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April, 2012

 

Teaching the Reaching: "Cognitive Spatial Reach"
Effective and Swift PTSD Reversal in Animals: Horses
By Casey Sugarman, Behaviorist



 

PART I : Blind Horse Inspires a New Behavioral Diagnosis and Therapy

 

I received a call from a woman whose retired horse had slowly lost his vision to an eye injury followed by cataracts. With just one eye blind, Johnnie was fairly un-phazed, but when he lost sight in the second eye, as his sight slipped away, so did his understanding of the outside world. People who go blind can access "re-education" services. But domestic animals who go blind have to figure out how to adapt without help. Over a few months, he became ever more trapped inside himself.

He started to panic about any and all physical contact. He used the walls and fence lines to find his way around, but being led out to grass was too dangerous in his mind. Putting a halter on required a half hour of calm talking. Encouragement, praise, and repetition just doesn't work for an animal who is too afraid to try.

Johnnie needed to be able to reach out and feel the world before the world touched him. With operant teaching, I asked him to reach out with his whiskers, then with nose, then to reach out with his ribcage, then to reach out with his shoulder, then to reach out with all four feet. He learned in an hour that he could trust us to be his eyes and that we would allow him time to feel his way through his world.

At the end of three hours, not only did the owner have her old volunteering horse back, but we were leading this blind horse over teetering plywood, crinkly tarps and whatever we could find that might make him nervous. We would lead him up and then reward him for reaching out with his nose and feet to touch them. As the horse exhaled many times during the session, it sounded as if years of compounded anxiety were pouring out. I spent the last third of the session teaching his owner how to take over my half of the conversation, and they had a close relationship again after that day.

One year later, Johnnie died happy and at peace. It was an apparent heart attack, experienced while rolling in new fallen snow. In addition to the sad news, the owner included: "The work you did with us that day not only released his fears of the unknown from not being able to see, it must have also released other fears, because he was a calmer horse after - calmer even than when he could see."

 

What was learned from helping Johnnie is that physical contact must always be a two-way street. A gentle reach from the human is less than half of the conversation. Any horse, in fact any animal of any species, must also be capable of and comfortable with the reaching out in order to be part of any conversation.

 

 

 

PART II : Animals Can Become "Blind" to Spatial Options

 

Just off the top of my head, in recent memory, I've met a dog with a 12 o'clock missing, a horse with a 1 o'clock missing, a llama with a 5 o'clock missing, and a dentist and also a CEO with their 6 o'clocks missing. What do I mean by the clock? Well, if you were to draw a circle around you, like the face of a clock, and if you stood at the center, your nose points to 12 o'clock, your hind end would be facing 6 o'clock, and so on with the numbers as if they were points on a compass.

 

When I say that you are "missing" one of those numbers on your clock, I mean that you are unaware that you are interacting with the world in an abnormal way at that angle of your body, especially when the world (anyone or anything) interfaces with you at that angle. This sounds implausible to most people, so it's easier to see this phenomenon when it's occurring in another species.  But regardless of the species, I call this kind of anomoly a GAP in their "cognitve spatial reach" map.  Hence the term "CSR remapping therapy."

A professional competitive 3-day event, cross country horse had a brain and a head that worked quite normally when competing over fences. But in the barn, when putting his bridle on and during grooming, he seemed odd about his head. It was time for a "clock check".

This horse was normal in how he related to me if I stood behind him or in front of him on his left. But if I stood on his right and offered him a handful of grain, at about 1:30 on his clock, , he would not take the grain presented. With any interaction at 1:30, his eyes and sense of smell seemed to just blink off line. It's like when your cable blinks out during a storm. Sensory input received by that portion of the horse seemed unable to get to the "conscious" main frame of his brain, as if there was a short circuit in the wiring.

His 'missing ability' was not only visible to me, it was plainly visible to his owner and to onlookers. While reviewing his past the owner mentioned that this horse had been shipped out to an Olympic trainer who "secretly" abused him over a few days. The abuse sessions were witnessed by a student who reported back to the owner.

