For the second time this year, HorseHead’s Dr. Steve Peters will team with West Taylor for a Horse Science Seminar.
The two-and-a-half day event will be hosted by the National Ability Center, in Park City, Utah, July 7-9.
Peters, co-author with Martin Black, of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, will present academic classroom presentations. Taylor, owner of Wild West Mustang Ranch, will reinforce what students learn in the classroom with arena demonstrations in the afternoons.
To check out Taylor’s promotional videos for the event, click here.
This recent scientist-cowboy collaboration has been fruitful for the horse. We know brain science is complicated stuff. yet Peters and Taylor nurture the translation of it for horse owners and riders. They offer ways to readily apply the science to practical horse matters.
Peters and co-author Martin Black will give an Evidence-Based Horsemanship presentation at the Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, this October.
“Broken down to its simplest form, my horse training program is: Pressure, Release, and Seeking Relief.
Pressure motivates the horse to “find something.”
Release tells the horse “you have found the answer.”
Allowing the horse the time to “seek relief” after the release of pressure puts it together with a reinforcing dose of dopamine.”
If you want to measure a horse’s smarts, don’t give it math problems or ask it to distinguish musical genres.
Instead, test its ability to solve horse problems.
That’s the message from scientist Frans de Waal of Emory University.
Dr. de Waal, who works mostly with primates, called out those who like to anthropomorphize and urged scientists – equine researchers included – to know their subjects intimately before conducting research. His essay on animal intelligence was published in the Wall Street Journal.
For the last two thousand years or so, we’ve put ourselves at the top of the intelligence tree. Aristotle, Darwin, and others developed an order
and rank of all living things. Humans fell just shy of angels.
All the other animals fell below us.
All others lacked souls. They were bereft of a sense of identity or a moral, emotional nature. Read about compassion.
More recently, B.F. Skinner and his followers considered animals fairly simple and predictable stimulus-and-response machines.
Turns out the intelligence tree is more like a brambly, knotty bush
How accurately you measure and define animal intelligence depends on how well you know your subjects.
De Waal writes:
“We have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence…Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species.”
Anyone can be blinded by ignorance and hubris; equine researchers are no exception.
“Scientists may miss or ignore the small subtleties – things obvious to a horseman,” said renowned colt starter Mike Kevil.
“If they don’t know what it means, it means nothing to them.”
De Waal concurs. He writes:
“If I walk through a forest… and fail to see or hear the pileated woodpecker, am I permitted to conclude that the bird is absent? Of course not. We know how easily these splendid woodpeckers hop around tree trunks to stay out of sight…Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Picture, for example, a grazing horse.
To uninformed observers, it’s just grazing.
But watch closely and you’ll see the horse selecting one grass over another, spitting out unsavory plants. It learns and categorizes smells and forage spots, scans the horizon, registers sounds typical to field and season, and stays mindful of its herdmates.
Picture a horse in a stall.
It eats and drinks and moves about. To the uninformed, the horse is fine.
But those familiar with wild or unconfined horses may have a different perspective. By comparing behaviors, bloodwork, and vitals, this horse may be more stressed and less healthy than its unconfined brethren.
What you see or miss in horses depends on perspective and experience
It turns out that Clever Hans couldn’t count. But he could read his owner’s subtle body language. Does that make him less intelligent than we first believed?
“I would argue that the horse was in fact very smart,” says de Waal. “His abilities at arithmetic may have been flawed, but his understanding of human body language was remarkable. And isn’t that the skill a horse needs most?”
Along the same lines, who more accurately assesses your nervousness or confidence level – a horse or a fellow human?
Stephen Budiansky, author of The Nature of Horses, writes articulately of our biased view of intelligence:
“In our culture, we tend to think of an ability to solve problems or to quickly make connections or to assimilate new information as more important signs of intelligence than a good memory (thus the respected absent-minded professor) …we tend to dismiss innate mental skills from the equation.
