Attention: Key to Your Horse’s Learning

Sometimes improving our horsemanship – a pursuit dominated by the almighty and intangible “feel” – can be like trying to capture dandelion seeds in the wind or bottle fog. How do we effectively translate what we read or watch cerebrally into our daily interactions with horses?

At HorseHead, we believe that the more we know about brain functioning in horses (and fellow humans, for that matter), the better our chances of translating language and ideas into actual, beneficial work. In other words, learn more to ride better!

This article, on the brain region called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), goes to the root of that belief. Watch this helpful video on the RAS.

Before you consider any particular exercise, for instance, it’s essential to have your horse’s attention. That seems like a no brainer.

  • But what does that mean?
  • What does attention look like?
  • What does inattention look like?

The RAS (also known as the Reticular Activating Center, RAC, see image below right) located at the base of the brain, on top of the spinal column, is responsible for filtering incoming perceptions of sight, hearing, touch, and taste. Think of it as a gatekeeper, a triage nurse, a nightclub bouncer sorting out VIP’s. Without it, the brain would be overwhelmed with stimuli.

The RAS  monitors incoming sensory information and prioritizes it. Consider this range of incoming stimuli for your horse:

  • Pasture mates calling out
  • Dogs barking and playing
  • Cues from you, the rider
  • Vehicle traffic from nearby road

At any given moment, the horse’s RAS establishes an attention hierarchy. Being a prey animal, this prioritization necessarily weighs heavily toward self-preservation. If the dogs come racing at your horse, for instance, they will necessarily dominate its attention.

Depending on the horse and on the moment, learning is enabled when you let the horse investigate and then dismiss competing sensory information:

  • Let it consider a passing biker
  • Let it look at a scary banner from different angles.
  • Let it feel and move an empty soda can being pushed by the wind

In order for the horse to form fruitful neural connections, ie, to learn effectively, we have to be Numero Uno on the RAS attention hierarchy. It’s essential that we – our cues from our legs, seat, hands, voice – stay on top.

Is your horse grazing? Looking elsewhere? Ignoring your requests?

If so, consider yourself bumped down the attention pyramid. When a horse moves through a task without giving its full attention, the synapses involved in completing the task are weaker than synapses formed with full attention. They will degrade over time.

Similarly, horses forced to drill over and over may not be learning and developing dendrites (branch-like extensions of nerve cells) as well as the horse that’s truly engaged.

“A horse that is forced to go from A to B over and over is not as prepared as the horse that’s been allowed to search out things and can go from A to B to M to Z. That horse has a lot of dendritic options,” said Dr. Steve Peters.

Is your horse:


Checked Out?

Over Anxious?

Mentally braced?

It often takes a lifetime of experience, observation, and “feel” to appreciate these distinctions. You might think you have an engaged learner under saddle, but your horse might have checked out at some stage along the way.

Good trainers allow horses to search and find relaxation in the midst of pressure (say, in response to flag use or leg cues). If the horse decides to ignore these pressures, you’ve also been bumped down the RAS attention pyramid.

“If the horse is ignoring the pressure, it is choosing not to process the information provided. It is not attending. It is ignoring,” said Peters, who suggested a more conversational approach. “Serve up something and let your horse respond. Let there be a back and forth. This fosters brain growth.”

When working with our horses, we’re building scaffolding in the brain

Brain growth is determined by how well we have a horse’s attention, but we must take care that we aren’t forcing it, creating anxiety, or on the contrary, not providing enough stimulation.

“All these factors will result in the horse being unable to attend and optimally learn,” said Peters.

You may make progress without willing attentiveness. There are plenty of horses who can learn patterns through drilling or who can cross creeks when spurred. But be careful of the scaffolding you’re building, it may come crashing down when something more urgent or stressful enters the equation.


Best Horse Practices Summit Schedule

HorseHead founders, Maddy Butcher and Steve Peters, are also pretty darn involved in the upcoming Best Horse Practices Summit, the pioneering horse conference in Durango, Colorado, October 8-10.

