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A Horse and a Tiny Blue Hand: A few thoughts on relational trauma

Our Herd: Blue, Murty, Eddie & Falcon (front to back)

Our little herd of horses is a band of misfits. Murty and Falcon were both born in the wilderness of Wyoming: curious, naughty, and endearing. Eddie is a retired rodeo horse, and is a steady, aching giant. Blue is fiery, energized, sensitive, and sweet. As a new father, I can’t help but imagine each of their birth stories. Where did their births happen? Who were their mothers? What was their first view of the world?

Following birth, horses are often able to stand up within an hour, able to walk within a couple of hours, and able to run at a gallop within a day, albeit on spindly, adorable legs. The prevailing wisdom is that evolution has enabled such remarkable feats in order for these prey animals to evade predators and survive from an early start out of pure necessity. In contrast, my daughter was born 5 whole months ago as of this writing. Right now she is unable to perform any ambulatory feat beyond rolling, and will not do much more for a while yet. If necessity dictated she needed to get up and go… Well, let’s just say she’s more of a barnacle. Furthermore, humans are born without any remarkable, visible attributes at all. As a Gary Larson cartoon reads, “no fur, claws, horns, antlers, or nothin… just soft…”. We are born, and live most of our lives, slower, weaker, and gentler than almost any other animal.

One thing does stand out about her birth, though. She was able to cry out within seconds of being born. Impelled by something moving deep within me, I placed my finger in her tiny, blue hand. She squeezed, and I felt as though I was struck by a lightning bolt, the connection was so powerful.

It is the crying out that is remarkable. Simultaneously with saying out loud, “I am uncomfortable”, she’s reaching out into her world, asking, “is there someone there?” As time has passed and as she has grown, the question perhaps becomes more specific: “Is there someone there that I know, that I’m familiar with?”

Connecting is one of our most innate and foundational drives. The drive to reach out and feel that someone is there begins from the moment of birth (or even in utero), and never goes away. We need someone there. Someone can keep us safe. Someone can reassure us. Someone can be a nervous system that we can anchor into, establish a framework for what to feel. Someone makes us feel like us. Consequently, nothing can be more viscerally terrifying for a human being than to reach out and feel that there is no-one there. For someone as vulnerable as a human in the wilderness, especially a human infant, this is the most life-threatening thing possible. To do so is to feel alone, abandoned, isolated, or horrified that such a thing is reality. Even in a managed environment, well protected from any possibility of a predator sneaking up, like a crib inside of a house, an infant’s nervous system only knows if there is someone there, or if there is not. These experiences are laid down in the brain stem, in fancily named areas that connect how we orient to our world with how we feel in ourselves and even our sense of having a concept of “I”: the self. The imprint of fear and terror from such experiences lives on in us, as the most basic and simple truth of the human experience is that we learn to regulate - manage our internal state of feelings and physiology - in our early experiences of connecting. Over time, we may learn a few different things about reaching out and connecting. In one scenario, we could learn that when we reach out, we get a connection, and that connection is predictably safe, and that with scanning the environment and reaching out to connect, there is no need for alarm. In a different scenario, we might learn that when we reach out, there is nobody there, and that doing so feels horrifying, awful, and distressing. Or we might also learn that when we reach out, someone is there, but we don’t know how available they might be moment to moment, or that we need to be careful in how we reach out. We might learn that the person there is not safe, and we freeze. Many combinations are possible. No matter the scenario, it is the urge to reach out that never changes, never ceases. Even if it is painful, or unpredictable, or downright devastating, we are programmed to reach. Whether and how we reach can change, depending on what our nervous system has endured and now decides is the safest course of action. While horses learn to walk before making any sounds, they too thrive on connections, and are impacted when they are alone. Take our horse Blue as an example. I know little about her birth and early life. What I do know is that for years she was kept alone in a stall, unable to even see other horses. Her only interactions with any other creature came on special occasions, when she was taken out of the stall to be spurred on at full speed carrying the flag bearer at the start of the rodeo. Just imagine the impact on her nervous system: going from total isolation in fearful lack of any stimulation, to racing around at top speed in a space crowded with strangers, strange smells, and loud noises.


Her day-to-day was characterized by nothingness, and was punctuated by occasional, absolute chaos. Consequently, her nervous system has mirrored this. She is horrified to be left alone, or even if one member of the herd leaves (including her nemesis, that stinky Falcon), and when she escalates she struggles to calm back down. The parts of equine neurobiology that deal with orienting, feeling, and connecting are identical in humans. We have this same process in us, although we can learn to mask or ignore our feelings until they are fully mental health issues. A surprising number of people carry experiences like this, and the varying outcomes are captured under the umbrella of a term that is surging in awareness: Relational Trauma. It is the fact of being impacted by the nature of connecting and attaching, even if there was no subsequent abuse or neglect of any kind, and even if basic needs like food, shelter, etc were continually provided for. It often occurs in preverbal development stages, but can be incurred throughout the life cycle. The effects of early relational trauma are far-reaching and long-lasting. As adults acknowledge and work through their experiences of reactivity, depression, or anxiety, almost always there is a deep rooted fear, terror, horror, that is alive on a visceral level, and is complicated to understand because it doesn’t necessarily have a clear cause connected to it. We like to think in linear thoughts, such as “I’m afraid of dogs because of a bad experience with a dog.” It is harder to validate the fear-terror when it is ambient, prevalent, and present in many different contexts, or there is not an image attached to it. But it is exactly this deep fear that enables feelings of panic, anxiety, reactivity, un-ease, exhaustion, jumpiness, depression, tension, constant re-evaluation of relationships, and shame later in life. The experience of relational trauma, or really any permutation of our mental health, is a reflection of the nature of our brain and how it has learned to function at key stages of development. The famous adage of “what fires together wires together” is a true one, and although this neural plasticity is implicated in how we may be wounded in relationship, thankfully it is also what enables us to heal. Blue’s story did not end with her nervous system always bracing for impact. For Blue, and for all of us, we get to experience the next chapter of life. I sit here writing this, knowing that there is so much more to be said about all of this: the brain, psychotherapy, and the world around us. I lay with my shaggy dog Charlie at my feet, and my daughter curled up next to me. She stirs, stretches a hand out, and I place my finger in her tiny hand. She sighs, and goes back to sleep. And I close the laptop for the night. With tremendous gratitude to the clinicians, researchers, and mentors who have been exploring these concepts: Frank Corrigan, Sebern Fisher, Ruth Lanius, Karlen Lyons Ruth, and others. I avoid conjecture, and name if I ever go out on a limb. I do not have citations here but every concept introduced is gathered from credible, peer reviewed sources, or at least from people far smarter than I. I am happy to share those origins if you are interested.

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