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Review of Evidence-Based Horsemanship at the Equine Affaire

Published: 11/24/2012
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By Maddy Butcher Gray

Over the course of four Equine Affaire presentations, Martin Black and Dr. Steve Peters steadily grew their following, men and women keen on the new concepts of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

From veterinarians to trainers to riders of various disciplines, hundreds sat for the hour-long lectures on the Nutrena Seminar Stage in the Better Living Center. The sessions were filled with information and anecdotes; most folks took notes.

It was the first time the pair had spoken to a New England audience since the book’s debut in March. (Although a few dozen heard them discuss EBH at a 2011 clinic in Maine.)

Many audience members said they’d long suspected some topics to be true by their own observations, but were happy to finally have it confirmed by science. And that’s the premise of Evidence-Based Horsemanship: dovetailing science with practical observations.

Peters divided the talks into four topics:

-- How The Brain Develops, Grows and Affects the Horse’s Training & Learning Processes
-- Its Nervous System
-- How Learning & Memory Occur
-- How Nature Intended: Best Care and Management Practices.

Several attendees said they decided to return to hear all four after hearing Peters and Black’s first presentation.

As has been noted in past articles, the lectures tended to produce Ah-Ha moments, with audience members often anxious to discuss their specific stories with the authors afterwards.
Some related questions, followed by those Ah-Ha moments:

Has your three-year old had enough after 30 minutes?
-- Young horses’ brains aren’t developed enough to handle long periods of training.

Does your horse sometimes yawn after a vigorous ride or stressful pasture encounter?
-- Yawning is not boredom or fatigue but an indication that the horse is calming itself, dealing with a recent stressor.

Does holding more tightly (to reins or leadline) ever make things better for your horse?
-- Constraint is almost always the root cause of a horse’s panic.

Some may be disappointed, others relieved -- there was no brain dissection this time! But Peters nonetheless detailed the anatomy of the softball-sized organ. Particularly, he took time to explain the function of the cerebellum, the tangerine-sized “little brain” responsible for what we might call motor memory. We have a cerebellum, too: riding a bike or running a barrel pattern - those motor patterns are stored in the same area for both horses and humans.
Movement responses to cues (from a rider or from the environment) are likewise stored in the cerebellum.  A horse can make a lightning-flash skip to avoid tripping into a gopher hole or switch leads on command thanks to this structure.

Peters went on to explain that learning occurs when you combine certain movements with relief of pressure or reward. This process results in the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter or chemical. Horses look for relief of pressure and they learn to search for a situation in which dopamine is released.

“We think the horse is in love with running barrels,” Peters told the Equine Affaire audience. “The horse doesn’t sneak out to the outbuilding, pull out the barrels, and run them by themselves…But they like the fact that they’ve learned motor patterns that they can predict. They know where they’re going to get reinforced. And that, they like.”

You can help create a super-learning horse when you let the horse search for that reward itself rather than forcing it. The authors pointed to the example of a creek crossing. As humans, we look for the ‘correct response’ of getting from one side to the other. But if we have to spur the horse into crossing, we’re missing the point.

“The more they can do on their own,” said Black. “The better the horse.”

Read more about Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

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11/26/2012 Karen B
Haven't had a chance to see the lectures but read the book and it's well worth the read. Hope to be able to attend a lecture soon.

"Love means attention, which means looking after the things we love. We call this stable management." - George H. Morris