Butcher is the founder and director of the BHP Summit. Peters will present with Martin Black on Evidence-Based Horsemanship. He will also discuss the Healthy Rider Brain in a separate presentation.

Check out this exciting schedule of events.

The Best Horse Practices Summit Schedule:

(Please be patient as this schedule is subject to minor changes. Details and links coming soon.)

Register here

Sunday, October 8, 4-9 pm:

Welcome Reception and Sign In

Join us at the historic Strater Hotel to sign in and pick up your welcome bag. Mix and mingle with other registrants and BHPS presenters for drinks (cash bar) and appetizers in the Strater’s Pullman Room.

Food and beverages served from 5-7 pm.

At this time, you will sign up for Summit electives: Rider Fitness session (Monday am), Healthy Rider Brain presentation (Monday am), the Horse Brain dissection (Tuesday am), and the field trip to view the model wild horse herd in Disappointment Valley (Wednesday, all day).

Monday, October 9:

The Summit will be held at the Strater Hotel and nearby fairgrounds

Morning Academic presentations at the historic Strater Hotel

7-8 am Elective – Rider Fitness with David Stickler in the Pullman Room. Come ready to move and the only session for which jeans and boots is not appropriate attire (sweats are best). Limit to 60.

7-8 am. Elective – Healthy Rider Brain talk with Dr. Steve Peters in the Strater Theater.

8:30 -9:15 am – Keynote Address with Wendy Williams, “Can Horses Read? It depends on what you mean” a multi-media presentation by NY Times best-selling author.

9:30-11 am – Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black present Evidence Based Horsemanship, a multi-media presentation that delves into neuroanatomy and neurochemistry with narrated video of practical experiences.

Dr. Sheryl King

11:15 – 12:30 – Dr. Sheryl King – “Choices and Consequences: How even simple management decisions impact horse behavior and health,” a smart, practical guide to identifying right’s and wrong’s in equine management.

Lunch break

Trade Show open

Presenters available for visiting

12:30 – 1:30 pm – Grab your specially prepared, gourmet boxed lunch provided by the Strater Hotel and mosey to the LaPlata Fairgrounds pavilion.

Afternoon Arena Presentations

LaPlata County Fairground Pavilion

2 – 3:30 pm – Jim Thomas – “Molding Your Horse: How Horsemen are Master Potters” Demonstration with riders, Part I.

4 – 5:30 – Warwick Schiller – “How we can create adjustable, willing, relaxed and responsive horses without force” Demonstration with riders, Part I

We Head Back to the Strater!

Strater Hotel Theater

Bryan Neubert

6-9 pm – Dorrance Legacy Dinner. Fabulous Strater Hotel meal followed by an evening with Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert as they honor and recall the tutelage of Bill and Tom Dorrance, brothers who are widely considered forefathers of good horsemanship today. Rieman and Neubert worked extensively with the Dorrances and their experiences left indelible marks on their lives and horse work.

Tuesday, October 10

Morning Academic presentations at the historic Strater Hotel

Strater Theater

7-8 am Elective: Horse Brain dissection with Dr. Steve Peters. An incredibly unique opportunity to see the inner workings of a horse’s brain.

8:30 -10 am – Dr. Robert Bowker, “The Horse’s Foot: Gateway to the Entire Horse” Bowker will explain how an intimate understanding of the horse’s hoof will, in turn, lead to more appropriate handling and rehabilitation of the whole horse.

10:30- noon – Dr. Gerd Heuschmann – Biomechanics in riding disciplines, cultures and training principles. An eye-opening, multi-media presentation.

Lunch break

12:30 – 1:30 – Grab your specially prepared, gourmet boxed lunch provided by the Strater Hotel and mosey to the LaPlata Fairgrounds pavilion.

