doubt that humans experience this same oxy-flow when embraced in a lip-lock and want to do it again.

For me, most likely I experience my oxy-flow during positive reinforcement training because of the way I see my horses. I see them as more like my children that need encouragement and nurturing. I want to care for them and meet their emotional needs much more than I feel like I need to be the boss. I bet my oxytocin is a flowin’ the moment I think about their big brown eyes, soft coat, wonderful smell and huggable necks.

I betcha, however, if I were to go out to my paddocks and view my horses with the notion that they are out to get me, that all they want to do is establish leadership over me, that they really want to be my boss, then, no doubt, my oxy-flow would probably be nonexistent. But I betcha that my adrenaline and other feisty hormones would be flowing. I’m no match for a 1,000+ pound bundle of muscle and hooves that is challenging me for leadership status.

Obviously I establish boundaries and my horses do not run all over me. These boundaries are established not by threatening behaviors on my part, but by showing them that the undesirable behavior has no payoff. I keep the oxy flowing by clicking and treating the behavior I want (making the horse feel good about the right one) rather than correcting or punishing for the wrong behavior (making the horse feel bad).

This, I believe, is a huge factor in why I’m able to bond so quickly with just about any horse. I simply have been stimulating their flow of oxytocin and that is a surefire recipe for them to reciprocate to me with similar feelings. I activate oxytocin, not adrenaline.

Bottom line is that I’m able to make a horse feel good and in turn the horse makes me feel good. Thanks to science and fancy research equipment, I can directly attribute this to the pituitary gland and its production and secretion of oxytocin.

I realize now, I should really change the name of my blog to I Secrete Oxytocin, My Horse Secretes Oxytocin: The Beauty and Simplicity of Training with the Bonding Hormone.  Lyrically, however, it just doesn’t sound as good as  “I Feel Good, My Horse Feels Good.”

I guarantee many more posts to follow regarding this beautiful secretion.


6 thoughts on “Training with Oxytocin

  1. Excellent post, I love this blog!

    I’d had little to do with horses until I got Star two years ago, and I’ve been quite frankly astonished at the attitudes in the horse world. I feel so, so many people are missing out on a truly rewarding relationship with their horse due to all the misconceptions you stated above. That makes me so sad. I do virtually everything I’m not ‘supposed’ to do by conventional wisdom, and yet we have a great safe time together. I’m considered like a quirky outsider in local equestrian circles, but reading what you just wrote I feel much less alone in the world! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for your comment. It is amazing about the general climate/attitudes regarding conventional horse handling. The more closely I look and study, I think all the things we’re ‘supposed’ to do have a fear based foundation. We’re told to intimidate our horses to show them who’s boss (fear) because we’re afraid they’ll hurt us. In contrast as we’re both our finding that a ‘non-fear’ based horse/human relationship doesn’t mean that we’re permissive or unsafe.

      I’m finding that fear dissipates through clarity of communication. Marking the exact moment of what I want the horse to do, with something that feels good to the horse, has made things really clear for my herd. I think because they’re not afraid of giving me the wrong answer they don’t offer any tense, defensive or fearful behaviors.

      You and your beautiful mare, I have a feeling are making being a quirky outsider, lots of fun. I’m thrilled that there’s a growing body of insider knowledge (science/research) that’s validating your success!


  2. Pingback: The Importance of Hormones « Reaching for Connection: One Horse Lover's Journey Toward Awareness

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