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.


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.

Posted in Neurochemistry, Training and tagged , .


  1. Makes sense to me sadly too many people after a quick fix.
    Love watching my horse work stuff out – today it was someone flying a kite but the bright orange bag tied to the stroller was actually more scary.
    He coped because I gave him time and stayed relaxed love the bond we can develop with this.

  2. Love this column. It’s so true. Although not all of us humans know to stop at times and let ourselves get acclimated. We would be a whole lot better off if we did.

  3. I am new to this site, but I agree with giving horse time to work things out. I’m in my sixties and have been riding since a child, and have found I have a new respect for their power and quickness. I love to trail ride, but sometimes I let old accidents rear their ugly heads. So I’m always looking for good advice to stay calm in a potentially scary situation. Thank you.

  4. I, too, am new to this site having just met Dr. Peters & Martin Black at the recent Parelli Savvy Summit in Pagosa Springs, CO. What lead my wife & I to their seminar on evidenced based horsemanship is the work Linda Parelli & Dr. Patrick Handley have done developing the horsenality/humanality models, which I personally feel is not only brilliant but core to the path of understanding and dealing with horses and humans. Now we seem to have science based corroboration developing with the superb efforts of Peters & Black what has been largely empirical based understanding by masters such as Pat Parelli, the Dorrance brothers, Ronnie Willis, Troy Henry etc. All I can say is WOW & THANK YOU all. I have had a love affair with my horses for more than half of my 73 years.

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