by Scott Thomson
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you work with your horse, the longer you're with him and the more you do, the worse he gets? After a certain amount of time, his attention wanders and annoying little behaviors creep into your time together. Routine things that don't usually bother him or that he does well seem to produce tail swishing, pinned ears or dancing around when you want him to stand still.
I saw this with my horse early on, and I observed it with many of the riders at our boarding facility in California. Most of the owners were busy professionals with cluttered lives, with little time other than weekends to be with their horses. People would show up on a Saturday or Sunday or both and spend hours riding, doing ground work, grooming, and pampering their horses.
Toward the end of the day you'd start to hear raised voices saying things like "stand still" or "you've done this a thousand times" or "stop being such a dink." From the human's perspective, the horses should welcome all this attention after a week of just standing around.
Sometimes, I thought one of the precepts of natural horsemanship influenced these all-day sessions as well. The basic principle is this: You use pressure/release to teach a horse, and once you have applied the pressure you have to stay with it for as long as necessary until you at least get a good "try" towards the desired result. Some owners took this to mean that you keep doing things, for as long as needed with as many reps as necessary, to get the end result you want.
Even well-intentioned trail riders would fall into this trap when they took their horses out on long rides, thinking their horses really needed this after a week of inactivity.
In clinics, I'd notice towards the end of sessions, horses would seem to regress a bit from where they started. My own horse Cody gave me a little education on this point. In the fall of 2002, I was practicing with Dennis Reis for a horsemanship demo at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas (alas, a trip I couldn't make when my horse got very sick), and Cody let me know just what he thought of our long practice sessions. During one of our liberty routines, he stopped, looked at me and pinned his ears, then ran right over me, breaking my glasses, crushing my hat and spraining my wrist. Up to that point, he had been perfect and was being groomed to be the star.
I tried to keep these observations in mind when I started my business. I'd make lessons open-ended in length, leaving more time for breaks, rest and discussion. I'd try to present things in bite-sized pieces, making it clear where we wanted to go and why, but making sure we worked at the horse's pace. This would allow for periods of focus and teaching, followed by periods of relaxation and reward. It would allow the horse to digest what was being taught, and, more important, it would slow the human down and shift focus to the needs of the horse. We could get more done in one session without stressing horse or rider. I'd also make it clear the owner's follow-up work should use the same approach but in much shorter time periods.
I knew this all made sense, but I was never sure exactly why. My students over the years appreciated the approach and advanced quickly, and I know their horses learned without becoming resistant or sour. But I think people need to know there is some science behind the theories to change attitudes towards horse behavior.
I read an article recently that throws some light on why this happens with horses, why the calmest and best-trained horse can still go off the rails — and why there is no such thing as a "bomb-proof" horse. In the April issue of Equus magazine there is an article by Janet Jones, PhD, titled "Too Much Time Together?" I suggest you find it and read it. Jones is a specialist in cognitive science, the study of the brain and the mind, and has been an avid rider and competitor throughout her life.
The article focuses on the fundamental differences between the human brain (goal driven) and the equine brain (stimulus driven). The frontal lobe of the human brain, where planning and organizing take place, represents 41% of the outer surface of the brain and is by far the most highly developed of any species. By contrast only 18% is devoted to vision and 19% to movement and sensation. This area of the brain is so efficient that sometimes we don't even know it is planning our days and setting goals. This human goal-oriented behavior feels good because it is rewarded: We get things done, our friends approve and our bosses and teachers praise us for achieving our goals. It also feels good because the frontal lobe is where dopamine, a chemical substance similar to an opiate or cocaine, is released and received.
By contrast, the horse's brain has no large frontal lobe that is constantly planning. In fact, it has no real delineated frontal lobe at all. The brain of the horse is devoted almost entirely to sensation and movement, just about the opposite of what we carry around under our helmet. As Jones puts it, "Horses don't need much of a frontal lobe. Why out-think a predator when you can simply outrun one instead?" The equine brain also produces far less dopamine. This substance limits the effects of outside stimuli on our awareness, which can be a good thing for humans because such external forces can distract us from our goals and plans. But too much dopamine could be fatal for a stimulus-driven animal that is designed to be aware of all external stimuli for survival.
How does all this relate to what we do with our horses? Clearly, an animal with a stimulus-driven brain must be trained and developed in small steps over a longer period of time. Working at a pace that suits your needs but not those of the horse can lead to exactly the kind of behavior you don't want. From Jones again: "A healthy, well-adjusted horse spends 70% of his day munching forage and drinking water. Reduction of that time causes chronic low-level stress and increases the likelihood of ulcers, cribbing and colic. Handling a horse for hours on end creates physical and mental stresses that are likely to emerge in conflict or injury. We ignore the clock until the horse has little choice but to escalate to bad behavior." When this does happen, we're often surprised and may label the horse as dumb, bad, dangerous or worse.
The message is clear. It is easy to over-stimulate a horse with too much attention for too long a period of time. Remember the old saying that "every gesture means something" to a horse. It also means every activity going on with or around a horse, no matter how familiar, constitutes stimuli to him, things he has to observe, evaluate and react to, either externally or internally. Even a long trail ride, which may be a wonderful, relaxing experience for you, can flood a horse with so much stimulation that he becomes a different horse at some point on the ride. (Ask yourself why so many wrecks happen early or late in a ride, or on a new trail.) Is he being "bad" or just doing what his brain says he must?
You need to train and bond with your horse, and you need to push him a bit beyond his comfort level to help him live in our world. But you need to do that at his pace, not yours. Use that big frontal lobe to say, "That's enough for today. We'll do a bit more tomorrow or the next day, but for now go be a horse." That's what it means to be a good horseman. Your brain gives you the luxury of making that choice. Your horse doesn't have that option.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at email@example.com or (575) 388-1830.