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Evidence-Based Horsemanship


Book review by Leigh Ballard

Evidence-Based Horsemanship, by Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black, combines science and the understanding of brain function with an empirical understanding of the subtleties of a horse’s behaviors, reactions, and chemical states. Peters and Black use a Scientist-Practitioner model to explain concepts of horsemanship. Assessing scientific facts about the horse’s physiology and brain activity is balanced by a trainer’s notes on observation and intuition about horse behavior to create “best practices” in all areas of horse training.

The authors, from two very different walks of life, collaborate and combine their areas of expertise.  Dr. Stephen Peters is a neuropsychologist specializing in brain functioning. For 12 years he was Chief of Neuropsychological services for a practice in Danbury, Connecticut. Currently he is a neuropsychologist at a hospital in Iowa. Martin Black is an experienced ranch cowboy, a colt starter, trainer and clinician. He has worked on ranches in Idaho, Nevada, and California, working with top horsemen such as, Charlie and Bill Van Norman, Ray Hunt, Gene Lewis, Melvin Jones, Tom Dorrance and Tom Marvel. Peters owns horses, and Black has decades of experience observing and training horses. Together they have put together a theory of horsemanship, Evidence-Based Horsemanship or EHB, which uses scientific knowledge about horses to shed insight on how to achieve the best outcomes for horses and riders. The book includes a helpful glossary of terms for readers who are not scientifically or medically oriented. Scientific vocabulary of the brain and nervous system, as well as chemical terms, are used freely in Dr. Peter’s sections, so sometimes the reader needs a little clarification.

Many of the famous “horse whisperers” like Tom Dorrance or Ray Hunt seemed to have extraordinary powers with horses. However, they were really very keen observers of details of horse anatomy, physiology, and behavior. For example, the horse’s expression or way of using his eye, his headset, or movements in tiny muscles around the muzzle were often indications to them about a horse’s attitude, and therefore, probable behavior.

Dr. Peters discusses how sensations are processed in horses. Information from sensory receptors and nerve endings in the muscles skin, mouth, etc. is processed in a particular area of the brain. Some of these receptors tend to become fatigued and grow less sensitive to stimuli. This information is useful in training a horse, because knowing when to “quit” the rein or the leg will keep a horse responsive to light aids. Pain is processed in a different area of the brain and elicits a different response in the sympathetic nervous system, often a fight or flight response.

Dr. Peters talks about the “lip licking” or “licking and chewing” response that is often pointed out in the natural horsemanship training circles. He talks about this response in terms of stress, adrenaline release, and a dry mouth because of chemical reactions. Martin Black talks about the same response as an indication of the horse “learning something.” He talks about it in terms of putting pressure on the horse and then relieving pressure when the horse gives the correct response to the trainer.

Hearing and vision play an important role in horse behavior. Interestingly, horses may spook at an object on one side that they do not spook at when seen from the other side. This is related to the independent connections of optic nerves.

There are numerous examples of horse behavior and how understanding the physical reasons for the behavior relates to understanding and training horses. Although for most readers it would be a new way to look at horses, for those who are curious about the “why” behind horse behavior, this is a very interesting book. Read more at:

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