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Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship by Janet Jones, PhD


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

Remember the song by Gordon Lightfoot, “If You Could Read My Mind?” “What a tale my thoughts could tell; if I could read your mind, what a tale your thoughts could tell.” What if we could read our horses’ minds and our horses could read our minds? It would certainly clarify understanding, wouldn’t it?

In Dr. Janet Jones’ book, Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship, she uses brain research and her own experience at training horses to teach us how differently, and in some areas similarly, our brains and horse’s brains work.

Horsemanship of every kind depends on mutual interaction between equine and human brains. When we understand the function of both, we can learn to communicate with horses on their terms instead of ours. And by learning more about how horses’ minds work, we save valuable training time and improve performance. We develop much deeper bonds with our horses; we handle them with insight and kindness instead of force or command; we comprehend their misbehavior in ways that allow solutions; and we reduce the human mistakes we often make while working with them. In this illuminating book, Jones “applies brain science to horsemanship so that we can understand each animal at a deep level that encourages mutual bonds of trust and responsibility between the two species.” Throughout the book she uses true stories of horses and handlers attempting to understand each other to illustrate the principles.

She begins with the senses and explains how horses see, hear, smell, taste, and feel and interpret the world through these senses. She compares each of the horse’s senses to how humans sense the world so that we can get a good understanding of how they experience the world.

Some examples regarding differences in vision: Even though equine eyes are eight times larger than human eyes, a horse’s acuity is not as good as a human’s. Normal human acuity is 20/20, but normal equine acuity ranges from 20/30 to 20/60. It’s interesting that to imagine what a horse sees when you approach a jump. “Even in sunshine, the horse’s view of a jump is blurry, hazy, dim, flat, vague…”

The human eye is superb at focusing on one detail of a scene. Horses do not. So when you hold something hear your horse’s face, he can smell it, but will have trouble focusing his eyes on it. The human range of view is about 90 degrees; equine range of view is about 340 degrees. “Discrepancies between human and equine sight explains many common problems with the horse-human team.”

The next comparison is how horses and humans hear and how they interpret sounds. “Horses communicate with each other all the time, but much of it is hidden from humans because we don’t notice the subtle ways that animals reach out to each other and we fail to understand what their vocalizations mean.”

Re: smell: “horses are fascinated by scents.” They can recognize a familiar horse or human from long ago.” In fact, horses have more olfactory receptor cells than many breeds of dogs do.” In this chapter she also covers taste, which includes bits. “Rubber bits or bits wrapped in adhesive or leather contain flavors that are not palatable to all horses. The wrong bit can cause all sorts of problems. …Most hard mouths are not caused by poor bits, but by poor hands.”

The chapters on mutual communication by feel emphasize proprioception. “We need to match our horse’s proprioceptive sensitivity if we hope to achieve brain-to-brain communication. …Because well-trained horse and human teams communicate brain to brain, each species’ proprioceptive powers transfer to the other. But their weaknesses transfer, too.”

From an understanding of the senses and how horses and humans experience and interpret the world, Jones turns to learning and training – how horses learn. “Horses are not just smart; they are learning machines! Once acquired, new knowledge sticks to a horse’s brain like superglue. …By nature, they use their heightened sensitivity for body language to seek the tiniest signals. They assume each one has meaning, if they can only crack the code.” She goes on to explain the ways horses pick up knowledge: by association, observation, problem-solving, consequence, emotion, and testing. She explains and illustrates each method.

She explains B.F. Skinner’s classical conditioning model, with positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is a form of training in which we apply painless pressure until a horse responds as we wish. It is not punishment! While “shaping performance by releasing pressure is not often the best way to teach horses what we want, it is the most common.” It works best when it’s applied in a form that corresponds to the horse’s nature.

Reward is the most effective means of encouraging horse to learn by consequence. But “training by reward doesn’t mean shelling out treats.” There are numerous non-edible rewards – anything desirable. “Mammals associate a reward with whatever happened immediately preceding it….To reward well, it’s important to make opportunities for horses to succeed.”

She explains the differences between direct and indirect training, explains how temperament affects training, so that “we can match certain temperaments to specific training techniques,” all the while matching human goals with equine needs.
The final unit covers attention – capturing and keeping the horse’s attention – equine emotion, and blame. “Equine brains are engineered for vigilance, but human brains are less vigilant and are better at shutting out distractions to concentrate on lengthy tasks.”

A topic I have long found fascinating is mirror neurons. “Mirror neurons prepare motor neurons to perform specific tasks, so that we can watch an action and imitate it. Utilizing horses watching other horses perform tasks is a good way for them to learn. What’s also interesting is that “horses mirror their handlers’ moods and body tones, too.”

“What’s the best way to bond with a horse?” Jones asks. First is to adopt the right rank since all horses are aware of a hierarchy within their groups. “A horse needs a reliable guide…whose kind leadership he can trust to provide help in negotiating the human world. As a guide, you are in a position to allay the fear that drives much equine behavior. …It takes only a minute to break a horse’s trust, but months to rebuild it. Don’t make the horse do something that scares him. …You must encourage relaxation, orrer leadership and nurturing, teach with small steps and gentle guidance.”

Humans often want to blame horses for premeditated, deliberate acts of defiance. But “no equine plots in advance to retaliate against a human.” The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function, which includes analysis, strategy, planning, forethought, assessment, judgment, etc. But horses have zero proportion of prefrontal cortex in their brains.

“Misbehavior is a human construct.” Behaviors that horse do that we label as “misbehavior,” kicking, biting, shying, etc. are all normal aspects of equine behavior. “So in the human world, horses must learn to control these natural impulses…”

In the final section on true horsemanship, Jones states something I had been thinking all along. “Thinking through other minds” is a good skill to awaken. “As the world grows smaller and more diverse, we all benefit from learning to walk in someone else’s shoes. Meld your mind with a horse, and you’ll find it easier to understand your human neighbors… These skills transfer to human interactions to everyone’s benefit.”

 “True horsemen remain lifelong learners. Every horse teaches something new. But the key question is always “What is best for the horse. If we all treated people the way true horsemen treat horses, the world would be a better place.

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