The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874-1936
Maddy Butcher writes:
Like you, I’m curious. New information around horses fascinates me. Sure, I have the natural skepticism of a journalist. But when insights clarify and help improve our connection with horses, I’m all for it.
Ten years ago, I caught the neuroscience bug. What I learned while helping Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black with Evidence-Based Horsemanship undoubtedly improved my horse work. My subsequent research for Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights did so as well.
Now, though, I’m seeing brain science in a new light. No longer do I see it as the most essential know-how for a horse owner’s educational toolbox. Like a doctor’s assessment of one’s physical self, it’s just one part of a much bigger picture.
What we know about horse brain science – that licking and chewing is a parasympathetic response, that dwell times enable faster learning, that consistent dopamine-related experiences can build optimal learning patterns – helps us see what’s going on and can hasten our progress. No doubt. But in focusing too narrowly on neuroscience, we run the risk of missing other, equally vital components of the horse’s development. We can neglect considering its overall well-being, its body, its life.
Sure, it’s helpful to zoom in to see the horse at a molecular, neurochemical level. But it’s equally valuable to pan out for the big picture.
Before the 2019 Best Horse Practices Summit, I was chatting with keynote speaker, Steve Budiansky, about the other presentations. I mentioned brain science. There was an audible pause. Do you have reservations about that, I asked? He said something about it being a bit reductionist and we moved on.
Recently, I got back in touch with Budiansky and asked him to elaborate. (Reductionism, in case you were wondering, is the practice of describing complex phenomena in simplified terms.)
I am in general a great friend of reductionism, but I think it’s a well-established rule that trying to understand any system as complex as animal behavior always demands multiple levels of explanation.
It’s certainly true that all animal behavior is fundamentally neuroanatomy—but that’s also trivial and it doesn’t really help us in itself to build up a useful picture of what’s going on. The way neuroanatomy is expressed in behavior is constantly limited and channeled and shaped by learning, environment, social interactions, all of which have their useful concepts and terminology that help us make sense of what’s going on and why, and understanding how horses learn and react to different situations.
You could similarly say that all you need to do to win at chess is to know the rules of how the pieces move. True enough, but it doesn’t get you too far.
I’m reminded of a typical summer scene in which I move through a gate to halter one of my horses. Yes, I’m watching for brain-science markers that can tell me how my horses are feeling. But I am also watching how they situate themselves among their herd mates, how the flies are aggravating them, when they last ate, etc.
As students of the horse, we must cultivate our holistic awareness. We need to recognize that neuroscience, physiology, herd dynamics, fitness, digestive health all matter and all merit study. There are myriad elements in any horse-human equation. Some we can quantify, some float under our radar.
Are we aware of how much our presence impacts the horse? What about our neurology? What about how we treated the horse in the past? What about our fitness and mental health?
A friend of mine, who went to college and received his PhD in human sciences, is getting fed up with Western medicine. (Defined here as a system in which medical doctors treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, surgery, etc.) Eastern Medicine, on the other hand, treats the whole person, encouraging a healthy body to prevent illness and speed recovery.
My friend quoted Victor Hugo, who said, “Science has the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.”
I think he has a point. Science helps us see things from a focused, hyper-informed perspective. It often gives us a brilliant new lens through which to interpret behaviors, interactions, and experiences. But if we fail to appreciate the whole person, the whole horse, the whole environment, the whole moment, we can get into trouble.
I worry especially about the potential for mischief (and voodoo) in encouraging people to think you can leap from a few measures of the physiology of the nervous system to horsemanship.
Neuroanatomy is very helpful in showing us what’s wrong with certain ideas about training or horse behavior. But there’s no magic shortcuts, and that’s what I think we need to be on guard against.
Enjoy your horsemanship journeys and stay curious.