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Evidence-Based Horsemanship in Elko

Published: 2/9/2013
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By Maddy Butcher

In two presentations at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Martin Black and Dr. Steve Peters presented Evidence-Based Horsemanship as a method that embraces the wise, gentle practices of horsemen like Tom and Bill Dorrance while simultaneously incorporating current science.

Randy Rieman (at right) introduced the pair to the standing-room only crowd at the Elko (NV) Convention Center. Rieman, equally well known for his horsemanship and poetry recitation, spent years working with the Dorrances.

“One of my favorite things that Tom Dorrance said to me: ‘Everybody’s got their opinion, but the horse has the facts.’ This here’s the facts,” said Rieman, who runs Pioneer Mountain Ranch in Dillon, Montana.

After introducing the crowd to basic neuroanatomy, Dr. Peters focused on neurotransmitters, chemicals like dopamine, which largely dictate behavioral responses and what we see happening as the horse adjusts to changing situations.
Dopamine is one of dozens of chemicals coursing through most mammalian bodies, horses, cattle, and humans alike.

Specifically, dopamine is associated with positive reinforcement and movement. It’s a lack of dopamine, said Peters, which results in the stuttered, halting movement of Parkinson’s patients. In horses, dopamine surges correspond to the receipt of a reward, too. That reward could be rest, movement, a treat, or simply a relief from pressure.

Peters suggested brains hold their own drugstore of chemicals, in which cocktails are mixed depending on the situation.
When he was a boy, Black recalled, he saw a big difference between handling cattle when they were relaxed or scared.
“It was almost like flipping a switch,” he said.  “I always thought there was something chemical going on,” said Black. “When Steve started explaining it all, it made perfect sense.”

The key, said the pair, was to recognize the external, physical manifestations of these internal chemical changes and to work at optimizing positive outcomes.
For instance, the horse seeks comfort. On a neurochemical level, one might say it seek s a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. By arousing it through training, we can move it away from that equilibrium.

When we offer horses a place of comfort, they will find it and relish their return to equilibrium.

In other words, you have to make a horse uncomfortable for him to appreciate comfort.

“If you take him there and then come back, that’s when they get the drugs they like,” said Black. “The real art of horsemanship is how far to take them into that [state of discomfort].”

Read more about Evidence-Based Horsemanship

Aside from the Convention Center appearance, the pair presented at the Great Basin College’s High Tech Center. The hour-long session was broadcast via streaming video to several rural campuses across Nevada.

Photo at right, Peters and Black sign National Cowboy Poetry Gathering posters for the non-profit, Western Folklife.

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2/10/2013 Nan
Very interesting. The only part I disagree with is calling relief from pressure a "reward". Reward is pure positive reinforcement...a treat, a pat, "good girl" not "if you do what I want, I will stop applying pressure". That is negative reinforcement.
2/11/2013 K
Excellent read! Thanks!!

"Those who look down eventually get there" - Kip Rosenthal