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

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.