Healing the horse’s brain and body through the fascias

Liza Kimble was recently interviewed for Veterinary Rehabilitation Summit (link to podcast below), here is a summary of the key points of this interview.

When animals experience traumatic events, they will shake out, once the danger has passed. There is a lot of adrenalin and cortisol in the system in these situations to help us prepare for fight or flight. This is why there needs to be a discharge of the energy after to release the body of the physiological impact of the stress, which explains why animals shake out their bodies after these types of events. But we humans have lost the reflex to shake out after stress and trauma (humans due to particularities of the human cortex feel more shame and guilt than animals, and shaking is experienced as shameful).

Liza Kimble is part of TRE – Trauma releasing exercises – work group, led by Dr. Berceli. Through his research, Dr. Berceli has shown how through vibration and shaking we release excess energy in the system which is toxic for health and wellbeing. TRE is part of what we call Somatic experiencing exercise.

Horses can release tension and stress held in the body, particularly post trauma, through vibrations and shaking. After her sessions, she sees horses shake or experience smaller vibrations and ondulations on their body.

Liza mentions the book “The body keeps the score” by Dr Bessel van der Kolk which she recommends.

Different breeds of horses experience more or less trauma, cold blooded horses are different in their fascia, the basic tension of their fascia is lower. 

Unwinding can be seen in gentle slight movements, shaking, subtle movements along the back or bigger shaking, tremor through the body. If we don’t get tremor, it can be an indication of a very shut down animal. It can take a few sessions to develop. The eyes show us what happens in the animal.

The research paper by Paulo Tozzo “Does fascia hold memories?” (2013) brought together different aspects of the overall fascia system. How fascia stiffness and the ANS, the autonomous nervous system, are intimately connected.

As Liza stresses out: “the fascia system, the immune system and the inflammatory system are all one.”

Furthermore, the release of substance P from nerve endings, particularly driven by the hypothalamus following emotional trauma, may alter the collagen structure into a specific hexagonal shape, referred as “emotional scar” (Heine, 1990). The entirety of this phenomenon may be interpreted as a highly structurally and functionally specific process of encoding memory traces in fascia ».

Structure of the fascia is changed by trauma.

When we are in flight or fight mode, the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is active with its physiological components, adrenalin and cortisol, higher heart rate etc., and then the blood flow to the digestive system is restricted among others. In the sympathetic response for survival, there is all this blood going through our system (but not our digestive system), we have adrenalin and off we go if we need to flee or fight.

The problem is, today we get stuck in this state of perpetual trauma. And the more stressed and traumatized we are the more trigger reaction we have and the more stressed and traumatized we get. We become stuck in a state of stress.

So we deal with the limbic system where trauma is stored in the brain and the autonomous system which is mediated by the vagus nerve and fascia system.

An immune reaction happens, the fascia stiffens the more stress we have, because the fascia and the autonomic nervous system are linked.

And horses can be triggered into behaviour that are clearly trauma response, but nobody knows what the original cause for the trauma was. 

What Liza tries to reach with the method she teaches: creating safety in the body and safety in the brain. So that the animal can realise that it is safe and that it is not in the danger situation any more. 

Hypothalamus, amygdala etc., store our trauma memories in the brain. When we are emotionally or externally triggered, we are once again in a sympathetic response.

When this happens several times a day this is super unhealthy, the blood flow to the digestive system becomes impaired. This leads to a lot of digestive issues etc. The digestive system and the dysfunction that lies therein, yes there are many reasons, but in her opinion the original cause is our autonomic response and stress is in most cases, according to Liza Kimble, the original cause. Horse can become underweight due to stress, because of stress related impaired digestion.

I would add that often humans resort to feeding more grain based feed to make weight go up again but this brings misbalance in the gut microbiome, the equine being herbivore not a granivore, the equine gut is made for forage, fibre, hay etc. and not for cereals which in many cases negatively impact the microbiome. However, it is precisely the microbiome that allows for healthy digestion of the feed that reaches the intestine. The more grain is fed, the more weight the horses loses depending on its sensitivity to this issue. Like humans they are all on a spectrum regarding this.