“When comparing the intelligence of different species, though, it behooves us…to consider all the functions that an animal’s brain is called upon to perform before we pass judgment on its mental ranking in the animal kingdom.”
We humans are predators and we tend to think more highly of fellow predators, posits Budiansky. We’d probably rank those in the dog family, like mice-eating coyotes, above grass-eating horses. He writes:
“…Problem solving is part of the survival kit of a [predator] that lives by anticipating the complex and highly varied actions of elusive prey. Mice move and hide, grass doesn’t.”
But learning, Budiansky writes “is survival in a changing environment where the rules are not fixed.” And horses learn well.
At a clinic in Europe years ago, Leslie Desmond recalled turning about eight horses loose and letting them move around the arena together. Her audience – full of equine researchers, behaviorists, and published authors – was “open-mouthed in disbelief” and told her it was downright dangerous.
“What it showed me was that they didn’t really understand that the horse’s basic nature is to get along,” said Desmond. “My stumbling block regarding equine behavior research coming out of universities and academia is that it seems like they don’t know horses as well as good horsemen. One would like to support equine research for the betterment of the species, but it’s hard to get behind it when they don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.”
But there’s hope
Just as approaches to horsemanship have evolved from domination to partnership, equine researchers are beginning to test horses from horse perspectives.
De Waal writes:
“Scientists are now finally meeting animals on their own terms instead of treating them like furry (or feathery) humans, and this shift is fundamentally reshaping our understanding,”
Recently, Dr. Steve Peters traveled to Idaho to visit informally with stockmen and livestock researchers from Treasure Valley Community College, Oregon State University, and the University of Idaho. He was introduced by local and international stockman Martin Black. The pair co-authored Evidence-Based Horsemanship.
The neuropsychologist might be just about the best person around to talk about human and horse brains. Now, he’s considering cow brains, too.
As Peters mentioned to the gathering:
“Cattle and horses do have brain and sensory differences but also many similarities. What we do know is that horses have to be in a certain neurochemical state within their nervous system to optimize learning. With proper training that area can widen and the horse can chemically ‘down regulate.’ This is not the same concept as desensitization, but it is similar.
“We also know that if set up properly, horses will seek to find comfort (homeostasis) and the resulting dopamine reward. Once the horse knows that you can help it find that
reward, it will seek it out. Horses can learn to learn.
“Often times it’s just a matter of setting it up and not getting in the way,” said Peters.
Dopamine is also the neurotransmitter associated with movement and we know that movement itself can be rewarding. Lots of wrecks are caused by putting too much pressure on an animal when it is constrained and not allowed to move. This can lead to an escalation involving the activation and involvement of stress-related hormones through the HPA (Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenals) axis. In other words, the animal may go from concern to panic.
It’s the activation of the amygdala that influences the hypothalamus to initiate the stress hormone cascade. Read more about the amygdala here.
Not much learning takes place in this state. If you can take the high road with less stress, then you can bypass the HPA axis and avoid getting a flood of stress-related hormones being dumped into the animal’s nervous system.
In the world of neuroscience, researchers and instructors have developed the “homunculus” to show through exaggerated sizethose areas of the human body which we know to have a greater representation of neurons in the somatosensory cortex in the brain, the main sensory receptive area for the sense of touch. Check out the image at right.
The Horse-unculus is a model developed by HorseHead & BestHorsePractices to illustrate through exaggerated size and shining light those areas which we know to be more sensitive, ie, having a greater representation in the somatosensory cortex of the horse’s brain.
Areas of high sensitivity include the entire head, but also specifically:
muzzle area (which is loaded with vibrissae, or whiskers, each of which has its own nerve)
These areas are densely populated with sensory nerves and are all represented by larger portions of the somatosensory cortex.
Other areas with greater representation:
coronet band (where the hoof wall meets the hairline)
These are additional areas that have greater representation in this part of the brain. The horse-unculus highlights through exaggerated size and brighter colorthose noted areas.