Trade Show open

LaPlata Country Fairgrounds

Presenters available for visiting

Afternoon Arena Presentations

LaPlata Fairground Pavilion

1 – 230 – Warwick Schiller, “How we can create adjustable, willing, relaxed and responsive horses without force” Demonstration with riders, Part II

3-430 – Jim Thomas– “Molding Your Horse: How Horsemen are Master Potters” Demonstration with riders, Part II

We Head Back to the Strater!

6-9 pm, Strater Hotel Theater. Farewell Reception

We remember our time together, celebrate highlights, and visit for the last time. With a special meal by the Strater Hotel staff and closing messages from the director and presenters.

Trade Show open

Presenters available for visiting and autographs.


Spring Creek Basin wild horse. Photo by TJ Holmes

Elective Field Trip to Disappointment Valley, hosted by mustang advocate TJ Holmes.

8 am, Meeting in Durango Transit Center parking lot, 250 W 8th St.

Details to follow.

Register here

What Is Optimal Learning and How Do We Nurture It?

A few years ago, Dr. Steve Peters, a neuropsychologist and director of the Memory Clinic at Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare,

Are you and your horse often alert and engaged?
Dr. Peters watches a mustang. Are you and your horse often alert and engaged?

was invited to talk to a group of leaders at Cisco Systems, the technology company.
The group wanted to know how best to teach Cisco’s complicated networking schemata to employees, in person and through teleconferencing and video platforms. Quickly and effectively, they needed to reach a broad audience with varied aptitudes for learning.

  • How best do we do this?
  • How do we keep them engaged and teach them so that they can move forward with their new knowledge?

To make his case, Peters got down to the nitty-gritty. He described what learning looks like on a cellular level.

The neurochemical glutamate enables synapse between neurons

We’re not talking about rote memorization or short-term memory here, but rather, the absorption of knowledge for the long haul. It’s an outcome called Long Term Potentiation.

First, consider a typical, lazy learning moment:

You’re listening, half-heartedly taking notes, and thinking in a distracted way about what you’re hearing. On a molecular level, the neurochemical glutamate is enabling the transfer of sodium from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron through so-called AMPA receptors. It’s a weak synapse and is not enough to cause Long Term Potentiation.

Sodium flows into post-synaptic neuron, thanks to glutamate
Sodium flows into post-synaptic neuron, thanks to glutamate

Now, consider a moment when you’re in the front row and at the edge of your seat. That engaging moment is followed by more reading and discussion with classmates. You feel good about your ability to expound on the topic (read more about dopamine’s effect on learning here).

On a molecular level, an increased concentration of glutamate has let even more sodium through receptors of the post-synaptic cell. More sodium there causes a repulsion of a plug of magnesium that previously had been blocking another type of receptor, called the NMDA receptor.
With the magnesium bumped out, more sodium and now calcium molecules rush from one neuron to the other. Calcium, in turn, activates more intracellular cascades. In other words, there is greater activity and the connection strength of the presynaptic and

Influx of sodium forces out magnesium plug
Influx of sodium forces out magnesium plug, enabling entry of calcium

postsynaptic neurons increases.

That’s Long Term Potentiation. Watch this excellent video of LTP.

If getting smarter comes from the accumulation of sprinkles of connections, then LTP is when your brain shifts that sprinkle to a healthy pour of synaptic connections.
Lazy learning is a single-lane, ramshackle bridge, leading from one neuron to the next. After you pay the toll of increased focus and engagement, LTP is a wide, smooth thoroughfare of a bridge. Yahoo!

If salt shakers were neurosynapses...
If salt shakers were neurosynapses…

In the Cisco meeting room, people were intrigued. As horse owners we, too, should pay attention to this learning outcome.

Turns out LTP has a lot to do with how we present information, the teacher’s approach, and the students’ attitude. At this cellular level, the neuroscience for humans and horses is the same. (For all the Junior Scientists out there, for purposes of this discussion, LTP is occurring in the brain’s hippocampus, known as the region where memories are formed.)

How do we get our students (horses) to the point of LTP?

