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.

Why the Long Face?

Don’t mistake grazing for zoning out. Horses are still very much alert.

Horses – like zebras, deer, and other large prey animals foraging mostly on grass – have a head that’s perfect for what they’ve been doing for millennia: grazing in mostly open spaces and steering clear of predators.

Despite the perceived calmness and neurological homeostasis in the act of grazing, the horse’s nervous system, fueled by sensory input, is always on some level of alertness. Its senses continually assess and monitor the environment.

The size, placement, and functionality of their eyes, ears, mouth, whiskers, and nostrils are essential to who and what horses are. When you mess with horses’ features through training, care, and management, you unwittingly may cultivate stress or unhealthy situations.

A simple observation of pasture grazing can help us appreciate horses’ beautiful, long-faced design:

The whiskers (better known as vibrissae which have individual nerves to sense forage, novel objects, other horses, etc.) and lips do most of the

Vibrissae, crucial sense organs

investigating on the ground. Not coincidentally, the vibrissae compensate for one of the horse’s blind spots. Trim the vibrissae and you eliminate horses’ crucial sense of feel. Trimming may result in injury and stress, not because trimming hurts. Without this sense, horses are robbed of feel.

The eyes of an average horse are more than 12 inches above its mouth. At first glance, you might think that a grazing horse is looking at the ground. Not so! It’s looking around, scanning for predators or for changes in its environment (like other horses’ movement).

Here’s an equine optics primer, from The Mind of the Horse, by Michel-Antoine Leblanc:

  • Horses have the largest eyes of all land mammals. Their eyes are about eight times bigger than human eyes.
  • They have a large field of vision of about 330 degrees with two small blind spots – right in front of their nose and directly behind them. The horse will check the blind spots by moving its head.
  • Given the visual streak of their eye structure, they see in an ultra-panoramic format. If we had an extra pair of eyes positioned near our ears, we’d have that, too
  • Panoramic perspective, limited color spectrum, and excellent night vision typify equine vision
    Night vision? Horses got that!

    .

Read more about vision here.

Academic research and empirical evidence suggest restraining horses’ heads with rein pressure or by mechanical means (martingales or tie-downs) is precisely the wrong thing to do when encountering tricky footing or obstacles.

The nostrils and horses’ sense of smell may be its most overlooked sense. Both are huge, anatomically and neurologically speaking.

Unlike the other senses, the neural pathway of a horses’ sense of smell does not travel through the thalamus (the sensory relay center that helps integrate sensations into a coherent “this is happening to me” experience).

The olfactory bulbs are situated on the underside of the brain and wired to the brain’s olfactory cortex. Horses may assess predation risk, potential mates, good or bad forage all by smell.

Letting the horse move its head will help it relax and optimize use of its senses

The ears pivot independently. Ten distinct muscles allow them to rotate 180 degrees. Horses can distinguish the direction and distance of sounds and seem to be especially attuned to sounds that could indicate possible threat or a need to move.

Many horses become noticeably more anxious when their hearing is compromised or overwhelmed, like when high winds or loud speaker announcements drown out the more crucial but mundane sounds of their environment.

Horses are motor sensory creatures. Their long-faced features have been shaped over thousands of generations by natural selection (and, to a much lesser extent through domestication) to serve them optimally.

Over time, us humans have gotten away from sensory use:

  • We don’t sniff the air to determine which way it is to the beach. We read a sign or follow a phone app.
  • We don’t evaluate someone’s intention through watching his approach or body movement, we use language: “What’s your intention?”

But for the horse, sensory input, maximized by its long face, rules!

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.”

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!