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:

Attentive?

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.

 

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.

Downregulation

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

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,”

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.

Close Encounters with the Amygdala

I live in a rural town and don’t travel much. But last month, I found myself driving my truck camper through St. Louis.

In heavy traffic.

In heavy rain.

In darkness.

I grew disoriented and nervous. My heart rate increased. My hands gripped the wheel tightly. I missed an exit. I needed to turn off the music to focus.

Eventually, I pulled over, checked out the directions, took a breath, and got back on the road. In another 30 miles, the skies, the traffic, and my head were all clear.

What happened? And what does it have to do with horses?

Despite our mammoth differences, horses and humans share some similarities in the basic development and composition of our nervous systems.

We both have autonomic nervous systems (ANS), the largely involuntary regulators of our organs, muscles, glands, etc. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the chief elements of ANS.

Read more about the ANS here.

Horses AND humans have amygdalae

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.

New horses.

Loudspeakers.

High-flying flags.

Strange smells.

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.

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

Learning to Embrace Discomfort

Randy Rieman

“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.

Evidence-Based Horsemanship diagram
Evidence-Based Horsemanship diagram

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:

buck_brannaman4
Buck Brannaman

“Fear is a big thing that just owns some people. It can be overwhelming,” he said.

Brannaman implores his students to work with their horses at full speed and to learn how to use flexion and the one-rein stop. Read more about bolting and rider fear here.

“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.”