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8 minute read

How does your horse think?

WITH DR STEPHEN PETERS

An evidence-based approach to horsemanship involves assessing and integrating scientific findings to inform decisions and create best practices in horsemanship. Scientific findings in the neuro-functioning of the horses’ brain and its application will increase one’s ability to understand and read horses.

– Dr Stephen Peters

Many of us were privileged to attend the webinar hosted by Natalie Fourie, a Neurofeedback Brainwave Regulation Therapist from EQ-ADVANTEDGE NETWORX, with the world-renowned neuroscientist Dr Stephen Peters. 

Over the course of an hour, Dr Peters described the basic anatomy and functionality of the equine brain and explained the significance of these when working with our equines. Within this limited time-frame, he conveyed vast amounts of information and left the audience with much to ponder. Here we aim to present just a brief overview of his talk. We would highly recommend that anyone interested in this content contact Natalie Fourie (natalie@eq-advantedge.co.za) to be notified of the next Dr Stephen Peters webinar or sign up at http:// eqadvantedgejhb.co.za/ to watch this first webinar in full.

AN INTRODUCTION

Equine brain dissections, CT and MRI scans and multiple behavioural studies have provided a solid evidence base for understanding cognition in horses. Unfortunately, much of the equestrian world is unaware of this information, even though it would be hugely beneficial in working with our horses. Whilst every horse is an individual and has had a different history and different set of experiences, many commonalities underpin our horses’ behaviour and how they think. Understanding these can optimise our ability to communicate with our equine partner, and thereby improve our training and achieve better training outcomes. 

MAIN MESSAGE

The only brain that we are familiar with is our own, so we often expect our horses to operate in the same way as we do. Unfortunately (or fortunately!), the brain of a horse is very different to that of a human. One key difference for our work with horses lies in the fact that horses only have a minimally developed frontal lobe (a pre-frontal lobe). This means that horses do not understand or enact abstract concepts like disrespect or revenge. These abstract concepts require a frontal lobe to comprehend and enact them and horses, quite simply, don’t have one of sufficient size to reason in this way.

The reason this is so important is that we give put a lot of negative labels on our horses due to the ways we interpret their behaviours. This is often used to ‘justify’ punishing the horse and behaving in a negative way towards them. Instead, we need to take a step back and realise that our horses do not think in the same way we do, and are not capable of planning an elaborate revenge strategy for the carrot we forgot to hand out last week. If we can make our horse feel safe, they will be happy and willing to work with us, and that, ultimately, is the bottom line. The science Dr Peters presents in his work really brings this home for all of us.

A sagittal section through the brain

SIGNIFICANT STRUCTURES IN THE EQUINE BRAIN

OPTIC CHIASM – It was commonly thought that if a horse saw something in one eye, he needed to see it in the other eye as well, as the information was only reaching one side of the brain. Imaging studies and brain dissections have now shown that this is not the case, with information from the right eye going to the left side of the brain and vice versa, but the corpus callosum providing a mechanism for the information to cross from one side of the brain to the other.

CORPUS CALLOSUM – This allows the left and right sides of the brain to communicate. The left side of the brain operates the right side of the body and vice versa, just like in humans. Signals must pass across both sides of the brain before a horse can trot in diagonal pairs, for instance. 

PRE-FRONTAL LOBE – The pre-frontal lobe in the horse is for voluntary movement and attention. Younger horses don’t have as much myelin (a fatty insulator) coating the nerves in the pre-frontal lobes, so their attention span is much shorter than that of an adult horse who has developed myelination. Therefore, when working with young horses, you need to do shorter training sessions more frequently. Older horses are able to focus for longer periods so they can cope with longer training sessions. 

CEREBELLUM – The cerebellum in the horse is enormous and has many folds to create a massive surface area. This is a significant structure in the horse as it is essential for balance, sequencing, motor movement and fine motor movement. Additionally, when a horse learns a series of motor movements, they are stored in the cerebellum as motor memories.