Any horse like this does what anyone with a "CSR blind spot" would do… he will preemptively change his footing in relation to you so as to "move you" ever so slightly into his 1 o'clock or 2'o'clock, which would immediately resolve his brain's discomfort. But since I was moving my feet right along with him, keeping myself in the 1:30 angle, he would just shut off like a light bulb… -eyes, ears, nose- all offline and reproducibly. Before his "clock" assessment, he was checked by vets for a right eye vision abnormality. His full equine eye exam showed no abnormalities in either eye.


It took about two hours to "'re-teach" him to bring his 1:30 o'clock back on line. Once I reminded his cognitive brain that he could "reach into that space" at 1:30 o'clock, he came around to using that space normally again (normal with bridles etc), but not without a noticeable "re-calibrating" adjustment period.

 

"For a few days after you were here, he was spooking at things he's walked by every day for years, like the white fence on the way to his paddock. Honestly, I tell you it was like he had never thought about it being there before" said his trainer/owner. If they were in his Right field of vision, the fence, his blanket, his buckets, the same furniture he had seen every day for years were suddenly being experienced as new, like he had not actually consciously registered them being there before. It was really strange for a few days. But, he's normal now!"

 

 

 

PART III : Cognitive Map and Examples of CSR Cases

 

Cognitive Map:
Many of the "abnormal behavior" cases I see, in any given species, behave as if they have 'shut down' the conscious wiring to/from some parts of their bodies, making the other parts of the body have to work hard to compensate. When a body part shuts down its sensory-cognitive pathways, the result is usually that the body part is "under-expressive," as in the horse above. But it can also be over expressive, or not able to be at rest, like a muscle in spasm. But whether these body parts over-react or under-react, these portions of the animal are always behaving abnormally. A horse ignoring oats offered only from one angle is irrational.

 

"Cognitive interaction abnormalities" can't be observed on a still photograph. Video is required to document abnormal social choices. Some CSR gaps can  appear to renormalize when the animal is alone. But usually, animals have the same CSR gap even when they are away from all interaciton.  They just do not perceive parts of their own bodies in space.

Also, the trouble/gap that is diagnosed is independent of the individual interacting with them. You can swap out the people doing the testing and the animal will present the same way. CSR does not require any muscle therapies or energy therapies. All that is required is to teach the animal to make a specific conscious CHOICE of movement through designated spatial areas.

Further Examples of CSR at 1 o'clock:

 

Emma: age 8, Wild Born Mustang
Owner's report: Overall Dangerous, Can't approach behind withers, Mare born in the wild, snatched up as a baby. Abused by first trainer. Vet findings: Physical exam impossible
CSR findings and time needed to diagnose it: 30 min diagnose time, Lower Right Front Leg (Knee to Hoof), couldn't reach out with RF toward 1'oclock
CSR Treatment time: 3 hrs
Best Guess as to original cause: Likely experienced abuse while legs tied together or hobbled.

Oakie: age 11, Shire/Shire/Clydesdale/QH
Owner's report: Used to be normal until left alone with the farrier twice. Now cowkicks at every farrier's head.
Vet findings: likely unstable stifle(s)
CSR findings and time needed to diagnose it: Right Hind Upper Leg (Hip to Stifle) 1 o'clock, took 8 hours to gain access to assessment zone (over 3 visits)
CSR Treatment time: 1 hr - had to stand between his back legs in order to show him the step he couldn't imagine. Don't try this at home!
Best Guess as to original cause: Farrier either damaged or abused hind legs, when unattended.

Blondie, 7?, QH, Premarin foal, now adult
Owner's report: Rescued from abusers, cannot be placed, mentally unstable, unpredictable.
Vet findings: No physical problems, but exam impossible
CSR findings and time needed to diagnose it: Front Upper Leg (Scapula to Humerus) 1'oclock, 1 hr diagnose time, many complexed auditory and proximity phobias, "autistic response to noise", requires 150 ft distance from evaluator
CSR Treatment time: 29 hrs, all at liberty, pro bono
Best Guess as to original cause: Abnormal brain development, traumatic foal experience? This mare could not even stand on Right Front leg at all during any audio stressor.


