The Hidden Cost of Domestication

The Hidden Cost of Domestication

Harvest Fox by Diana Sudyka/

Animal trainer Ren Hurst lost everything when she discovered a new way of being with animals. What she gained made the loss worthwhile.

Imagine that you’re training a dog. You’re replacing its own inner guidance on when to bark, when to eat, and how and where to sleep with a new set of instructions that better suit you. The dog gives up some of its essential being in exchange for praise, comfort, food, and belonging.

Undomesticating unwinds that same conditioning process that occurred in you. For decades external forces have shaped you so that your behavior is convenient. What happens when you break away from this domestication and return to your essential self?

Fifteen years ago, no one could have convinced me that domestication was ruining my life. I was making a very comfortable living as a professional hoof-care provider and horse trainer. If anyone had asked, I would have said that I had created a life full of satisfaction, adventure, and success. I was more or less achieving what I wanted and had no desire to make any huge changes. The inner turmoil of my life was easy to mask. I couldn’t recognize my dependency on all the unearned privilege that was sustaining my so-called wellbeing. I was riding high on the power of others. In the case of the horses, it was often quite literal.

Fast forward a few years. I was constantly in search of the most progressive and holistic methods of horsemanship, and that path landed me in the online forum of Nevzorov Haute Ecole (NHE). I became a student of the school soon after. The basic premise of NHE is to work with the horse in a way that the horse is mentally and physically free, without any means of coercion. No riding is allowed. At the time, I had no intention of giving up riding, but, because of what I had seen demonstrated, I was willing to commit to the process to find my own truth in the experience.

Working with an untrained stallion, what I was able to achieve through NHE’s applied philosophy left my worldview completely shattered. Everything I thought I knew about horse training crumbled away as I was able to form an extremely cooperative and intimate relationship with my horse, free of any manipulation, pain, or coercion. The school had its limitations, however, and I realized that my relationship to this horse was actually teaching me about power dynamics and unconditional love.

The animals were already a captive audience, completely dependent upon me for their survival. There is an enormous amount of leverage for behavior modification just in that fact alone. As I followed the school’s protocol and removed all manipulation from the relationship with my horse, both of us were more able to be fully present in our feeling experience. We were able to relate more intimately with our own body and emotions. The more emotionally mature we became, the harder it was for anyone else to control us.

Cooperation had to be earned through a mutual feeling of trust. We were learning to trust our own internal signals instead of being guided by the fear of repercussions or by the appeal of some external reward.

The container that was created was allowing both of us to be completely true to our individual internal experiences without interruption. It was the very essence of unconditional love.

What I didn’t understand at that time was just how important that kind of love is for the emotional development of any animal, nonhuman or otherwise. Previously, I had been consistently interrupting both the animal’s and my own emotional experience in order to achieve specific outcomes or to guide them in the direction I thought best.

Even the most subtle and well-intentioned forms of manipulation intended to control someone’s behavior are carried out from a place of not trusting. By removing all of the elements that domesticated the horse, I was able to step into a place of authentic leadership that the animal desired to follow. Through this experience, I naturally evolved into someone who no longer desired or needed to control another in order to feel safe in the world.

After reaching an entirely new awareness with horses and losing my career and life as I knew it in the process, I realized there was a great deal more to uncover. I wrote a book about that initial journey and began to dig deeper into what I was witnessing and experiencing. Following a complete paradigm shift around my relationship to animals in general, I was forced to take a hard look at my relationship to dogs. I began applying what I had learned with them as well.

What I discovered brought me to my knees and opened my heart irrevocably.

When all abuses of power are removed from the relationship between human guardians and their captive, dependent animal, a harsh truth is revealed. That truth includes recognizing domestication as quite possibly the most widespread and significant trauma of our time, including and especially to our own species. (I am defining trauma here as a prolonged interruption in emotional development and domestication as the intentional interruption of emotional development for the purpose of controlling another’s behavior.)

As a former professional animal trainer, I can assure you that it matters not how positive the method—all systems of reward and/or punishment are designed to manipulate emotional response in order to control behavior. The more subtle the control, the more insidious the damage.

Years of practicing another way and countless interactions with animals of many different species and circumstances led me to create a body of work I call Sanctuary13. It’s a mutually inclusive set of 13 practically applied relationship principles that create a consistently reliable system for radical accountability and unconditional love. Essentially, the principles are the reverse engineering of domestication/conditioning/training.

My new book, The Wisdom of Wildness: Healing the Trauma of Domestication, offers an introduction to these principles and their initial practical applications. They include the basic recognition of the power dynamics between primary caregivers and their captive dependents. One theme is taking personal responsibility for needs and boundaries. The ultimate outcome is withdrawing from any unconscious attempt to feel something different than one is feeling, developing the composure to feel it all.

We learn how to stay in the feeling experience of the body for all emotion long enough to integrate and mature those emotions into subtler, informative experiences that are no longer frightening or overwhelming due to past trauma. Restoring this sustainable connection to my body and its inherent access to instinct, intuition, and inspiration gave me back to myself. Before I rewilded myself, I never could have imagined what my own domestication had cost me.

The trauma of my own domestication was a culmination of all the little or not-so-little ways my early emotional experiences had been interrupted or not allowed so that I could be more useful or easy to control for those in a position of power over my life—everyone from my own emotionally immature parents with their own domestication to a largely domesticated society of humans with no concept of the informative nature of pain. Our culture has taught us to run from fear and pain. Sanctuary13 taught me how to lean into it, and that revolutionized my inner world. To walk through life unafraid, without dependency on outer privilege, is to regain agency.

Fifteen years ago, on the surface, I led a reasonably successful life. I earned a comfortable living doing what I enjoyed and was good at. I had a beautiful, supportive partner at my side. I was able to have the things I wanted and do the things I wanted to do without much getting in the way. Under the surface, however, there was deep inner conflict, shame, and an enormous amount of unresolved trauma kept mostly at bay through various levels of functional codependency in my closest relationships, including those with the animals in my care. I needed captive dependent animals to feel okay in the world, and it had been that way for as long as I could remember. Without the various external forms of emotional regulation in my life, I was actually a mess, and it was impossible for me to fully see or face them while continuing to use them.

When I took a step back from exploiting the animals in my care, I was able to experience the mess I was as the actual gaps in my early emotional development. The things I hated about myself turned out to be my trauma and conditioning, my domestication, and not at all who I really was. Relating to the animals using the principles of Sanctuary13 created the space and modeling for me to learn how to inhabit my body and form an entirely different kind of relationship to emotion. One that informed me, subtly, about how I was relating to the world around me or inside my own head. Discernment replaced judgment. Emotional regulation replaced anxiety and chaos. I could stay present and in my body in any situation. Instinct, intuition, and inspiration became consistently and reliably available. I was becoming wild again.

When domestication is replaced with a restored connection to soul-guided intelligence, something miraculous happens. We get to experience ourselves, consistently and sustainably, as both the creative individual conduit and the universal consciousness we are all part of beyond physical form. Inhabiting this perspective allows us to very naturally live in harmony with ourselves, others, and our environment because we are no longer dissociated from or at war with our emotional guidance system.

To be wild is to be emotionally mature. To be emotionally mature is to be informed beyond the mind, through the body, as the soul-integrated human animal you were designed to be.

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Foxharvest credit Diana Sudyka

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