When Dissociation Looks Like Cooperation

October 2, 2017

Just yesterday while tacking up my horse, I was reminded how easy it is to mistake dissociation for cooperation. It is horse fly season around here, and we are currently inundated with a particularly vicious breed of huge, black, bloodsuckers. These savages pack a painful sting that I have experienced myself way too many times.

There I was, brushing down my horse Partner, when suddenly he was attacked by one of these nasty predators. I couldn’t see the fly, but Partner frantically whipped his tail around as he kicked and danced with his hind feet trying to get away from his tormentor. He was attached to a lead rope I was holding, and I went with his movement as I tried to locate and kill the offending vampire. He continued kicking at his sheath, so I finally reached up to make sure the fly had not landed inside, as they sometimes tend to do. Discovering an unpleasant “goo” that had accumulated on an extra hot and humid day, I only did a brief check before withdrawing my hand.

As I cleaned off my hand with a wipe, Partner became very still, so I hoped that the fly had gone away. I put on his saddle pad and saddle, and when I attached the girth, I noticed how very still he remained. We have been working on comfortable acceptance of the girth, so as I progressively tightened it, I thought, “Wow, maybe he’s finally getting it! Maybe he realizes this is just no big deal! Maybe his ulcer medication helped! Maybe he appreciated my efforts to help him remove that fly!” I was feeling optimistic that we had crossed a training milestone, but what I did not realize was that he was not cooperating…he was simply not there. He was, in fact, frozen.

This became obvious when, once he was bridled and ready to ride, he swatted his tail at his sheath again. I decided I really needed to check that out one last time just in case there was a fly in there, but this time I grabbed a rag and covered my hand before going in. Sure enough, with more extensive exploration, I located one of those gigantic critters inside. I pinched the fly hard and yanked him out. The rag had a big blood spot around the now squashed fly, and I felt awful that Partner had just been standing there suffering for so long while that evil bug feasted on my sweet friend’s tender flesh. 

Luckily he was not seriously impaired by his small but painful injury, and we went on to have a pleasant ride. But the experience did influence the ride, because I continued contemplating how often this horse may have appeared to be cooperative when really he was just offering the sort of compliance that comes with dissociation. As a rider, it is so easy to respond in ways that shut down expression rather than looking deeper for what is really happening with the horse. Partner had just shown me how much immediate pain he is able to ignore, and I feel as if I have been put on notice that I must always encourage him to express himself so that I respond as a good partner should. I also had to acknowledge that I have not established the sort of relationship with him where he would continue asking for help rather shutting down when he decided I couldn’t or wouldn't help. 

As a therapist, I was reminded of how often in relationships, especially between parents and children, we mistake submission for cooperation. When we assume that everything is good just because the child is compliant, we often miss important information and fail to notice subtle messages that would reveal the root of problems the child may be experiencing. Becoming attuned to the difference between compliance, which comes from the survival part of the brain, and cooperation, which comes from the “thinking” part of the brain, begins with noticing the contrast between an individual who is frozen vs. one who is consciously choosing to cooperate with a request. 

Rather than being attuned when Partner got very still, I became task-oriented thinking it was great that things were going so smoothly. And yet he was hurting inside the entire time…if I had just noticed that his eyes were a bit vacant, or his breathing a bit shallow, I might have continued exploring whether that fly had really gone away. Sometimes we have to stop and consider whether we are really attuned to the other and accurately interpreting their signals in order to build and deepen our relationship.

For more information about how to tell when your horse is dissociating check out this blog by Reccia Jobe.