— Even if the work is tedious, it can and should be presented in a non-tedious manner. In other words, make it fun and get creative. Don’t repeat patterns over and over and over. Drilling will make your students (horses) frustrated, annoyed, and IMG_0402resentful.
— For maximum engagement, keep lessons short and energetic. Allow for recesses.
— For your student’s optimal learning, find his/her ideal psychological state between comfort and fear, between boredom and panic.
— Remember that threatening students with severe punishment can activate their fight or flight response. Neither horses nor humans can learn when they’re panicked.
— Incorporate on-the-job training and use immersion techniques. Foreign language students learn better when they are using that language and incorporating into other tasks. Horses learn about side-passing and turning on their fore and hind, when they are working with cows, moving through gates, or out on the trail.

Martin Black, co-author with Peters of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, sees a particular problem with riders who drill

repeatedly and believe their horses will learn best in the ‘warm and fuzzy’ zone of routine comfort. “Repetition can create 12019823_10153666828891310_4972098185712543430_nresentment. Horses can get frustrated, shut down, and take a defensive stance,” said Black. “If you build on that, they become more protective and more violent. I can’t tell you what it looks like. It’s a process.”

Read about the Cons of Comfort

As for riding without some occasional discomfort or excitement, said Black: “Students will say, ‘we don’t want to get them excited.’ My message is ‘yes, you do!’ We need to get them out of the comfort zone. And, that’s what the science is backing. Riders need to experiment.”
Often Black’s students confuse their horses’ alertness for panic and back away from a prime learning opportunity. “A curious horse has his head up. His eyes are alert. He’s taking it in. He’s not reacting in a self-preservation mode. He’s not

Martin's horse is alert and engaged.
Martin’s horse is alert and engaged.

running or panicking. That’s where I’m trying to get people to go.”
While some riders have found this ideal learning state, many fall into two groups populating each edge of the territory: they are Nurturers and Warriors. Nurturers (mostly women) never get out of the comfort zone. Warriors (mostly men) are prone to bouncing off the flight or fight territory of horses’ sympathetic response. Read about the autonomic nervous system here.

Head is up. Ears are engaged.

A horse’s optimal state for LTP will look like this, according to Black and confirmed by Peters: “His head comes up. His ears come up. He’s taking in information. Maybe he’s starting to get tense, starting to get alert and is ready to do something.”
It’s the ideal moment for learning and an opportunity many riders unfortunately quash. “That’s when people start to get uncomfortable because they’re not sure what’s going to happen. But that’s precisely where people need to experiment if they are training a horse. Maybe the rider needs more experience and being successful without hitting the ground. But once you say, I’m going to be more of a trainer and less of a passenger, you’ll gravitate to this zone,” said Black.
“But if you can’t handle the one-rein stop, can’t stay on, get too scared, then your horse is not going to advance either. You, the rider, must have as many tools in your toolbox as your horse. It’s proportionate.”
Read about Dwell Time research
Read about the Wobble Board of Learning

Pain Measured

Horses don’t speak, but we can ‘hear’ what they’re telling us if we pay attention. That’s what pinned ears, tail IMG_5943swishing, and lip-licking are all about. Problems arise, though, with the our interpretations: one person can ‘hear’ something different than the next.

Temple Grandin recognized that subjectivity in the cattle industry, where terms like “Properly,” “Adequate,” “Sufficient,” and “Undue Pain and Suffering” once ruled the day.

“What do those terms mean?” she asked rhetorically.

Grandin helped bring measurable protocol to stockyards and slaughter facilities. As a result of her research and lobbying, an increasing number of plants and individual handlers are now scored on the percentage of animals in their care that run, fall, vocalize, and are moved by electric prod. She has arguably made that world a better place for those animals in their final moments. Read article.

Now, researchers have taken steps to quantify what horses ‘say’ about pain. In the recently published “Development of the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS) as a Pain Assessment Tool in Horses Undergoing Routine Castration“ an international team of scientists developed protocol for assessing and measuring horse pain as interpreted through facial expressions. Read their research.

