What Is Optimal Learning and How Do We Nurture It?

A few years ago, Dr. Steve Peters, a neuropsychologist and director of the Memory Clinic at Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare,

Are you and your horse often alert and engaged?
Dr. Peters watches a mustang. Are you and your horse often alert and engaged?

was invited to talk to a group of leaders at Cisco Systems, the technology company.
The group wanted to know how best to teach Cisco’s complicated networking schemata to employees, in person and through teleconferencing and video platforms. Quickly and effectively, they needed to reach a broad audience with varied aptitudes for learning.

  • How best do we do this?
  • How do we keep them engaged and teach them so that they can move forward with their new knowledge?

To make his case, Peters got down to the nitty-gritty. He described what learning looks like on a cellular level.

The neurochemical glutamate enables synapse between neurons

We’re not talking about rote memorization or short-term memory here, but rather, the absorption of knowledge for the long haul. It’s an outcome called Long Term Potentiation.

First, consider a typical, lazy learning moment:

You’re listening, half-heartedly taking notes, and thinking in a distracted way about what you’re hearing. On a molecular level, the neurochemical glutamate is enabling the transfer of sodium from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron through so-called AMPA receptors. It’s a weak synapse and is not enough to cause Long Term Potentiation.

Sodium flows into post-synaptic neuron, thanks to glutamate
Sodium flows into post-synaptic neuron, thanks to glutamate

Now, consider a moment when you’re in the front row and at the edge of your seat. That engaging moment is followed by more reading and discussion with classmates. You feel good about your ability to expound on the topic (read more about dopamine’s effect on learning here).

On a molecular level, an increased concentration of glutamate has let even more sodium through receptors of the post-synaptic cell. More sodium there causes a repulsion of a plug of magnesium that previously had been blocking another type of receptor, called the NMDA receptor.
With the magnesium bumped out, more sodium and now calcium molecules rush from one neuron to the other. Calcium, in turn, activates more intracellular cascades. In other words, there is greater activity and the connection strength of the presynaptic and

Influx of sodium forces out magnesium plug
Influx of sodium forces out magnesium plug, enabling entry of calcium

postsynaptic neurons increases.

That’s Long Term Potentiation. Watch this excellent video of LTP.

If getting smarter comes from the accumulation of sprinkles of connections, then LTP is when your brain shifts that sprinkle to a healthy pour of synaptic connections.
Lazy learning is a single-lane, ramshackle bridge, leading from one neuron to the next. After you pay the toll of increased focus and engagement, LTP is a wide, smooth thoroughfare of a bridge. Yahoo!

If salt shakers were neurosynapses...
If salt shakers were neurosynapses…

In the Cisco meeting room, people were intrigued. As horse owners we, too, should pay attention to this learning outcome.

Turns out LTP has a lot to do with how we present information, the teacher’s approach, and the students’ attitude. At this cellular level, the neuroscience for humans and horses is the same. (For all the Junior Scientists out there, for purposes of this discussion, LTP is occurring in the brain’s hippocampus, known as the region where memories are formed.)

How do we get our students (horses) to the point of LTP?

— Even if the work is tedious, it can and should be presented in a non-tedious manner. In other words, make it fun and get creative. Don’t repeat patterns over and over and over. Drilling will make your students (horses) frustrated, annoyed, and IMG_0402resentful.
— For maximum engagement, keep lessons short and energetic. Allow for recesses.
— For your student’s optimal learning, find his/her ideal psychological state between comfort and fear, between boredom and panic.
— Remember that threatening students with severe punishment can activate their fight or flight response. Neither horses nor humans can learn when they’re panicked.
— Incorporate on-the-job training and use immersion techniques. Foreign language students learn better when they are using that language and incorporating into other tasks. Horses learn about side-passing and turning on their fore and hind, when they are working with cows, moving through gates, or out on the trail.

Martin Black, co-author with Peters of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, sees a particular problem with riders who drill

repeatedly and believe their horses will learn best in the ‘warm and fuzzy’ zone of routine comfort. “Repetition can create 12019823_10153666828891310_4972098185712543430_nresentment. Horses can get frustrated, shut down, and take a defensive stance,” said Black. “If you build on that, they become more protective and more violent. I can’t tell you what it looks like. It’s a process.”

Read about the Cons of Comfort

As for riding without some occasional discomfort or excitement, said Black: “Students will say, ‘we don’t want to get them excited.’ My message is ‘yes, you do!’ We need to get them out of the comfort zone. And, that’s what the science is backing. Riders need to experiment.”
Often Black’s students confuse their horses’ alertness for panic and back away from a prime learning opportunity. “A curious horse has his head up. His eyes are alert. He’s taking it in. He’s not reacting in a self-preservation mode. He’s not

Martin's horse is alert and engaged.
Martin’s horse is alert and engaged.

running or panicking. That’s where I’m trying to get people to go.”
While some riders have found this ideal learning state, many fall into two groups populating each edge of the territory: they are Nurturers and Warriors. Nurturers (mostly women) never get out of the comfort zone. Warriors (mostly men) are prone to bouncing off the flight or fight territory of horses’ sympathetic response. Read about the autonomic nervous system here.

Head is up. Ears are engaged.

A horse’s optimal state for LTP will look like this, according to Black and confirmed by Peters: “His head comes up. His ears come up. He’s taking in information. Maybe he’s starting to get tense, starting to get alert and is ready to do something.”
It’s the ideal moment for learning and an opportunity many riders unfortunately quash. “That’s when people start to get uncomfortable because they’re not sure what’s going to happen. But that’s precisely where people need to experiment if they are training a horse. Maybe the rider needs more experience and being successful without hitting the ground. But once you say, I’m going to be more of a trainer and less of a passenger, you’ll gravitate to this zone,” said Black.
“But if you can’t handle the one-rein stop, can’t stay on, get too scared, then your horse is not going to advance either. You, the rider, must have as many tools in your toolbox as your horse. It’s proportionate.”
Read about Dwell Time research
Read about the Wobble Board of Learning

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

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.


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!