 

 

PART IV : Predictable Stages of Recovery

 

Babies need a few years to learn how to use their bodies. But in a flash, body part use can also be unlearned through traumatic events. In cutting edge human brain therapy, Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran PhD, has recently made the discovery of immediate-cure mirror therapy as a "visual-cognitive treatment" for phantom limb pain. He has shown that there is a cognitive body map that can become misaligned in trauma, as if the brain still imagines a limb that is not there. In the reverse, in CSR therapy, a brain refuses to be aware of a limb that IS there! During the relatively short process of treatment, the recovery pattern always hits predictable phases: fast use, slow use, and super slow motion use.


The experienced evaluator will make a map of the animal's compass. If an animal uses a space even one time, they pass the test. When an animal uses a given area exactly zero percent of the time, that area qualifies as a CSR "hole", a missing part of the animal's body map.  In the first phase of contact from the missing area, the animal's usage of the body part goes by in a flash. Actions may appear random and hard to see to the untrained eye, but the animal's actions are not random at all.  An animal touching you for the first few times will appear as a quick swipe, or a flick, or a flash of contact.

 

Safety is paramount in Phase 1 because the animal will avoid use of this slice of their "personal space" at all cost. Onlookers will immediately observe the animal's quick pivots (whipping around), shooting away at straight angles, and/or "skipped over" angles. Sometimes animals do indeed jump OVER empty space, if they are afraid to make a move in that direction, as if jumping over imaginary hot coals. These animals are usually labeled as "unpredictable rearers, lungers, or buckers". These actions are not active choices made by the brain; they are more like peripheral nerve auto-feedback loops which bypass the thinking brain entirely.

 

In Phase 2 of recovery, quick movements slow remarkably. Body part use begins to present like physical pathology. Often observed is a true loss of balance, joints that seem out of joint, and/or seemingly constricted or restricted muscles and ligaments, and yet all of these "physical issues" are confined to the CSR treatment sessions, and are not observed at other times. Owners often begin to accuse the animal of "lying" to avoid work, which could not be farther from the truth. In actuality, the body is experimenting with every possible solution to the challenge of "purposeful touch" and the brain is working overtime to build a new map to support that.  This rehabilitative work can be so mentally exhausting (even at a stand still) that the animal often falls into a deep sleep right after or even during the session.

 

Phase 3 is Super Slow Motion. The slow motion movements are not created by the practitioner; they are created by the animal. During this phase, the animal is appearing to be confronting a fear or psychological pathology. In this stage, these individuals are mentally ready to take their first real purposeful movements. Even though a food reward is promised for their effort, they become quite nervous about the effort of what we would consider a simple movement. Breathing, heart rate and sweating all speed up, even while at a stand still. In all cases, "reaching" into this new area on purpose always generates an action or movement that is visibly quite shaky, wobbly, "smeary", and tentative, as if they are feeling the contact point for the first time, as we would be when walking into an ocean or touching a snake for the first times in life.

When the animal can make the movement in slow motion, that's how you know the action is now under full conscious control and that the cognitive repair is solid. The animal typically relies on or practices this new skill a little too frequently for a few weeks. Once they balance out, we have them practice using this body part at increasing speed, until they can make conscious movements with it even at a run. After supporting its use at all speeds, recovery is complete and permanent.

A general quadrant of missing CSR can be identified in any animal in about ten minutes or less. Identifying the specific CSR "hole," narrowing to the point or origin, can take up to a few hours, as affected individuals have learned to mask in every way, hiding any spatial pathology/phobia, which is an obvious weakness among social contact species. Dangerous and aggressive animals require a slower progression, merely to ensure practitioner safety. Multiple CSR holes are usually compounded with trigger phobias in cases of determined aggression. Treatment isn't normally long once you identify CSR as the cause, and fully rational and normal animals are usually the result.

 

Casey Sugarman, Phobia Specialist/ Behaviorist
Sugarman has been reversing phobias in animals and in people for 18 years.

 

Note: This article is not instructional. Emotional recovery in phobic and/or dangerous individuals should be directed by a professional behaviorist to reduce risk of injury.