By: Andrew McLean
Every horse person should take an interest in the horseês brain, since that, so to speak, is what we are all messing with. Adapted over the aeons of primordial time, the brain has evolved to be highly efficient because, in terms of the food energy required to run it, it is very expensive. In a grazerês diet, ravaged by feast/famine cycles which are exacerbated by population/competition factors, there is no surplus of fuel to run unnecessary brain tissue. The exaggerated, large front part of the brain largely responsible for reasoning that we humans share with no other species, except to some extent, apes and dolphins, is a product of our own unique evolution. But for the grazer, reasoning, it seems, is too expensive a luxury, and totally unnecessary. In the equine brain, there is no room for either extreme of the emotional spectrum like euphoric love and malevolent hatred. There is no room for imagination, waxing lyrical over music or poetry, or revenge or serial killing. No room and no need for morality as instincts are far more reliable.
The horse passes with flying colours the experimental tests we scientists set for his extraordinary powers of memory and discrimination, his ability to make choices of one thing over many others based on reward, his powers of stimulus generalisation, his ability to learn by trial and error, to be adept at one-trial learning, to associate benign signals/cues with events, and for one learning experience to enhance uptake of another. However, the horseês world is, in the opinion of most scientists, not perceived by reasoning. Empirical evidence suggests that he has little or no insight into his own instinctive behaviour. Which is why the horse seems hell bent on his own destruction sometimes. Why, we ask, would an animal permanently disable himself or kill himself in the execution of pulling back from a tie-up post, thrash himself to bits in the float, or literally bolt towards solid obstacles, as you sometimes see in cross country. No wonder we mistakenly think these horses are “madê! His lack of insight is why he has little concept of “formê – he seems unable to extrapolate that a small white pony is a horse when he has never seen one, or “understand ” the form of a donkey or a larger than normal dog. Itês why, in freezing rain, he might never use the paddock shelters you so lovingly provided, until by chance he discovers, usually after a few trials that itês a lot warmer and drier in there, then he opts for the shelter each time.
Horses never required higher mental abilities like reasoning, because, as Budiansky points out, grass, (unlike mice!) doesnêt hide or require planning or ambush to catch it. Whatês more, Mother Nature was kind to grazing animals in giving them no insight into their own instinctive behaviours. In the wild, horse, zebra or wildebeest is constantly on the menu. Being aware of such a plight would send you bonkers worrying if you happened to be slow, young, ill, lame, had a foal or it was night-time because thatês dinner-time for big cats and canines. A researcher into consciousness, Bob Bermond says just that – having a reasoning imaginative brain like humans has a massive maladaptive downside. It allows us to project and prolong our worst fears, and develop psychotic behaviours. He says, ÎThe prolongation of the emotional feeling [in humans] is a well known phenomenon and psychological defence mechanisms such as displacement, projection and suppression, are, for example, unlikely to occur in the absence of this process°. Sometimes it looks as though horses “imagine the bogey manê at every corner, but in fact imagination plays no part.
The brain of mammals is the most amazing of all organs, and its basic plan is simple. It can be divided into three parts, the centre, the middle and the outer brain. The centreês job is mostly to regulate internal body functions. The middle of the brain is to do with instincts, like eating, reproduction, flight-response and socialization. The horse is born with a template for all the different instinctive behaviours that he will require throughout his life. In a sense, this part of the brain has some aspects of a ready-made internalised structure of the horseês external world. Here the nervous pathways are predetermined – the animal is born with a motor-pattern to walk, trot, canter, flying change, suckle, startle at certain shapes, be super aware around water, caves and ditches and be pre-programmed for sex later in life. The outer part of the brain is largely for memory storage and processing. The horse has a “photographicê memory, as every horse person knows. Memories are stored intact, and unlike humans whose memories are clouded by out-of-context recall, the horse only retrieves the memory when the original stimulus (e.g. the visual picture) is present, so their memories tend not to be susceptible to corruption. If the landscape changes, they show suspicion, then habituate, and consequently update their stored memory. In the early stages of memory formation, memories, or rather learned responses (since most memories involve a reaction in the horse) exist in the brain as simple, fragile pathways and nets. The more the same response is practiced in connection with the same stimulus, the more the pathway develops. It is in fact a series of nerves interposed by junctions. Each junction has many possible nervous pathways leading away from it, but in a clear learned response, the pathway is always the same. It is the memory of the junctions that direct the impulse down the right nerve all the way to the appropriate reaction. After a number of repetitions, a repetitive behaviour pattern (a habit) forms. Learned responses in mammals modify instincts, and therefore can override or enhance their expression. Shying is just that, an instinct shaped by learning. An obedient horse is just that too – desirable learned responses that, in the control of humans, override instincts such as to run, panic, eat, socialise and have sex.