Also, the lives of horses are not very natural (food, movement, social needs etc.), they are prevented from fleeing, they are prevented from fighting etc., humans have found many methods to bring horses under their control. Often, they can only go in shutdown “freeze” mode. They get a lot of stress, also from our stress. Among others because our nervous system mirror one another.

Liza recapitulates the Polyvagal theory in her own words. 

The polyvagal proposes that physiological state limits the range of behaviour and psychological experience. 

The theory links the evolution of the autonomic nervous system to affective experience, emotional expression, facial gestures, vocal communication, and contingent social behaviour. In this way, the theory provides a plausible explanation for the reported covariation between atypical autonomic regulation (e.g., reduced vagal and increased sympathetic influences to the heart) and psychiatric and behavioural disorders that involve difficulties in regulating appropriate social, emotional, and communication behaviours (Porges).

And then she reminds us that it is important to learn techniques to self-regulate us and help the horse regulate. The constant triggering of autonomic response is a problem. What happens in the autonomic response in the fascia: We have adrenaline, and there are also other hormones, thus we have the chemical response, we have a lot of lower grade inflammation in other words, chemical stress. And you also have mechanical, stress which is created through posture (think of depression posture, chronic pain posture) – they are all linked. We cannot think the one without the other. They are all related.

The vagal system that innervates the inner world, the viscera, the organ walls fascia are the same as in muscular system and the skin, this is why we call the fascia an organ of proprioception, because of the constant feed back to the brain about where we are etc. 

But the fascia is also about interoception.  Imagine you have PTSD, the signals don’t work like they should work. How experience the experience in the world is not exactly as it is.

There is a lot of chronic pain today. This kind of information happens in fascia system contributes to chronic pain. The vagus is a bottom up nerve. It constantly tells our brain if we are safe or not. If it does not tell the brain that we are safe, the inflammation starts.

It is even been said that we have inflammatory memory from generations before us. So this could be why inflammation is switched on so easily.

If we want to reverse that through touch and movement we are able to do that by creating safety in the brain. As the brain feels safe the ANS can self-regulate in a natural way and not always be geared through survival / threat.

Because this is not helping anyone.

Bring the high ANS down to feelings of safety the organism can heal.

Because many other treatments will not be effective if the animal or human is still in a constant state of threat.

She sees a lot of high sympathetic tone in animal patients. The higher the sympathetic tone the more dysfunction there is in the body and the longer it takes to work through this. It is linked to their owner often also having a very high sympathetic tone. In those animals, we also have behavioural issues in those cases.

Liza recommends the book The body keeps the score (by Bessel van der Kolk).

The poly vagal theory applies to all mammals – humans and animals.

We have three main states in polyvagal theory. The first, parasympathetic nervous system, when all is calm, and the digestive system is working (“rest and digest”), the social engagement system. The second, the sympathetic nervous system: this is fight or flight. If we cannot fight or run away: when the natural instinct to run away is hampered because they are in a situation of domestication, they cannot fight or flee. For all of us it is the same, if we cannot neither fight nor flight (e.g. as a child in our family of origin – parents are stronger and have total power over our lives) we have to go into dissociation and that is still ok but if that does not work and we remain in the dissociated state we go in freeze response. Freeze is what we look for in horses, when they are shut down (in the polyvagal theory this third state is called the dorsal vagal, the hypoaroused state). That is a behaviour that is the almost the biggest red flag. 

In humans, those have the most chronic pain, they have a stiff body, you can see from their body and eyes that they are in pain. 

The side effect of the freeze response is that it numbs. 

This state indicates that they either have been in a lot of chronic pain for a long time. Eg. Horse stops to jump etc. This is when we are called out to the client.

Think about animals refusing to do their work. This is a huge red flag as this has been building up for month. 

Also: girthing up and pulling a face, this is not normal. The owner will think “that is just what he does”, but if we improve girth, saddle and bits etc. it can still be a trauma memory. It can be a neuro-fascia memory of pain. 

