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.

horse-unculus

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