Some of my human clients are left baffled by animal fears and sensitivities that make no sense. From overly sensitive to downright neurotic, the assumption, especially with animals with an unknown past, is that they must have had a bad experience. But then how do we explain aversions and fearful behaviours in animals who have led an otherwise sheltered and happy life?
The answer could lie in our animals picking up on our own energy – but it could also lie in their genes…
I first became aware of the potential effects of epigenetic trauma (intergenerational/inherited trauma) when our own ponies went missing during the Knysna fires of 2017. We were finding tracks, but two ponies were clearly in hiding – one of them, Mila, showing in communication that she didn’t want to come home, or be near humans, because she was terrified of being ridden. She’d never been ridden and there were no plans to back her, so her reasoning, paired with the intensity of her fear, made zero sense.
But then we were also shown images of a traumatic riding experience that was not hers, but that of her dad – Spirit.
Now we’d “inherited” Spirit and his brethren when we bought Essendale and at the time we were told he had never been ridden. So what we were told and shown at first made no sense. But upon further investigation, it turned out that owners before us had tried to back Spirit, right here at Essendale, and things had gone rather badly.
But how did Mila know – and why was she so affected?
Spirit’s trauma happened a long time before Mila was born, which meant that for her to feel such intense fear over Spirit’s experience, it must have somehow been passed down from father to daughter. And considering Mila had never displayed a fear of humans, we concluded that the inherited fear was either triggered or substantially heightened by her experienced trauma of the fire.
Backed by science
Numerous scientific studies, conducted using several generations of animals, have proven that trauma can indeed be passed down – not just in utero (pregnant mom experiencing stress), but also passed down paternally. And not just down one or two generations, but many! The scientific debate now lies in exactly how this occurs and to what extent, but I’m sure the scientists will find consensus.
What does this mean for your animals?
If trauma can be passed down multiple generations, this means that animals whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc, have been subject to any form of significant trauma, may be triggered by certain stimuli, even though they have led an otherwise uneventful life. And from my own (unscientific) findings with Mila, if they do experience a traumatic event themselves, this may also cause generational trauma-related fears to suddenly emerge on top of their own trauma.
So, if you are dealing with fear-based behaviour that seems totally irrational to you, there may well be a perfectly logical and valid explanation. You may not always find the reason, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot overcome it with the same approach, conditioning and healing methods that you would use for an animal presenting “legitimate” fears.
While it can help to know the root cause of trauma in some cases, we don’t always need all the facts. Healing is possible, regardless.