OLFACTORY BULBS – Olfaction (smell) is the only sense that goes directly to the brain in the horse. Every other sense goes via the thalamus before it arrives in the brain. The sense of smell is highly developed and thus has a direct connection to the brain. 

HYPOTHALAMUS – The hypothalamus is the barometer of the autonomic nervous system. This signals whether the horse becomes sympathetically aroused (fight, flight, freeze), parasympathetically stimulated (rest and digest) or if we maintain homeostasis (a state of balance between the two).

CAN MY HORSE LOVE ME?

Horses can feel oxytocin – a bonding chemical, so they can feel really good around you. The release of oxytocin is contingent, however, on the horse also feeling safe with you.

DOES MY HORSE KNOW THAT I’M ANXIOUS?

In a study on this subject, researchers took a group of novice riders and measured the blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels in the horse and the human. They then took a group of experts with lots of experience with horses and did the same tests in the horse and human. 

They subsequently told the subjects that they would be led into the barn by themselves on their horse, the door would be locked, and then they would be charged with a golf umbrella. The experimenters then led the horse into the barn but did not do as they said (i.e. no golf umbrella was used). 

However, the researchers retook measurements after leaving the barn and the blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels were now sky high in the beginners. The levels went up in the experts but much less than in the beginners, as the experts were much more confident in their ability to handle the situation. Most interestingly, however, in the context of this work, the blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol measurements skyrocketed in the horses of the beginners as well, but not in the experts. This shows how sensitive horses are to the emotions of the human riding them. Your horse is reading you all the time. 

If you are concerned that you make your horse stressed, it may help to do meditation, or if you are highly aroused, angry or upset, you should consider skipping the session with your horse. You need to be very aware of how your emotion influences your horse!

TAKE-HOME MESSAGE

You are responsible for your horse’s nervous system, and as it is possible for it to adapt, you can change it through patience and correct work. A lot of the training we do is actually about getting our horse's neurological system to where we need it to be, and achieving this often is the key to improved performance. The fact that we can modify the nervous system and the connections that exist within it is enormously empowering for the horse owner as it can result in smarter, calmer and more confident horses.

The key lies in remembering that the horse’s brain is very different to our own and that their way of interpreting the world is not the same as ours. If we remember this and seek to understand our horse, rather than labelling them, we are far more likely to have a positive and lasting impact on our horse and their neurology.

ABOUT DR STEPHEN PETERS

Dr Stephen Peters is a Neuroscientist specialising in brain functioning. As a horse brain researcher, he has given numerous Equine Brain Science presentations throughout the U.S.A and Canada and performed many horse brain dissections for students. He is the co-author with Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

He regularly presents at the Best Horse Practices Summit and collaborated with Maddy Butcher on Horsehead: Brain Science & Other Insights. Dr Peters recently worked with Mark Rashid and Jim Masterson (of the Masterson Method) on a twoday equine brain seminar, which resulted in a DVD, Your Horse’s Brain: A User's Manual. He often presents in joint seminars with West Taylor of Wild West Mustang Ranch, demonstrating equine brain science with the help of mustangs in the arena.

He prioritises an evidence-based approach to horsemanship that involves assessing and integrating scientific findings to inform decisions and create best practices in horsemanship. His scientific findings in the neurofunctionality of the horse's brain and its application will increase one's ability to understand and read horses.

His ultimate goal is to achieve a deeper knowledge of the neurological underpinnings of horse behaviour, reactions and emotional states. This is hoped to lead to best practices that optimise horse-human communication and promote clear and safe interaction in the best interests of the horse and owner. Dr Peters is passionately dedicated to a scientific approach that ultimately improves the welfare of the horse.

For more information on his work, please check out his website: www.horsebrainscience.info Or you can read his book ‘Evidence Based Horsemanship’, which he co-authored with Martin Black. Of course, by the same token, the wrong training and a lack of understanding of the horse’s neurological system can result in shut down, scared and defensive horses. One thing is for sure, however, training with the neuroscience in mind is certain to give the best outcome.

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