This horse demonstrates low pain, according to HGS.
This horse demonstrates low pain, according to HGS.

They monitored 40 stallions undergoing castration. The studs were divided into two groups, receiving different medications before and after surgery. Another six horses were monitored and managed similarly, but did not undergo surgery. (They had their teeth floated or hooves trimmed.)

The changes in facial expressions were assessed and ranked using the Horse Grimace Scale before and after castration. The Horse Grimace Scale (HGS) asks, for example:

  • Are chewing muscles strained?
  • Are nostrils strained?
  • Is there tightening around the eye?
  • Are the ears back?
The same horse now shows significant pain, according to HGS
The same horse now shows significant pain, according to HGS

The group recorded video footage with two cameras in each stall and selected random still frames to grade the presence or absence of six indicators. Five trained observers evaluated and scored the facial expressions. The researchers pooled and tabulated the results, arriving at HGS scores for all of the horses, before, during, and after the procedures.

Only horses undergoing castration showed high HGS scores.

  • Does this study mean that ranchers, who routinely castrate horses in the field with no sedation or painkillers, are going to change their ways?
  • Might the findings lead to increased scrutiny of those practices which ignore or fail to acknowledge horses’ suffering?
  • Can it help vets, vet techs, trainers, and us Regular Joe horse owners with identifying horses’ discomfort in a wide array of scenarios?

Horses don’t fake it. We can take their expressions at face value and infer that they are experiencing pain. We also assume that heart rate and blood cortisol levels increase with pain. It should be noted that the researchers also collected heart rate and other physiological data in order to study the relationship of those changes with facial expression changes.

Developing a standard to recognize pain in horses is an excellent step towards treating them more humanely. In addition, the Horse Grimace Scale is easy to understand and requires no special equipment. Everyone – from veterinarians to barn workers – can learn to identify HGS markers.

Dr. Emanuela Dalla Costa

“I think that pain assessment in animals is really difficult and probably this is the reason why it is often underestimated. I hope that this study can help people to understand that horses can suffer from painful conditions,” said Dr. Emanuela Dalla Costa, co-author of the study, and a veterinarian and PhD at the University of Milan.

“Horses are a very expressive species. They communicate their emotions and feelings not only with the body posture, but also with their facial expressions. I personally hope that this method can help horse owners in identifying and assessing pain.”

The Troubled Horse’s Brain

Rescued horses aren’t colt-starting contest material

There’s a reason colt-starting competitions rarely feature rescued horses. It’s the same reason contractors would rather tear down a house instead of restoring it.

What’s under the surface can wreak havoc on your wallet, your skills, your patience, and even your equipment and facilities.

Troubled horses – those rescued or with stressful, less than idyllic backgrounds – have neurological baggage that can take years to unpack.

As owners and riders, it’s our responsibility to be conscientious of these past traumas and of the monumental, often daily challenges faced by these horses. The better we understand their baggage, the better chance we have at creating positive change.

Here’s the HorseHead perspective.

How situations become lasting traumatic etchings in the horse’s brain:

The horse’s brain is exceptional at alerting to threats. Being a sensory-motor creature, they have a “false positive bias.” Specific stimuli are considered threats unless proven otherwise. Run first, think later.

Certain noises, smells, and movements send electrochemical impulses through sensory neurons that activate the brain’s

alarm system (the hypothalamus and amygdala) resulting in a sympathetic fight-or-flight response.

If the situation or stimuli is life-threatening or is perceived as life-threatening, the trauma can be etched into memory permanently. That is, over-activation of the amygdala can create changes in the hippocampus. These brain structures are actually adjacent to one another, which makes it even easier to appreciate how emotions can impact memories.

Read more about the amygdala route in the brain here.

In humans, trauma can create Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that may include experiencing flashbacks. It’s extremely difficult to purge the flashbacks, fear associations, and bad memories.

