for Tri-State Livestock News
Seeking to understand the behavior exhibited by his own horses, Dr. Stephen Peters told those attending a session at the 2013 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, NV, that he decided to “look under the hood.” A neuroscientist specializing in human brain function, Dr. Peters, Psy.D., ABN, Diplomat in Neuropsychology, performed a series of equine brain studies and dissections. Through these he learned that the horse has a grapefruit-sized brain, the majority of which is dedicated to motor and sensory functions. They do not have a large frontal lobe for processing information and recognizing consequences of their actions, as do humans.
Dr. Peters sought out an experienced horseman with whom he could compare his scientific findings. He wanted to understand the subtleties of a horse’s behaviors and reactions as they relate to the horse’s central nervous system, autonomic nervous system, and neurochemistry. Enter Martin Black.
Black grew up on the family ranch in Bruneau, ID. Later, he worked on ranches in Idaho, Nevada, and California. From high school on, he started colts, handled mustangs and wild cattle, and showed cowhorses. For more than 10 years, he contracted as many as 500 horses a year, traveling across the U.S. and around the world doing clinics. Among the horsemen he worked with were Charlie and Bill Van Norman, Ray Hunt, Gene Lewis, Melvin Jones, Tom Dorrance, and Tom Marvel. From Tom Dorrance, he learned to read self-preservation signals of both horses and cattle.
Dr. Peters introduced himself to Black at a Legacy of Legends event in Fort Worth, TX, where Black was presenting. The Legacy of Legends promotes and protects the teaching and ideals of legendary horsemen Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. Dr. Peters quizzed Black about certain patterns of behavior he had seen in horses, correlating those experiences with evidence based on the horses’ central nervous system. Black was intrigued. They formed a partnership to study how a horse thinks and what it needs – information gathered by observation, tested in the field, and validated by science. Thus was born Evidence-Based Horsemanship, with Dr. Peters the scientist and Martin Black the practitioner.
In remarks in Elko, Dr. Peters gave a brief overview of a horse’s brain and how it functions. He spoke of the frontal lobe, nerves, dendrites, synapses, myelins, the amygdalae and hypothalamus, and brain chemicals, noting that young horses are not yet mentally capable of comprehending and learning things older horses are. Dendrites are at the core of the process. Horses draw from what they’ve learned longer ago, with the most significant dendritic growth taking place between 4-6 years of age. Allowing a horse to solve problems on their own creates dendrites.
Humans have built-in fears based upon generations of experiences as do horses. Among horses’ biggest fears are dark places and predatory cats. Discussing the autonomic nervous system of the horse, with its fight-or-flight response by the sympathetic system and the involuntary acts of respiration and digestion of the para-sympathetic system, the two addressed fear and stress in equines. Both can be seen in the stance, the position of the ears, and in taut tendons that stand out prominently on the face.
Occurring at the same time within the brain is a corresponding temperature increase. Dr. Peters’ studies show it’s necessary for a horse to reset its internal thermostat in order to relax and to learn. This is facilitated by naturally-occurring chemicals, what he referred to as a “drug store in the brain.” The art of horsemanship is knowing how far to take them to get that release, past uncomfortable, but not to panicked.
Chronically-stressed horses cannot find relief and end up carrying high levels of the hormone cortisol. Without resetting, a horse’s brain gets overloaded. Nothing registers. It may become violent. Dr. Peters said this is the horse that will run into a fence or a tree. Horses can have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder just like humans.
Black explained that a horse wants comfort. He said horses are not capable of plotting or planning to take advantage of a human. They just want comfort; they crave reward. In the learning process, a horse needs to go into a state of stress or confusion, then come back out–at which time it gets a release of endorphins–which they crave. A visible sign of that release is a horse licking its lips. During training, a horse needs a chance to get a dopamine fix, a neurotransmitter responsible for reward-driven learning and movement, before being asked to do the task again. Without waiting for that fix, repetitive drilling become punishment. Black noted Tom Dorrance’s assertion that turning a good horse out for a month or so during training yields a better horse when it comes back in.
Dr. Peters shared research done at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, on horses yawning following a period of stress. The act of yawning is a visible signal that endorphins are being released. Black said anything you can do to get a horse to work his mouth, especially during training, relieves stress. He suggested using a cricket bit or allowing a horse to graze. Eating grass feels good to a horse and resets its parasympathetic system. Peters suggested massaging the gums and lips.
Following the session, Dr. Peters and Black signed copies of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, the book they co-authored on the subject, the foreword written by Randy Rieman, Dillon, MT. Among those in attendance, who had read the book, was Joel Nelson, Alpine, TX. Having worked for such outfits as the King Ranch, o6 Ranch, and Parker Ranch, Nelson said, “If I could have only one book on horse training, this would be the one I’d keep. It’s the first book I’m aware of that gives practical, commonsense insight into the horse, along with the neurological background. It makes it clear and easy to understand. Martin Black has a depth of understanding of the horse that is incredible, and he draws from the neurological data of Dr. Peters.”
Having said that, Nelson cautioned that the first few pages of clinical terminology might put some readers off. “Keep reading. Don’t worry about memorizing every little detail,” he urged. “If you’re serious about understanding the horse, hang in there. It’s a short book. Reread it if need be. It begins with the first few days of a foal’s life when its wobbly, progressing through the development of the myelin coating as coordination improves. It’s intriguing reading.”
Evidence-Based Horsemanship retails for $17 plus shipping from http://www.evidence-basedhorsemanship.com. A Kindle e-reader version is available from Amazon.com for $7.99.
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Thanks in part to the COVID restrictions – which sent their girls home for online college courses, the Plendl family of Kingsley, Iowa, saw many successes in the arena in 2020.