It’s helpful to be aware and considerate of these extra sensitive areas when working with our horses.
The sympathetic nervous system is engaged in fight-or-flight situations, like scary driving or road rage moments.
“Our human brains can both help and hinder our reactions. We can create untold worry and anxiety by creating catastrophic stories in our head,” said Dr. Steve Peters.
On the flip side, he added: “Our ability to think and use education and knowledge about the biochemistry of anxiety and the role of the mind-body connection increases our ability to apply coping strategies. This has a direct influence in stopping reactions caused by lower brain areas.”
In other words, I used my awareness (frontal lobe engagement) as well as my past experience as a driver to get a handle on the situation and not panic.
Horses have scary driving moments, too, but with no big frontal lobe they will necessarily react differently.
Take, for instance, a trip to an arena. The scene is full of scary possibilities:
Unfamiliar and potentially confining grounds.
Many horses, especially those new to the experience, will respond by engaging their sympathetic nervous system. Their heart rate and breathing will increase. They will hold their head high. They will want to move, move, move. (Or, if they are like my mule, Jolene, they may freeze stiffly.)
“Evolutionarily, the horse works most efficiently by a ‘false positive system,’ said Peters. “Everything is a potential predatory threat until proven otherwise. Thinking would actually detract from the speed and efficiency of this built-in survival mechanism.”
We can help our horses with a new arena experience by:
letting them move
letting them graze
letting them look around
letting them smell.
If we rush them, pressure them, or deny them movement, we will likely make them more anxious.
“Lacking the cognitive brainpower associated with a highly developed frontal lobe, the horse has to undergo exposure therapy,” said Peters. “When they are exposed to the fearful stimuli and discover no harm comes to them, or when they can experience a new situation without becoming overwhelmed, our chances for progress and positive outcomes are high. It is important that the outcome is perceived as good by the horse. It may take a large number of these positive outcomes to rewire the horse’s response, from a fearful one to a calmer one.”
I managed in St. Louis because I’d been in that situation before and I got my head around it. I got nervous, but I handled it. I noticed that just as horses do, when my senses were compromised, I got more antsy.
As riders and owners, we can observe as our horses toggle back and forth between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It’s up to us to give the horse good experiences and teach it how to manage.
Horses – like zebras, deer, and other large prey animals foraging mostly on grass – have a head that’s perfect for what they’ve been doing for millennia: grazing in mostly open spaces and steering clear of predators.
Despite the perceived calmness and neurological homeostasis in the act of grazing, the horse’s nervous system, fueled by sensory input, is always on some level of alertness. Its senses continually assess and monitor the environment.
The size, placement, and functionality of their eyes, ears, mouth, whiskers, and nostrils are essential to who and what horses are. When you mess with horses’ features through training, care, and management, you unwittingly may cultivate stress or unhealthy situations.
A simple observation of pasture grazing can help us appreciate horses’ beautiful, long-faced design:
The whiskers (better known as vibrissae which have individual nerves to sense forage, novel objects, other horses, etc.) and lips do most of the
investigating on the ground. Not coincidentally, the vibrissae compensate for one of the horse’s blind spots. Trim the vibrissae and you eliminate horses’ crucial sense of feel. Trimming may result in injury and stress, not because trimming hurts. Without this sense, horses are robbed of feel.
The eyes of an average horse are more than 12 inches above its mouth. At first glance, you might think that a grazing horse is looking at the ground. Not so! It’s looking around, scanning for predators or for changes in its environment (like other horses’ movement).
Academic research and empirical evidence suggest restraining horses’ heads with rein pressure or by mechanical means (martingales or tie-downs) is precisely the wrong thing to do when encountering tricky footing or obstacles.
The nostrils and horses’ sense of smell may be its most overlooked sense. Both are huge, anatomically and neurologically speaking.
