After learning about the horse’s brain at a recent seminar and getting to hold a horse brain, I felt a thrill much like roller coasters must be thrilling for some people.
The seminar, given by Dr. Steve Peters (author of “Evidence-Based Horsemanship”), covered a lot of ground. Here’s what I’m chewing on this month:
Your horse isn’t distracted and your horse doesn’t have ADD.
What your horse does have is a highly responsive and very fast system of answering his constant question, “Am I safe?” You might say that horses have a built-in radar system that makes ours look like holding a wet finger up to the wind to hear if there’s a bear snoring in their sleep in a cave over on the next mountain range.
When horses detect something that they think might endanger their lives, the response takes what is called the low road. For example, the sight of a wildly flapping flag goes from the environment through the eyes, to the thalamus in the brain and directly into the amygdala (the center for fight or flight). This process takes milliseconds. As horse people, we know a lot can happen in those milliseconds.
To put that in perspective, the average reaction time for a visual stimulus in humans is 250 milliseconds and 170 milliseconds for an auditory stimulus. Horse’s auditory reaction time is 140-160 milliseconds, and their visual reaction time is 180-200 milliseconds.
Whether you look at the numbers in seconds or thousands of seconds, horses respond more quickly to their environment than us.
Building an understanding with the horse then becomes a process of encouraging their curiosity instead of fear. Curiosity allows and fosters learning. Any time a horse fears for his life he not learning. Until their question of safety is answered our horse will continue to use every sense he has to figure out whether to stay or leave. Whether to relax or flee.
If we keep things relatively quiet and provide clear guidance about what we’re looking for, the horse will come back. When we do our best to answer the horse’s primary question, “Am I safe,” it leaves them able to switch over to their natural curiosity and learn more, and more efficiently.
Horses constantly monitor everything that is going on around them. They can’t turn it off and on like we do with our selective seeing. (Click here for a demo of inattentional blindness)
It has occurred to me that the only time they are fully “paying attention” is when they are on the verge of fleeing. We’ve all seen our horse zero in on something before deciding to quickly leave. What we call “paying attention” may, in fact, be completely different (and troublesome) for our horses.
To me, so much of horse training appears narcissistic: we want both their eyes, we want their head turned in our direction, we want all of their attention, we want all of their bodies to be at our beck and call.
I’m discovering that being with horses gets a lot easier if we share, instead of hijacking and demanding. I also realize that I’ve never been comfortable insisting on all of a horse’s attention.
So when a horse looks off into the distance, or can’t seem to “focus,” it’s never bothered me. I never really understood what the ruckus of “having their attention” was about. Until I learned about their internal radar recently, I probably wasn’t bothered because I did the same thing myself: when overwhelmed and unable to escape, I looked away and went somewhere else.
Many of us who have been preyed upon by other humans have a particular set of experiences and ways of viewing the world that allow us to viscerally understand the horse’s primal need for safety. I’ve spent my life evaluating every situation I find myself in, where the exits are, who is around me, and how I would escape. Or fight. All of this is almost subconscious.
“Horses need safety to learn. We want our horses in a state of relaxed alertness.” Dr. Stephen Peters
For me, accepting the horse for who they are means we continue to learn about them instead of relying on hearsay. Accepting our horse, and his finely tuned sensory movement talented brain means we find ways of working with him that encourage that feeling of safety.
This doesn’t mean we do nothing when we are with our horse, but what it does mean is that education/training with a horse goes a lot more smoothly if we are educated too. If we understand the basic mechanics of what makes a horse tick, we are far less likely to get frustrated or take it out on our horse.
Instead of saying our horse is “distracted” we could see what horses do as gathering information. Or seeking comfort. Or both. The best-case scenario is that our horse transfers that feeling of safety to include us and that the relationship we have with them meets their need for safety, most of the time.
Because if we can help the horse feel safe, that means that we are all safer. If our horses feel safe with us the chances of accidents, misunderstandings and miscommunication get lower.
Beyond all this science though, I also think it feels pretty great to help a worried horse transform into a relaxed horse.