How tissue might store some form of memory is debated in the article “Does fascia hold memories?” (Paulo Tozzi, 2014). Pozzo hypothesizes in this article that “Manual therapy may then activate an ‘erasing process’ via a (‘gel-sol’) transformation of the matrix causing a reset of dysfunctional memories, possibly stored in the fascia.”

So there can be memory even if there is no more tack issue or else. Touch is extremely effective in those cases, too.

What a lot of us don’t see is the chronic pain. The shutdown, the freeze response.

How to shield animal from owner’s trauma? 

Animals can help us heal from trauma but what is happening to them when they are our support system. They try to regulate our nervous system. 

We are dealing with highly stressed humans. The often weird and wonderful symptoms lead to that, they absorb all our stress. The more well versed you become to explain to owner the simplest thing, trauma and stress, the more you help, we need to educate people.

Posture related to pain and depression

Understanding the fascia lines can help us with trauma. This is Liza’s favourite story. Before Vibeke Elbrond, one of the authors of “Equine Myofascial lines for professionnals” she realized that with Tom Myers. The link between the psoas muscle is more and more the focal point. But a lot of misunderstandings lies around the psoas. 

The deep front line and deep ventral line are your focus. 80% of focus is on the deep ventral line. If the deep ventral line is contracted, this will create pull over in other places (through the facia and tensegrity). The psoas holds muscle contraction. When we had to protect ourselves, we had to contract (in a flight situation we both need to run away and protect our underbelly). If you think of a dog which runs away : it tucks its’ tail and when the danger is over he shakes out. This tucked in tail thing that is the key. This is where you can see that the psoas has contracted and that this has contracted the pelvis in this tucked in state. There are various things that lead to this. But this is a key point when we release contraction in the body.

We have lumbar joint issues, we have stifle issues, and many issues … But if we can deal with the ventral line and the few places where it pops up this is where can do the “magic”. We can easily get to psoas in a dog but in a horse? So we work with the adductors that are part of the deep ventral line. If we work high up on adductor we work on the psoas. What I found as a therapist is that there is never enough focus on the ventral and the deep line. To focus on them helps the dorsal line. A lot of contracture in hind end can be released through working on ventral line. 70% of back pain dysfunction goes away when you work on the ventral line, this is the place where nobody ever goes.

This is a number one area. Because the Psoas is contracted, because this is the number one thing that happens in the body. 

The next question that comes: how do we with our little hands make a difference on the strong, thick fascia? How can we make a difference, shift it, change it? 

When we access the mechanoreceptors, most of all Ruffini receptors and interstitial receptors in particular, which are all over the body, we have an instant vagal response where the hypothalamus is stimulated to soften the muscle tone, the global muscle tone. And that is through slow touch.

Can psychological trauma be released through the fascia? 

Only when the organism feels safe can it release stress. Touch helps but must be done in manner that the organism feels safe: no hard, no rough, no fast. Embodied touch, being present.  So it is present touch, this can be just with a finger, like Vibeke Elbrond for example, or more full hands massage techniques, but very mindful present slow touch will create safety in the organism. And therefore yes, the psychological issues will be helped. Remember the poly vagal theory.

Similar question about PTSD, how does PTSD relate to the fascia?

How can we use the fascia to work with PTSD? In PTSD we have a chronic inflammation of the system. The brain thinks you are still under thread in PTSD. The body thinks you are not safe from the event that happened or the many events that happened. So PTSD is creating chronic inflammation in the fascia through extracellular matrix etc. This program is still running in the body, the vagus nerve still not giving signal of safety. We don’t have healthy blood flow etc. We have also a lot of dissociation. The brain still thinks you are still running away from the lion.

So, with mindful touch you can help this. If practitioners can hold space mindfully, this in combination with body work is incredibly powerful. 

The fascia system is the key because of the sensory receptors and the importance of feeling safe. The practitioner will have to work in this way. This is very helpful way this will fast track healing.



podcast https://onlinepethealthwebinar.libsyn.com/holding-trauma-in-the-fascia-with-liza-kimble

The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system, Stephen W. Porges, PhD


“Does fascia hold memories?” Paulo Tozzi, 2014

chart https://themovementparadigm.com/how-to-map-your-own-nervous-sytem-the-polyvagal-theory/


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