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A Growing Audience for Evidence-Based Horsemanship

Published: 5/3/2012
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By Maddy Butcher

If the success of a concept can be measured by how eagerly and easily it is absorbed, then Evidence-Based Horsemanship is off to a good start.
Dr. Steve Peters presented EBH to enthusiastic crowds at the Mane Event in Red Deer, Alberta, last week. The event drew tens of thousands of horse owners, breeders, farmers, and working cowboys. By rough estimate, Peters' lectures were the most well-attended of the entire event.
The presentations dovetailed well with Martin Black’s work in the Trainers’ Challenge, a colt-starting competition with Mike Kevil and Kerry Kuhn, which Black won.
Peters devoted his talks to how and why the horse operates neurologically, how its brain is fundamentally different from ours, and how to optimize our interactions and work within its limitations.
  • Ever watch a newborn stretch and make herky-jerky movements?
You’re watching the beginning stages of its neural and muscular development.
With slides and anecdotes to support the science, Peters described how myelination (the crucial depositing of white fatty matter around nerve fibers) of a young horse directs its ability to move, learn, and mature.
  • Ever wonder why young horses do best with short spurts of training?
Their neurological development is not unlike that of a grade school student. It is not yet developed enough to handle long periods of study.
  • Ever marvel at a horse’s ability to perform intricate movements?
It’s not so much ‘thinking’ as it is relying on muscle memory, stored in the cerebellum.

These topics and more were covered in Peters’ 50-minute lecture.
Horse behavior and brain function were topics brought up frequently by the Trainers’ Challenge Master of Ceremony, Hugh McLennan. He referenced EBH often as he commented on the subtle progress of the horses and their trainers.
Presenter Michael Richardson connected with the principles, too, as he worked one-on-one with English riders in front of large audiences.

[Read more about Richardson]

He referenced Dr. Peters when noting that horses learn best when interested yet relaxed.
“You don’t want to sour the horse or make him feel he needs to react just to get away from the pressure,” said Richardson. “Horses and people are alike. If it feels good, are we going to try it again? Heck, yeah!”

Richardson, Peters, and Black all said they appreciate the value gained by letting a horse find the solution on its own, rather than simply reacting to pressure.

By working with, not against, the horse’s brain functioning, one can create what Black calls a “Special Forces” horse. It’s a horse who’s discovered the neurochemical rewards behind finding the right answer, ie, learning.

Black and Peters entertained scores of queries during Question and Answer sessions after the lectures. As a special bonus, all books were signed by both authors.
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