New additions to my herd are Bug and Barry. Bug is a four-year old Utah mustang. During his young life, he’s been passed from one owner to the next, six owners in total, before landing with me.
Barry is a ten-year old Tennessee Walker with a history of neglect and harsh handling. The big grey boy has been with me for just over a year.
Picture this: I’m riding Pep, the littlest of the group at 13.2 hands, while ponying the two bigger geldings. A funny sight, for sure!
But the practice of ponying is one way to get that these super curious (Bug) and super nervous (Barry) exposed to new sights, sounds, and experiences while still keeping everyone relatively safe and happy.
Novelty is essential for the development and maintenance of a healthy brain. Just like the attraction of the primary rewards of food and sex, new information (in the form of smells, sounds, sights, experiences gathered) is something horses naturally seek.
The substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area or SN/VTA in the brainstem is a midbrain element that researchers have dubbed the “novelty center.” It responds to novel stimuli and is packed with the neurochemical, dopamine. (Substantia nigra is Latin for black substance and is dark because of the density of dopamine neurons.)
Not surprisingly, the SN/VTA is closely linked to the hippocampus and amygdala. The hippocampus is known to store memories and the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli.
Researchers have found that novelty is closely linked to the natural inclination of reward-seeking. This makes sense evolutionarily: the more information an animal can gather about its surroundings, the more likely it is to survive and reproduce. Or, in horsespeak: I’m going to check out what’s over the hill because the grass there might be awesome. And, heck, I might find more friends, too.
In the brain, activity in the SN/VTA is associated with increased levels of dopamine. That’s good! Dopamine is a feel-good neurochemical connected with learning.
Researchers have found that subjects perform best when new information is blended with the familiar. That is, the plasticity of the hippocampus increases with the introduction of novel information and experiences. We know that novelty improves memory and opens the door to better learning potential.
As horse owners and trainers, here are things to keep in mind:
- Changing a horse’s environment and adding new element to any session or outing is a good thing.
- Keeping in mind the neuroplasticity increases after novel stimuli are introduced, use this optimal time to make new connections and advance a training challenge.
- Take time and allow your horse to experience new environments or new obstacles in a way that maximizes a relaxed, alert level of attention. Got a new creek to cross? Let your horse lower its head to consider the footing, smell the creekside, etc. Look for licking, chewing, head-lowering, and forward ears.
- Got a new saddle pad? Let your horse touch it with its vibrissae (whiskers) and smell it. Try gently placing the pad on its back and removing it, giving your horse time to relax (lick, chew, breathe out) and adjust to what might be a new experience.
- Let your horse move! Don’t forget that horses feel better if they are not constrained. Moving – neurologically speaking and physiologically speaking – is an essential part of healthy, effective learning.
Horses that get used to new experiences and environments are much more teachable and less stressed in general. The horses I get in training who are used to everything being the same and have set routines become easily stressed with little changes, even to the point of colic. These horses are not happy, and it doesn’t do them any favors to not expose them to new things.
Here are some helpful links:
2 Minute Neuroscience: Substantia Nigra