Unlike the other senses, the neural pathway of a horses’ sense of smell does not travel through the thalamus (the sensory relay center that helps integrate sensations into a coherent “this is happening to me” experience).
The olfactory bulbs are situated on the underside of the brain and wired to the brain’s olfactory cortex. Horses may assess predation risk, potential mates, good or bad forage all by smell.
The ears pivot independently. Ten distinct muscles allow them to rotate 180 degrees. Horses can distinguish the direction and distance of sounds and seem to be especially attuned to sounds that could indicate possible threat or a need to move.
Many horses become noticeably more anxious when their hearing is compromised or overwhelmed, like when high winds or loud speaker announcements drown out the more crucial but mundane sounds of their environment.
Horses are motor sensory creatures. Their long-faced features have been shaped over thousands of generations by natural selection (and, to a much lesser extent through domestication) to serve them optimally.
Over time, us humans have gotten away from sensory use:
We don’t sniff the air to determine which way it is to the beach. We read a sign or follow a phone app.
We don’t evaluate someone’s intention through watching his approach or body movement, we use language: “What’s your intention?”
But for the horse, sensory input, maximized by its long face, rules!
Horses are not people. We know this is true. But attend any horse event, enter any tack shop, open any horse magazine and you’ll come away thinking otherwise.
You’ll be convinced horses have feelings, motivations, and goals. We tend to replace their simple needs with our more complicated ones. We anthropomorphize; we make horse actions personal and emotionally complex.
He likes kisses.
He needs his breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Look, he’s nodding, “Yes!”
We’re friends. He loves me!
It’s fun but it’s wrong. Of course, horses DO have feelings, motivations, and goals. But from a scientific point of view, they’re much more basic than we think:
They want to move.
They want to forage.
They want to rest.
They want to be with other horses.
The horse brain is about the size of two human fists. At a recent Evidence-Based Horsemanship seminar, Dr. Steve Peters carved out the cerebellum, a tangerine-sized brain part and what he called the “juke box of motor memory.”
Among other things, the cerebellum is essential for balance. When a horse learns to walk, run, kick, sidepass, and change leads, all that information or “muscle memory” is stored in the cerebellum.
Assuming a young horse has been allowed to move and interact with other horses, you’re not really going to train it to do anything physically. Training is much more about horse/human interaction. Also, a lot of our horse work has to do with getting out of the way, staying off the reins, letting the horse balance itself, etc.
What we didn’t see during Dr. Peters’ dissection was a huge frontal lobe. That’s the part of the brain responsible for making plans, forming strategies, learning to generalize. That’s because horses, unlike humans, don’t have a huge, developed frontal lobe.
Horses don’t have it in for you. They don’t lie or plot. They don’t have a laugh at your expense. Nor do they do something for charity or to redeem themselves. It isn’t in them to do those things. Literally.
“Your circle of comfort and your horse’s circle of comfort – they must constantly expand, otherwise they will shrink.”
That’s what horseman Randy Rieman once told me. I’d thought I could hang out in comfort, where my horse and I would coexist blissfully and enjoy a lifetime of happy riding. Turns out, it ain’t so. Turns out, we must experience some discomfort in order to appreciate comfort.
What is comfort?
Comfort is a place, a situation, a feel where nothing bad ever happens.
Comfort can be a protected environment or a state of mind.
We can all be guilty of keeping our horses in that perpetual comfort circle, where nothing is allowed to rile them. But from a neurological perspective, experiencing discomfort may reap far more benefits than rutting oneself in comfort.
Comfort has its neurological home in the autonomic nervous system. Read more. This brain feature is responsible for parasympathetic (“rest & digest”) and sympathetic (“fight or flight”) responses as well as homeostasis, the system’s ability to maintain internal stability. That’s the closest scientific term for what we call comfort. If you think of homeostasis in terms of temperature, it’d be that office-friendly, 70 degrees.
