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.


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.


What’s NOT in your Horse’s Head

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.”

Dr. Steve Peters begins horse brain dissection

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.

Peters holds the cerebellum