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Getting inside the Horse Head, part I

Published: 7/28/2011
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By Maddy Butcher

CLICK HERE for part II

Horses are not people.
We know this is true.
But attend any horse event, enter any tack shop, open any horse magazine and you’ll come away thinking otherwise.
You’ll be convinced horses have feelings, motivations, and goals.

We tend to replace horses’ simple needs with more complicated human ones. We anthropomorphize; we make horse actions personal and emotionally complex.

-- He likes kisses.
-- He needs his breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
-- Look, he’s nodding, “Yes!”
-- We're friends. He loves me!

It’s fun but it’s wrong.

Of course, horses DO have feelings, motivations, and goals. But from a scientific point of view, they’re much more basic than we think:
They want to move.
They want to eat.
They want to rest.

As much as we like to embellish our love of horses, NickerNews loves straight talk more than anything. So it was a thrill to hear Martin Black and Dr. Stephen Peters speak about Evidence-Based Horsemanship, a project they have been working on since they met years ago in Ft. Worth, Texas, at a Legacy of Legends clinic in honor of Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance.

Their project will be described in a series of articles here on NickerNews.

During Black’s four-day clinic at Riverview Farm in Lisbon Falls, Dr. Peters dissected a horse brain to help his audience see how a horse learns and functions.
We examined the brain (preserved from a cadaver), about the size of two human fists, its parts and how they relate to the horse’s choices, behavior, and movements.
Peters carved out the cerebellum, a tangerine-sized brain part and what he called the “juke box of motor memory.”
(See photo at right)
Among other things, the cerebellum is essential for balance. When a horse learns to walk, run, kick, sidepass, and change leads, all that information or “muscle memory” is stored in the cerebellum.
At this point, Black interjected:

“That mustang brought in off the range already knows how to do everything socially and athletically. You're not going to train him to do that...The training, then, comes down to a matter of horse/human interaction.
“I don’t know anyone who can tell a horse what to do better than that horse can tell himself. How does a person know how a horse needs to balance?”

Clinic participants translated this aspect of horse aptitude directly to one of Black’s biggest riding points:

Let go of the reins!

“Horses are saying: ‘give me my head so I can see. So I can balance!’” said Black.

What we didn’t see in the picnic table dissection was a huge frontal lobe. That’s the part of the brain responsible for making plans, forming strategies, learning to generalize. That’s because horses, unlike humans, don’t have a huge frontal lobe.
SO, horses don’t have it in for you. They don't lie or plot. They don't have a laugh at your expense. Nor do they do something for charity or redeem themselves. It isn't in them to do those things. Literally.

That’s frontal lobe stuff.

CLICK HERE for part II

View Reader Comments:

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7/28/2011 Mary Ellen
Now I know what you were pointing at in your facebook photo! Pretty interesting stuff. I personally love dissecting, and have been to several human brain dissections. It's not nearly as gross as many people would have you believe!
7/29/2011 sonia
Great article, Maddy! Thanks for sharing this!
7/30/2011 Julie Kenney
This was a wonderful addition to our clinic. Some of these things we talked about, I already knew, but didn't know how to explain.... like horses are not out to "get even with us" or other such similar expressions. Now I know even more and can explain to others as well. Thanks Maddy for coming and taking notes (so I didn't have to) and putting it down in written form for all of us!!
2/6/2012 Patricia
The goals they list are not complete. Horses are very motivated by social relationships. They want to be "among friends" and will definitely work to do so. Once you admit that their goals are bigger than physical maintenance, I think this article gets tenuous.

"No horseman or horsewoman has ever finished learning" - Mary Gordon-Watson