Similarly, horses lose the ability to discriminate between past and present experiences, or, to interpret environmental contexts correctly. Their neural circuits trigger extreme stress responses when encountering situations that only remotely resemble the initial trauma.

Unfortunately, rescued horses may be limited in their ability to recover or to live a normal life. Extinguishing post-traumatic fears will rely on neural plasticity or the brain’s ability to make new neural connections.

Consider a horse with a history of trailer-related trauma: Trailer memories are neurological super highways in the horse’s brain. Recovery and rehabilitation will mean laying down one small positive neural pathway on top of another. It takes time and commitment to provide scores of positive experiences around preexisting pathways. As Martin Black has said, it may take hundreds of good experiences to compete with just one previous trauma.

Read about Deep Practice here.


Rescued horses’ nervous systems may have become up-regulated by their trauma. In other words, they are hyped up and it takes very little to send and keep them in a sympathetic state. They may panic and fight more readily than other horses.

When trainers and owners apply more, undue pressure, they keep these horses in an overly-aroused state. Discomfort like this only exacerbates troubled behavior. Read more about downregulation here.

What about Mustangs?

Mustangs may not have experienced overt trauma, but their lack of positive human contact means they present similar

Trainer West Taylor works with mustang

challenges. It may be extremely difficult to help these horses find relaxation. Accomplished trainers will look for tiny windows of opportunity to downregulate a mustang’s nervous system. Results come from observing minute shifts in comfort and rewarding them with release of pressure.

Read our collection of mustang training and progress note.

What about Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is another consequence of neglect or abuse. It happens when animals are put in inescapably stressful environments. Regardless of their attempts, they can find no relief. These unfortunate scenarios result in depressed behavior. On a brain level, the neurochemical, serotonin, is impacted. Serotonin is related to mood balance. The key feature of learned helplessness is the transference of this shut-down behavior to all situations.

To breakthrough this passive listlessness, one has to reestablish exploratory behavior and curiosity and the accompanying dopamine reinforcement. In other words, the trainer needs to show the horse that it has control over its environment and encourage it to engage with the environment. Minute victories and small, multiple successes can help redevelop an internal locus of control for the horse. That internal locus of control? It’s what we call confidence.

Read bombproof or shutdown.

The Wobble Board – Learn the science behind training

Can you toggle between nervous system states?

Cow Work: Brain Development & Agility Training for Your Horse

Outside of the ranching world, entire populations of riders don’t know and don’t want to know about stockmanship. Ranchers and cowboys are considered reckless, rule-less, a bunch of Yahoos.

In my experience, however, some of the savviest horses and riders have ranching backgrounds. These men and women can do a lot with their horses. Their horses are generally lively, athletic, talented, and ready for anything.

On a neurological level, stockmanship or working with livestock is a bit like us humans playing a team sport. Aside from the required athleticism, there’s a lot of brainwork going on.

First, consider a soccer match:

At any given second, a player will need to consider the proper power, trajectory, and spin to put on any kick, where to position herself, how fast to run, how to tackle an opponent, and so on.

Players must also consider the score, the positions and abilities of her teammates and opponents, where the ball, sidelines and end lines are, how to keep possession or gain possession of the ball, how much time is left, how much energy and skill

More challenges and more stimuli often lead to greater brain growth

she has, the position and aptitude of the referees, etc.

No wonder sports are encouraged in school!

Research shows that in active, involved, stimulating settings, there will be more dendritic growth, ie, greater brain development.

Dr. Steve Peters (who, by the way, played football and baseball as a kid) sees cow work as excellent opportunities for improving one’s partnership and horsemanship. Like playing a competitive sport, cow work is the kind of environment where your talents will improve while you’re busy trying to get something accomplished.

Peters writes:

Cow work can offer up the perfect learning opportunity through the nucleus accumbens (Read more about the nucleus accumbens here.) whereby the horse is constantly figuring out solutions to what it is seeing. The horse gets to learn like it learns in nature, where the scene is often the variable but also has patterns.