The hypothalamus, part of the brain located under the thalamus in all mammals, is the modulator or thermostat for homeostasis.
In the Evidence Based Horsemanship diagram (at right), co-authors Dr. Steve Peters and Black describe the ideal learning environment as one that takes the horse to a state just outside its comfort range.
It’s a place where:
the horse feels curious and a bit concerned
the horse’s ears and eyes will be alert; its head will be above its withers
Ideally, when that moment of learning (and discomfort) is over, the horse will automatically return to its homeostasis and there will be a rush of dopamine (one of the brain’s feel-good neurochemicals). It’s the rainbow after the storm. Read about trailer-loading and dopamine.
Oh, what a feeling!
Horses, like all mammals, crave dopamine. But they don’t get it without feeling stressed first.
“If you never get a horse out of his comfort zone, he’s never going to seek comfort. I help riders learn how to find that dopamine release with their horses,” said Black.
Turns out our homeostasis range or comfort zone can expand or shrink depending on our exposure to different situations and settings and how we manage there.
“Sometimes, with your riding, you have to show your horses that they can live through panicky situations,” added Dr. Peters. “They won’t be reliable unless you put them in those situations and offer them a chance to find comfort or a way back to homeostasis on their own. They will grow and learn when exposed to more situations outside their comfort. But the range of their homeostasis will be very small, if we insist on keeping them there.”
What about Rider Fear?
It’s up to us humans to overcome whatever issues we have with our own comfort and discomfort, in order to do what’s best for our horses.
In the opening clip of 7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman, the Ray Hunt protégé says:
“Fear is a big thing that just owns some people. It can be overwhelming,” he said.
“You do need to get a horse to where you can open him up and go. A horse is pretty incomplete if you can’t just open him up and not have him lose his mind. I like to practice dialing him up and dialing him back down.”
Or as the Italian poet, Dante, said some 700 years ago, “We must overact in some measure, in order to produce any effect at all.”
Most of us will not pursue a neuroscience doctorate in between trail rides and hay tossings. But we can skim equine neurology’s surface to improve our horse-human connection.
We’ve talked about dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical. But there are scores of other chemicals in the brain. If those neurochemicals were kitchen ingredients, you could make cake, noodles, or hot tamales depending on the combinations. Recognize what’s going on in the brain and you can cook up something sweet or sour, healthy or unhealthy.
It’s challenging stuff. But take heart: equine brains are less developed than ours, so discussing their neurology is a bit less complicated.
When considering horse behavior and learning, it’s helpful to know about a few specific neurochemicals: dopamine, adrenalin, glutamate, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). [At right, molecular structures of dopamine, GABA, and glutamate.]
Dopamine, as mentioned, is a feel-good chemical associated with pleasure and reward. When you see lip-licking and chewing, you’re seeing common manifestations of dopamine release.
Adrenalin (epinephrine) is produced in the kidneys but impacts brain activity associated with the amygdalae and the Fight or Flight responses.
Glutamate is an excitatory neurochemical. It gets brain cells fired up and facilitates learning and the formation of memories. But too much stimulation can be bad. Too much glutamate is, in fact, toxic to the brain.
When glutamate breaks down metabolically it produces GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an inhibitory transmitter. GABA reduces the activity of neurons to which it binds. For us humans, meditation and yoga increase the level of GABA in the brain. Drugs like Valium and Xanax facilitate GABA activity, thereby reducing fear and anxiety.
With just these four common neurochemicals in play, let’s consider some potential learning moments for horse and rider:
Loading onto a trailer. Crossing a creek:
Depending on the horse’s behavior as well as your actions and reactions, any number of scenarios could unfold. There may be fear, fight, seeking, reward, flight, or bits of several of these elements.
The scenes are not two-dimensional. Your horse is not wired like a light switch; nor are all horses wired identically. They have different metabolic thresholds, learning frameworks, and memories.