What you are trying to achieve in training your horse is to make your signals to the horse result in habits. When an animal has more or less consolidated habits, you can add other cues to produce those habits, and you can even blend some habits with others. At the training level, that is what classical dressage is about – blending habits. So the stop and go buttons can be applied together for example, for whatever outcome. HOWEVER, and this is the BIG however, if the basics are not consolidated, clear, utterly predictable and consistent, you must not blend and you shouldnêt introduce new cues or signals, or you will produce confusion. This is conflict behaviour. We must train one thing at a time, and have it completely unclouded by other responses, until it is relatively stable. In other words when it happens 9 out of 10 times anywhere, everywhere, and consistently with the same result. Cast your mind back to when you learned to drive a car. Someone starts chatting to you, and you become confused and start to sweat. You experience conflict behaviour because it is difficult for you to concentrate on both chatting and driving, but after your driving skills become consolidated into habits, heck, you can drive from A to B without knowing you have done it. We must not blur the basic responses of go, stop, turn and leg-yield when they are not yet established or we have a problem horse – a confused horse, in conflict.
However, no mammalian habit is totally unconditional, for nature would be foolish to allow the production of any habit that overrides basic survival responses. Nevertheless many great horsemen have understood clearly that the more clear and consolidated habits are, the less the horse is at the mercy of his instincts. Stallions with good basics work in the presence of mares in season, and throughout history, the most reliable horses in the butchery of battle and across country are the well trained ones – the ones with good basics. The ones where one stimulus (eg the leg) always leads to one clear and consistent response (go). The little known fact about calmness in trained animals is that it arises because there is no cross-wiring! The pathways are crystal clear. Itês not because the horse was born calm (although genetic potentials help) but it is because training was meticulous. In the wild, horses are rarely in conflict for long because they solve their conflict through their freedom to attend to their basic drives. They might flee the scary situation, they might search and find the grassy patch if faced with hunger induced conflict or they might attack the next horse if a rising plane of nutrition makes them dominant, whichever way, the conflict will be resolved. But in training, what is the horse to do when hand says stop and leg says go, yet neither response is consolidated? This simple sentence is the reality of conflict in most problems. That surely is why self-carriage is so critical. That is why we should be able to release both reins for a couple of strides at any stage of training and the horse should not suddenly go faster. But having said that, some horses cope better than others and are able to habituate to heavy mouth pressures. Psychologists call this “learned helplessnessê where an animal adapts to pain, but there is always a price – and the price is paid somewhere in his behavioural repertoire. At worst he may self mutilate, at best he might paw during travelling. He might show aggression during saddling. He may cease to turn or stop properly. He might develop panic attacks away from home (conflict manifests generally when the horse is least secure). He might rear or buck or get stress colic.
The problem is, modern learning theory is yet to be incorporated into the contemporary training context, and yet to be incorporated into systems of training coaches. This is a shame as there has been a wealth of information ever since Pavlov, Skinner and others gave the world their extraordinary insights into animal learning. Horse training, largely a practice outside academia, was well entrenched in its old ways, by the time Pavlov and Skinner came along, and their contributions drew not a ounce of interest from horsemen. After all, horse training could be demonstrated at the highest level with certain horses that were “willingê. Of course, throughout history, there are those people who put into practice the things that Skinner and Pavlov “discoveredê but didnêt know the broad theoretical basis of their practice – it “came naturallyê to them. Read any story about any gifted horseman, and they will frequently be at a loss to explain their talents. This leads us to believe that their “giftsê are something akin to the myth of horse-whispering. Horse whisperers, to my mind, are either very good horsemen who cannot perceive or verbalise their abilities, or else charlatans who wonêt.
