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Horse Brain discussion, part III

Published: 8/10/2011
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By Maddy Butcher

Click here for Part I
Click here for Part II

It's crucial to consider the evolution and development of wild horses when we look at the most effective methods for training and maintaining our domestic horses.
In their presentation, Martin Black and Dr. Stephen Peters referenced the mustangs of the western United States as examples of horses in their natural, evolved state.
It’s ideal, they say, to maintain domestic horses as close to that environment as possible. When you start messing with their environment, their upbringing, their food, and their movement, you invite problems.
Their book, “Evidence-Based Horsemanship,” addresses this concept.

“Understand where they came from,” said Black as they showed a slide presentation of mustangs running on the Oregon range. “What did we do to screw them up? Try to get them back to there, their natural environment.”

Horses have been around for 55 million years. The first horses were doglike, stood less than 20 inches high and had three toes. (see image above, more recent Equus at right, courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History)

The modern day horse as we know it, Equus, is about 4 million years old and has one toe or hoof. Equus includes zebras, the asses and donkeys of Africa and Asia, and horses. (Images below are of zebras in Africa and desert asses in southeast Asia) We started domesticating horses just 4,000 years ago.

Wild horses are used to grazing constantly and moving about 15 miles a day. They're used to tolerating seasons and being in a herd.

The following are various examples of what happens when we deviate from this natural state:

Head restriction
-- Horse eyes are packed with cells along a lateral streak, giving them excellent vision straight ahead. They’re good at seeing the horizon and approaching predators. They don’t see well directly above or below and they need to move their heads to focus well in these ranges.

When riders limit their head movement by holding the reins tight or using restrictive tack, they take away the horses’ need to look at the ground, look at the jump, look at an object.
Restriction can spell disaster. Peters and Black cited steeplechase as a sport which could benefit from less rein contact and head restriction.
“The horse is saying, ‘give me my head so I can see.’ The horse still needs to see the ground to know when to leave the ground, said Black. If you give the rider that responsibility and it’s not reliable.”

-- Keeping a horse in a stall can create all kinds of problems from behavioral, nutritional, to physical. Horses can’t move or graze or interact healthily. They may compensate by picking up habits like weaving or cribbing. They may be susceptible to issues like laminitis and underdeveloped muscles. They may lack the crucial social and athletic skills otherwise acquired in a field with a herd.

-- Horses’ digestive tracts are built for constant grazing. Most horses thrive on plain ol’ grass along with plenty of exercise. Introducing grain can create issues similar to those of stallbound horses.
Peters considered the prevalence of winter colic calls in his home state of Connecticut. The horses are getting a lot of grain and little exercise, a recipe for disaster along the digestive tract.

"Whisker" trimming
Those whiskers are actually vibrissae, hairs that serve as tactile organs. Trim them and you are depriving a horse of crucial sensory tool.
When a horse comes close to an object (another horse, a tarp on the ground, etc.) it might look like it’s smelling it. But really, it is assessing it with its vibrissae, “to see if it’s wet, dry, light, heavy, hot, cold,” said Black. “Shaving them is like cutting someone’s fingers off.”

-- Horses all over the world are prepared for futurities. Theoretically, futurities give the horse a chance to show off how great he will be down the line. It's a breeder's means for reaping an early reward.
But horses in the wild don't prove themselves at age 2. Black and Peters told us horses are still developing neurologically, muscularly, and socially.
"You can have a brilliant 1st grader become an idiot high schooler," said Black, who prefers to wait several years before starting colts.

If any of these deviations sound familiar, don't despair. As Peters says: "Finding that one has done something the wrong way may be just as valuable as getting it right if it refines the knowledge base so that others do not have struggle with a similar wrong turn."

Give horses a few million years in super-domesticated settings and them may have opposable thumb. They’ll be able to open stall doors, pick through their grain, and take off their own tack.
They’ll lose their front teeth, too, since they can just lip their hay and grain.
And thick winter coats? Forgetaboutit! Blankets will have made that trait as necessary as an appendix.

View Reader Comments:

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8/11/2011 Debbie Violette
Wonderful series on the Horse Brain Discussion. I especially loved part III.
8/30/2011 Jennifer Thurston
What about considering individuality? Each person has the capabilities and experience to utilize their brains in different capacities and so is the way of a developing horse. Also, isn't there still scientific misunderstandings on how a human brain functions in terms of compensation for parts of the brain in people with special conditions like Autism, sensory deprivation, genius capacities etc.? Therefore, couldn't it be very possible that through the process of domestication, genetic engineering, and human centered existence domestic horses have compensated in their brain parts for brain function? In a lifetime with horses, I certainly have found them to have more than simple muscle memory and flight response. If I as their "trainer" work to develop their capacities of rational thought and logic, they have been extremely human like in their existence. It is very much a detriment to all horses that they are portrayed in short sighted point of view. The science is this article is wonderful but as with neurology of the human brain there is so much that we do not understand and often generalizations are very misleading.
3/3/2012 Tricia
@ Jennifer from part II "They know horses lack our frontal lobe ? that?s the part of the brain responsible for forming generalizations, plans, and strategies. So, Black and Peters don?t have much taste for the attribution of these human capacities to equine behavior:" so I do not know how you can develop a horses rational thought and logic without the frontal lobe...

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