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

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.

Or

  • 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,”

Wobble Board Science

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: dop, gaba, gludopamine, 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:

aamyLoading 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.

NAPicture 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.

horse-crossingIn 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.

Can You Spot a Dopamine Release?

Brain chemicals represent themselves physically and behaviorally. These chemicals are present in horse brains, human brains, and are often referred to as neurotransmitters.

Dopamine
Dopamine

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 fnkyhorseheadyou 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.

Happy horse work!