This article is intended to shed light on the basics of a horse’s brain function and why understanding this is key to the success of your horse training program.
A Horse’s Brain – Built to Perform!
I want to clarify this article is not the result of a scientific study, at least not by myself. It is however the result of years of study of the horse in an attempt to understand them more fully as well as years of experience training horses and observing countless outcomes that substantiate what scientific experts have come to conclude about the horse’s brain and its function.
First and foremost we need to understand that the human brain and the horse’s brain are very different in their primary function and how they process information they receive from their environments. The human brain has a very large frontal lobe which enables us to reason, think through complex issues, develop a sense of self and a personality unique to the individual.
In comparison, the brain of a horse has a very small frontal lobe and it acts primarily as a trigger for movement. They do develop their own version of a personality but it is never developed to the extent of a human. We might liken them to a young child, definitely an individual but far from the complex personality of an adult human.
When we look deeper we see that what the horse lacks in frontal lobe they make up for in the motor sensory aspects of brain function. They have a highly developed brain stem and cerebellum, the parts of the brain that control motor function. Their brain is essentially wired for motor function, this why a newborn colt is standing and nursing shortly after birth and within a day or two can follow their mothers around the paddock. Compare this to a human infant that takes months to learn how to walk.
Proportionately the horse’s brain is a small part of their overall body mass, whereas the human brain is a much more significant portion of their total body mass.
Does A Horse Have Two Brains?
If you’ve been around horsemanship for any length of time you have probably heard it said, “A horse has two brains.” It’s definitely worth exploring this notion a little deeper.
Yes I admit it, I have said this myself many times and I know some very accomplished horsemen that regularly say it too! Again if we look deeper and consider the equine brain we actually learn that the eyes of the horse are wired independently to the brain, the left and right hemispheres of the thalamus.
This is why a horse may spook from a stimulus seen on one side of their body and not on the other to which they have been desensitized. It is one brain and it is connected as a whole, but it receives feedback from its senses very differently from the human brain and this is one very critical aspect that should impact our approach with horses.
This is no doubt what has led to the idea that a horse has two brains. The vision issue removed you would still need to train both sides of your horse to develop the motor skills required for performance, no different from a human needing to use both sides of their bodies to develop motor skills and to perform complex physical tasks. Understanding this one point alone could eliminate serious issues when training your horse and prevent injury for both horse and human.
The Dopamine Connection
Another critical piece of understanding what drives a horse’s behavior is the role chemicals play in the brain and in subsequent behavior. We all know what adrenaline can do when released in the body, heightened performance or even aggression, but understanding dopamine and its role in a horse’s behavior is critical to the training process.
From early on in a horse’s life they receive dopamine from the brain and it serves to reinforce behavioral patterns. The colt is stressed it finds its mother and nurses, all is good again and the brain reinforces this with dopamine. The horse doesn’t reason ” Well if I do this or that my brain gives me a shot of dopamine and I feel great!”, they simply feel it and a pattern is formed in the brain, and they feel it again and the behavior/ pattern becomes even stronger.
How can this chemical “pattern developer” work against us? In the same way as when a horse’s behavior can be reinforced with dopamine under beneficial circumstances, it can work against us in our interaction with horses. For example, we tie a young horse up hard and fast with a halter and lead rope without any prior preparation. The colt is being told through it’s highly developed motor sensory system that it is trapped and in danger and it must
flee. The colt pulls back, breaks the halter and/or lead rope and runs off finding his way back to the paddock with food, water and other horses. His brain gives him a shot of dopamine and now the behavior has just been reinforced.
Obviously not a good scenario for us, but to the horse the outcome feels no different from the time he couldn’t find his mother and became stressed and that after finding her his brain reinforced the outcome with dopamine. They don’t reason on these things, they merely sense and feel. This is why we can’t hold it against them for just being a horse and why it is imperative that we learn how to work with them inside the boundaries of their biology!
Train To The Brain!
If you have learned anything of value here I hope it is that you now have an appreciation for the need to educate yourself sufficiently enough to work with your horse from a place of understanding. Every horse deserves at least this much from their human counterpart.
We don’t have the ability to have a verbal conversation with them and we are the ones with the enormous frontal lobes so it is incumbent upon us as responsible trainers and lovers of horses to figure out how to communicate effectively with them, this all starts by first understanding how their brains work.
If you are too passive when training your horse they will quickly become bored and lose interest. This may manifest itself in what we may interpret as disrespectful behavior when in reality they are probably just trying to shake you off like an annoying fly on their rump and get back to being comfortable.
If we are too aggressive or assertive they may feel trapped and feel like they need to protect themselves or simply become frustrated. This is where feel and timing become critical! It is between those two extremes where learning can progress. And when I say learning on the horse’s behalf, it’s not necessarily “thinking” learning, but patterning of the horse’s movement with a dopamine reward at the end of it. I know that’s a broad description but I hope you get the general idea. Learn the art of pressure and release and you can accomplish great things when training your horse, ignore it and you and your horse will both be frustrated.
Never Stop Learning!
Horses are like mirrors, they reflect the patterns developed in them from their interaction with humans. To make that reflection one you’re proud of learn all you can about your horse and what makes them tick. I assure you there is a much deeper relationship to be had and greater outcomes to be realized with just a little effort on the front end by you in taking the time to really understand our equine partners!
For a deeper understanding of what was discussed here I recommend reading “Evidence Based Horse Manship” by DR. Stephen Peters and Martin Black; Published by Wasteland Press; Copyright 2012.
If you want to discuss this further leave your questions and comments below.
Joe is a lifetime horseman and student of the horse. He spent years as a trainer and as a horsemanship clinician. He is also a real estate professional and a former contractor specializing in residential construction.