• Sue Steiner

From Zero to Sixty


From Zero to Sixty

Horses Flight Response And Trauma Awareness

When I first got Willow she had 2 speeds, standing still and 60 mph! She would stand and basically let me do anything.  If she was nervous or scared while standing, she would spook in place but as soon as I asked her to move forward, she rushed around the arena, going faster and faster, with head up and eyes bulging out of her head!  (I am exaggerating slightly or embellishing.)


I worked with her all last year to get her to ride calmly and with a loose rein which she did- halleluja!  But I’ve have gone all winter without riding her.  😦  To see where her mind was at, I decided to just do some groundwork.

I set up an obstacle course in my riding arena but started off just grooming her.  Believe me, she needed it!

Willow stood like a perfect student as I groomed her.  This is her first speed- standing still. She is very good at it.  Willow is a bit of a wimp, bottom of the pecking order kind of horse in the herd and a generally unconfident horse but she does like people which is a great plus!  She just isn’t very brave.  She needs a leader but is easily overwhelmed.  I decided to take my time grooming her so she got that positive reinforcement of being on her own, away from the herd and with me.

Last year, when Willow first came to me, she would either stand still with manners (which is good!) or when asked to move forward quickly go from zero to 60!  Not so good.  It was pretty easy to see she would ‘lose her mind’ when she had to move out and would become frantic and scattered.  So when still she basically froze in place and when she moved, she got panicky!  I had my work cut out for me! 

Some background on Willow- She had been ridden before me in one of those long shanked walker bits, hollow backed with head up and reins tight.  This seems to be the style in with a fair bit of gaited horses are ridden in for some reason.  When I rode, she would walk calmly as long as she didn’t have to move any distance away from the barn.   She went from being ‘balky and resistant’ to becoming nervous and flighty as we moved away from the barn.  She braced herself against the bit which you can pretty much expect from the riding style mentioned prior, and she would try to bolt back to the barn at every chance she got.  She was NOT fun to ride.  I worked all last summer with her until we got to the point where I could ride her on a loose rein, away from the barn, gait, stop, and stay cool-headed.  It was really rewarding to see the progress she made.  You can read about it here.

Today she remembered she could be brave standing a little a distance from me.  She remembered to think and remain calm even when her feet moved.  Good girl Willow!!  We practiced going from a standstill to moving forward slowly to moving faster around the obstacle course…and then back to slow and then to a stand.  Ahhhh…. big sigh!  It was a good way to ease back into riding and very good to see she retained what she learned.  Good girl!! 


Watching Willow’s reaction of going from zero to 60 reminded me of a trauma survivor’s reactions when they are escalated. Anyone who works/lives/ is a trauma survivor is likely to be familiar with this reaction.  A person can be calm, engaged, thinking and present one minute and then wham!  Something sets them off or triggers them and off they go!  They can spiral into high gear as the trauma circles around and around, just below their awareness and greatly affecting their reactions.  Possible reactions could include oppositional or defiant behavior, hyper-vigilance and highly emotional or at the other end of the spectrum, passive, compliant, shut down, depressed.  ~~  Please know, I intend no blame here at all ~~  I am a trauma survivor too and am speaking from my own experiences.  It is not a good place to be and I understand the struggle to keep a handle on your own reactions.  That is where the horses come in.  At least for me, they have been instrumental- along with professional therapy.  



In a horse, it is easy to see hyper-vigilance and reactivity.  Each body movement of mine has to be purposeful and clear if I want her to continue forward.   I  know to only give the slightest cue to move forward for a horse like Willow, because she can be so reactive.  Had I gone with a big whip and started acting aggressively or over-asserting myself, I would have put gasoline on to her fire.  That is NEVER my intention.  

The beauty of horses and working with them in this way, is they teach ME how to keep my body and mind calm, my energy focused and not aggressive.  I can be assertive but have learned how to bring my energy right down again after the correct response.  I can watch her ‘reactiveness’ somewhat impartially and allow her to see I am not adding to her high energy.  The more she focuses on me, provided I am calm and focused, the faster she back comes aroun to her thinking brain.  There is a great reward in seeing that reflected in this large animal in front of me.  

Willow surprised me today also by going over the obstacle course very willingly.  That was a nice surprise to see that the work we did last year stuck with her and she looked like we had just done this yesterday!  It was a good reminder for me too that I need to continue to be open to what she is telling me.  This is very much a two-way street.  Things don’t go as well when I am not receptive to her response and do not adapt to her sensitivity. 

I need to listen to her as much as she listens to me.  

The lesson in this for us is, as we observe the horse, we need to pay attention to what is going on in OUR own bodies.   We must learn how to regulate ourselves by remaining calm and focused under stress.  Learning to not be reactive back to someone just because they are emotional and reactive is truly a great skill.  I’ll be honest, it is much easier to do with the horses then people sometimes…well, always easier with a horse! 

“But that body awareness piece lets us know we are into our own flight/ fight response.  If we can recognize that….and NOT go zero to 60…. that is the golden nugget of being around horses. “

When we learn to stay engaged, observant, pro-active and assertive under stress and not aggressive, emotional or reactive, we have received one of the greatest gifts our horses can give us- if we are open to it. 

* Approach and Retreat, my oil painting above, has a description here you may want to read since it goes along with the topic.

As always, thanks for stopping by!  

Sue Steiner

Free Rein Art Studio 

Equine Art and Pet Portraits


#traumaawareness #Horseandtherapy #artistwhopaintshorses #energyandhorses #benefitsofgroundwork #benefitsofhorsestohealing #EAL

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© Copyright 2023. No animals were harmed in the making

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