Picture instead your horse on a wobble board:
He’s alert and engaged in this potential learning environment.
Depending on the variables and how you work, he may tip towards pleasure and reward, fall towards fear and panic, or wobble to any number of outcomes between the two extremes.
In these and most learning scenarios, horses rely heavily on their brain’s limbic system. That’s the center for emotions and memory related to survival and preservation. Within this region, the amygdala is instrumental in a horse’s fear reaction, which may often present itself in learning situations. The two almond-shaped amygdalae facilitate release of adrenalin and a sympathetic (fight or flight) response may occur. Read more about autonomic responses here.
But there is another crucial limbic system part called the nucleus accumbens. (Again, the limbic system involves feeling and reacting but not so much thinking.)
This group of neurons is associated with seeking and reward; the area is awash in dopamine.
For the horse, dopamine is the treat. Successful trailer loads and creek crossings mean letting the horse seek a solution and be rewarded. At first, it could be a few steps in the right direction, rewarded with a pause and a rub of affection. For the more hesitant horse, it could be a tiny lean in the right direction. Soon, the horse will discover your intentions and look to do the right thing to get that reward.
Temple Grandin calls these seeking moments full of “Christmas present” emotion. “The anticipation of what you’re going to get is sometimes better than actually getting it.” Interestingly, researchers have pinpointed the nucleus accumbens as essential in the placebo effect. The greater the anticipation of pain relief, the greater the nucleus accumbens’ dopamine release, even when no actual chemical reduced the pain.
As you work with your horses, know that the key to positive outcomes is allowing your horse to seek a solution and be motivated by the reward (dopamine). Try to make every learning experience a positive one, since undoing bad experiences can be so challenging.
Sure, you can force him into the trailer and across the creek, but you’ve just tipped off the wobble board into fear territory. What has he learned? How will he consider things next time?
You’ve got your ingredients. Make something delicious and healthy.
Brain chemicals represent themselves physically and behaviorally. These chemicals are present in horse brains, human brains, and are often referred to as neurotransmitters.
The expression of the neurochemical, dopamine, is one of the more commonly observed ones in our horse work.
Mammals (including horses and humans) share the same frame work of the more primitive areas of the brain and our neurochemicals are similar, too. Therefore, we can often extrapolate our dopamine findings across species.
For instance, a recent RadioLab segment discussed the neurology of addiction with award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer.
Zimmer: Anytime you do something that makes you feel good, your brain spurts out dopamine. For years, scientists thought of dopamine as the neurotransmitter of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Of pleasure.
RadioLab host: But you said it had to do with movement.
Zimmer: What is the ultimate purpose of movement in terms of evolution? Movement’s purpose was to get you to food, to get you to sex, to get you to a reward. That’s why the same circuits, the same chemical that controls motivation, that controls what you want, also controls movement.
In an experiment, researchers initially noted that a monkey got the dopamine release when he took a sip of juice. But after a while, the dopamine release occurred when they entered the room. Then the dopamine release happened when researchers walked down the hall toward the room.
What the monkey’s brain is trying to do is piece together the sequence of events that lead to juice. That’s what these cells do, they try to predict rewards.
This isn’t about movement or feeling good, it’s about finding the pattern that makes you feel good. It’s pattern finding. It’s how brains make sense of reality. It parses reality in terms of rewards. This is how you get food in the wild. How you survive might be how you can see the reward before anyone else can.
What does this have to do with horse training?
We want to optimize how our horses learn. That means recognizing the release of dopamine and being sensitive enough to predict its release. You can see the anticipation of reward (and thus a dopamine release) in a non-training situation every day:
Watch your horses’ behavior before you toss hay. Do they start licking their lips and move about when you grab the wheelbarrow or open the barn door? Does it take a while for a new horse to recognize the pattern?
Horses learn patterns that precede what will ultimately make them feel good. It’s our job to introduce patterns which will be rewarded with subtlety and benefit both horse and rider.