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Looking at Horse Brain Function with Dr. Steve Peters

Published: 1/24/2013
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By Maddy Butcher

When I was 15 and chomping at the bit for a drivers’ license, my dad insisted I learn how to change a tire and change the oil. So we opened up the hood and had a good look around.
Those early lessons gave me vital skills for dealing with my share of lemons and roadside emergencies.

Dr. Steve Peters’ lectures at the Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference provided similar “What’s Under the Hood” lessons. Read about Evidence-Based Horsemanship seminar.

With knowledge gained from his talks on brain chemistry, learning, and memory, we can travel more smoothly and with fewer wrecks along our horsemanship journeys.

Peters isn’t suggesting we do anything different than Tom Dorrance might have done.
“Tom Dorrance probably would have been the best behavioral neurologist,” said Peters of this forefather of natural horsemanship.

Dorrance didn’t have a doctorate but he did have ‘feel,’ that mysterious, mind-boggling ability to predict and react to a horse’s behaviors and movements.

Dr. Peters defined and explained what horses do from a neurological perspective. If you pay attention to your horse, he suggested, you can develop ‘feel’ by recognizing behaviors and connecting physical movement with associated psychological phenomena.
It becomes less mysterious when you open the hood and have a look-see.

For starters, we learn that the most successful training occurs when horses are relaxed but interested. When horses are frightened, they won’t learn well. When they’re half-asleep, they won’t learn either.

During a training session, does your horse:
  • pin its ears?
  • clench its jaw?
  • purse its lips?
  • show the whites of its eyes?
These are indications of an activated trigeminal nerve. It happens when the sympathetic nervous system is aroused.

Read more about the sympathetic nervous system here.

When recovered, does your horse:
  • Lick its lips?
  • Chew?
  • Bring his ears forward?
  • Yawn?

You just witnessed the horse’s innate ability to regulate its own neurochemical homeostasis. The horse's hypothalamus, a deep brain structure located below its thalamus, is at work here, acting like a thermostat to regulate body functions.
Optimal learning happens when we take this thermostat-like regulation into account.
See illustration at right.

‘Relaxed but interested’ is equally important when considering your horse’s dendritic growth. (Dendrites are neural pathways. The more dendrites, the more solutions a horse has to any given situation.)
Just as I learned skills for automotive troubleshooting, the best trainers allow horses to acquire skills rather than forcing skills on them.

“Getting from Point A to Point B is different than allowing a horse to find Point B,” said Peters. “Forcing a horse doesn’t promote dendritic growth. And it puts the horse into a survivor mentality.”
  • Do you spur your horse to cross the stream?
  • Do you micromanage his every move?
When you learn more about what your horse is really taking away from these lessons, you might reconsider how you deliver them.

“We’re responsible for how our horses develop dendritic growth,” said Peters. “Horses may be harder to train if we insist on imposing our will on them. Allowing a horse to solve a problem is better behaviorally and better neurologically. By spurring and forcing it, the horse won’t be using its brain.”

Read about Evidence-Based Horsemanship seminar.

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1/31/2013 Patricia Barlow-Irick
How refreshing to see that someone is using science in horse-training! We also use it at where we are gentling wild horses for adoption.

"Want to end up with a million bucks in the horse business? Start out with five million." - Anonymous