I recently listened to Dr. Steve Peters talk about equine neuroscience. The podcast is worth listening to in its entirety, but in case you don’t get to it here are a few highlights:
Feeling Safe IS The Training – if a horse is agitated, it cannot learn. Such a simple and revolutionary concept that can really change how one approaches training and working with horses.
In the interview, Dr. Peters talks about working alongside Jim Masterson and learning that horses can develop a physical brace in response to emotional trauma. This can present as physical stiffness, lack of impulsion, difficulty bending the neck to one side or any number of common issues that come up during training. This speaks to the connection between physical, mental and emotional bodies.
Dr. Peters also talks about how horses can appear to be calm on the outside but actually be shutdown or vacant. I am particularly interested in this because of how many horses I work on that show “calmness” or lack of fidget on the outside, but get unraveled when asked to pay attention to their body during a session, especially with light touch or static poses. We train horses to stand still and not react on the outside, but does that mean the inside matches up?
Seratonin production from the amygdala helps horses to self-regulate and self-soothe. This is in addition to dopamine, which commonly gets referred to, but which is actually the chemical of movement and reinforcement. Seratonin is the chemical of balance. Both are needed for learning.
Heart Rate Variability and the research Dr. Peters has done with Dr. Virgil DiBiase is discussed in the podcast as well. By using HRV monitors, they suggest that it is full minutes after seeing an outward clue like yawning or licking/chewing that the rest of the system joins the shift into parasympathetic mode.
Sympathetic Arousal is the term he uses to talk about the ability to shift easily between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. We need access to both states to be functioning and able to learn. I think of it as the horse’s ability to turn on the boosters to clear a jump or transition to a canter, but then also the ability to come back to connection and communication with a rider and not think that because he/she is moving quickly that they need to exit the arena and head for the hills.
SO much good stuff and this is just the beginning of the equine neuroscience rabbit hole.
- Dr. Steve Peter’s website: https://www.horsebrainscience.info/
- He has a few short videos at the bottom of this page