In the history of our association with horses the less “willingê equine souls could be written off because the horse is seen to have some spiritual and moral involvement in the training process – they didnêt “wantê to perform. But approach him with a different set of tools, and the playing-field levels considerably. The new wave of horsemanship that is sweeping across the planet is slowly uncovering other ways to do things. Among the most exciting is clicker training, (but more on this later). Unfortunately, some of the “naturalê training systems are mutton dressed as lamb. They do not always follow principles of the psychology of training as clearly as they pretend. Frequently they are just old horsemanship skills re-packaged in a pseudo-scientific wrapper. Sometimes still with some of the old pitfalls of too many buttons on at the one time before consolidation, or too many signals for the one response, or hard to fathom delays in reward that do not address the mentality of the horse. All contemporary training systems focus on “attitudesê of submission and most identify dominant behaviour such as pushing into your space etc. I used to think that way too. This mindset talks about gaining the horseês “respectê. It seems a perfectly feasible way of seeing things, for we know the horses are peck-order creatures, and it certainly appears that if you give them an inch, theyêll take a mile! This must surely mean though, that if the horse has “attitudeê, then he has knowledge of right and wrong – he has an understanding of a moral code of some sort. Perhaps this view is right. But there is a problem if it is wrong. This viewpoint places responsibility for the horseês behaviour fair and square on the horse. It allows us to blame him, to believe that in our blurry demands he knows what we want, but he just wonêt do it. It justifies delayed punishment (“He knows what he did wrong!ê), poor timing (“He knows what I am asking forê), justification for riding adrenalised horses that bolt toward their jumps, potentially maiming or killing both parties (“He loves to jumpê). I began to see things differently a few years ago. I was giving a lesson to a girl riding a tense horse, and explained to her that her horse was very dominant and needed to be made more submissive (the horse was not good on the ground as well as not good under saddle). At the end of the lesson, her father questioned the dominance / submissive attitude explanation. I replied Îitês obvious, the horse has no respect for people on the ground, he pushes into the girl, he rubs all over her, he knocks her out of the way, he doesnêt lead properly, he…………..° The father replied that since the horse does not have high levels of reasoning, we should forget the attitude thing. It is far more likely that what we have here is a set of single learned responses, each of which has been trialled and rewarded. Now whoês giving this lesson I wondered, and I politely enquired as to who the hell he was! He introduced himself as Kim Ng, Professor of experimental psychology at Monash University. That began a long and interesting association with Professor Ng, from whom I have gained so much of my understanding. You see, in reality it matters not whether the horse has the awareness to have such a mindful attitude, you are better off as a trainer if you distance yourself from that. You will train more compassionately if you diminish the horseês responsibility for his actions. This is a welfare issue that all trainers must acknowledge at some point.
Furthermore there are rational reasons for not placing the burden of guilt for the horseês behaviour on his shoulders. Every manoeuvre performed by the horse that we deem an example of attitude or dominance is simply the expression of single learned responses. He learns to walk into your space because it rewards him through your ineffectiveness. He leads badly because he is rewarded by his lack of effort. But more importantly these are multiple responses from single cues and this places the horse in conflict. The more he is in conflict, in other words, the more conflict behaviours he shows, the more his brain promotes him to undo other learned responses. Now he is becoming freer to trial further anti social behaviours, so he head butts you. He is driven by his hard-wired social instincts to escalate the number of his conflict behaviours when he experiences conflict. Conflict is a roller coaster that in a wild state has evolved to lead to the horseês ultimate reward – his freedom. However, in a domesticated horse that cannot obtain his freedom, conflict can only be detrimental. In the social context, everything favours those at the top of the pecking order and nature has evolved these instinctive mechanisms because they confer reproductive benefits to those possessing them. So, instead of harbouring the “attitude thingê, train each single response that contributes to his disobedience and a calm horse will result. Iêll detail how, later on.
What science really offers us is a small window to know the horse. Not to know him as we expect him to be, but just to know the strengths and limitations of his mentality, so we can train him with even more understanding and compassion. Patience isnêt enough – we need to know the principles to which his training should be anchored. Next month, Iêll describe just that.