- Where Barn Banter Goes Global
Please support

Horse Brain discussion, part II

Published: 8/4/2011
View comments

"Really, only you can tell yourself to giddy-up."
Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan

By Maddy Butcher

[Click here for Part I]
[Click here for Part III]

Martin Black and Dr. Stephen Peters are trailblazers in the field of horse neurology as it relates to horsemanship. 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:
-- “My horse gave me some payback when he decided to toss me”
-- “He bucked me off, but then came back and said he was sorry”
  Utter something like that and they might shake their heads and walk away.

Their collaboration on a forthcoming book entitled "Evidence-Based Horsemanship" will displace a lot of that popular but silly, wrongheaded horsespeak.

Nonetheless, they still find it helpful to explain horse development and behavior using people metaphors. You will hear them say things like:
-- colts are like 3rd graders and need recess
-- let him go home and think on it

That’s because despite our mammoth differences, we share some similarities in the very basic development and composition of our nervous systems.

We both have autonomic nervous systems (ANS), the largely involuntary regulators of our organs, muscles, glands, etc.. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the chief elements of ANS.

Parasympathetic and Sympathetic? Huh?

The sympathetic nervous system is what we see in Fight or Flight situations. With help from a University of Washington neurology website, let me suggest two scenarios:

Outing A:
You’re out for a pleasant ride on a nice, sunny day. Suddenly, an angry bear appears in your path. The sympathetic nervous system is called into action (of both you and your horse!). It uses energy: your blood pressure increases, your heart beats faster, and digestion slows down. Y'all beat feet!
When a horse has a sympathetic nervous system response, we see the whites of his eyes, his muscles tense, his nostrils flare. You know the look.
In the brain dissection, Peters pointed out the trigeminal nerve running over the eye, down the face to the jaw. That's why you will see the cluster of signs (white eyes, tight jaw and lips) noted above.

Outing B:
You’re out for a pleasant ride on a nice, sunny day. This time, however, you decide to relax, hobble your horse, and chill for a bit. You and your horse hang out in a meadow. He grazes while you read and ponder life.
Now is the time for the parasympathetic nervous system to work and save energy: your blood pressure decreases, your heart beats slower, and digestion can start.
The parasympathetic nervous system is called upon in “ Rest and Digest” situations. When a horse has a parasympathetic response, he licks his lips, he might blink and cock one of his legs.

Click here for a super helpful video by Dr. Gary Fisk at Georgia Southwestern State University.

When we look at these two trail riding episodes, we can also examine our differences. Here is where the horses’ lack of frontal lobe might actually put him in a better spot:

-- You, the rider, come away from the Angry Bear experience with nightmares and baggage. Every time you return to that spot, hear a twig snap, see a picture of a bear, talk about bear encounters, or smell huckleberries, you freak.
In studies of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patients, said Peters, chemical etchings on the brain can have the effect of turning traumatic experiences into Super Memories.

But if the horse has enough good experiences afterwards, he will likely override that traumatic episode. Such is life without a frontal lobe. Or, as Black noted with classic Yogi Berra delivery: “If the world becomes good, the world becomes good.”
-- After Outing B, the rider comes away from the experience by perhaps attaching the meadow, the smells, the book all into one fond, romantic recollection. Rose-colored glasses are frontal lobe stuff. The horse, on the other hand, may recall that he got to eat at that meadow.

Read Part III

View Reader Comments:

add your comment
8/5/2011 Kim Stone
Thanks for posting this series Maddy! I think the material (both scientific and field study) that Martin and Steve are currently working on is amazing! It has the potential to help so many horse owners on how a horse "actually thinks" and learns.
8/5/2011 Tammy Moore
Thanks, Martin and Dr Peters for embarking on a scientific quest to help the horsemanship community in gaining a better understanding of our equine friends. Once upon a time, when "the world was flat" a new idea emerged that ruffled a lot of feathers. Perhaps your findings will do the same. In the end, good science... is good science. I'll be the first in line to get my signed copy. (I can get one, right?) Tammy in Sanger
8/7/2011 Debi
I can think of one horse I used to own that must have a frontal lobe, ha, ha...he never forgets a thing, ever! Great article, Maddy, thanks for sharing.
8/17/2011 Estelle
I do have a question, what about when they grieve? did he talk about that?
6/6/2014 laura falconer
i found this very helpful. i'm currently writing a paper on how the equine brain is developed and how to train a horse in conjunction with that. thank you

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