Moving cattle across the Mancos River

There are also many different tasks and different speed changes:

  • Opening, closing, moving through gates with purpose.
  • Speeding up to turn back a calf that bolts from the group
  • Heading out to the herd at a fast trot, for example, is more meaningful in this setting than the endless and comparatively meaningless walk, trot, canter transitions in an arena.

Cow work is also an ever-changing task that evolves and is based on numerous variables (weather, emotional state of cattle, terrain, obstacles, and on and on).

We know that having a horse have to search for an answer can create the biggest dopamine hits. There is ample opportunity for setting up this learning scenario with cow work. With the many different tasks (crossing streams, opening gates, leading, driving, and working through lots of gait transitions) there is often less confusion about what we’re asking because the horse sees why it needs to do something. If a cow bolts, the horse understands the need to gallop.

Moving a bull across water in a steep ravine

There are also different smells and noises to learn, especially during something like a day of branding.  This huge amount of sensory input can create lots of synaptic brain firing. Some stockmanship components also draw off the horse’s natural behavior. For example, horses have a natural curiosity and are drawn by movement.

Amy Skinner incorporates cow work in her young horse training. She writes:

For the horse:

Cow work helps the horse learn how to get straight. It helps it learn to stop and turn on his hind end effectively because it has a reason for that movement. They can become lighter and more responsive to aids when the work is purposeful.

It’s good exposure and helps them gain confidence because they are moving something else.

For the rider:

It helps develop situational awareness, spatial awareness, and recognition of cause and effect with cues and movements.

I think it helps teach a lot about feel because riders have to move the cow off of feel. It can teach you how to push a cow, when to back off a cow, etc. Teaching riders about cow work can help with timing and help riders understand why movements – stopping, side-passing, turning, backing – are so important. If horse and rider are not in the habit of processing those moves quickly and crisply, they’ll lose the cow.

At a branding

The rider can get a sense of confidence, too, because it provides a partnership where the pair can accomplish something together.

Whit Hibbard, author of the Stockmanship Journal has written extensively on low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) and about the value and logic behind these methods. He confirmed my observation of good ranch work as quiet, thoughtful, smart, and efficient. Not a lot of Yahoo-ing.

Success, he writes, can often be as easy as adjusting your attitude and being more mindful of animals’ behaviors and reactions. Sounds like something we recreational riders talk about a lot, doesn’t it?

Hibbard writes here about Bud Williams, the pioneer of LSLH:

As Bud advised, “The better you work animals the better they’ll work for you the next time you work with them.” …People need to realize that every time we’re around our animals we teach them to be either easier or harder to work, we teach them something either good or bad, and if we want really manageable cattle we need to work with them.

Find Whit Hibbard’s articles on the Stockmanship Journal

Peters presents Horse Science Seminar

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 register, visit this page.

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.

Said Taylor:

“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.”

Sounds about right, West. See you in Park City!

To Test Smarts: Ask a Horse a Horse Question

Are humans really on top?

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

Animal intelligence: ask a question specific to the species.

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:

Mike Kevil

“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:

mouth“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.

stallIt 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.
fieldHer 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,”

Of Horses, Cows, and Humans

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.

They will present at the Best Horse Practices Summit.

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

Side view of horse brain

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.

Top view of cow brain from

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.

Read more about the neurological High Road versus the Low Road.

Read more about Optimal Learning and listen to an interview on the topic with Dr. Peters and Martin Black by becoming a Remuda Reader. Click here.

Know Your Horse-unculus

In the world of neuroscience, researchers and instructors have developed the “homunculus” to show through exaggerated size screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-3-51-34-pmthose 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)
  • eyes
  • ears
  • tongue
  • nose

These areas are densely populated with sensory nerves and are all represented by larger portions of the somatosensory cortex.

Other areas with greater representation:

  • withers
  • lower flank
  • 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 color those noted areas.

It’s helpful to be aware and considerate of these extra sensitive areas when working with our horses.