Starting to Understand the Equine Brain and Implications for EFW
While the equine brain is much smaller than ours, we share many things in common. Both species have the ability to receive and process a wide range of sensory information which allows us to behave in ways designed to keep us safe and get our needs met. Both species have the ability to experience a wide range of emotion, to communicate our emotions to others, and to perceive emotional states in others – of both our own and other species. Both species also have the cognitive ability to learn (and remember) a wide variety of skills and knowledge in a wide variety of ways including through observation, from emotion, and from positive or negative reinforcement. We are also both social species whose survival is served through the formation and maintenance of attachment bonds and relationships.
There are some important differences between the human and equine brain though, and most of these stem from the simple fact that equines have evolved as prey animals, while humans have primarily evolved as predators. Yes, humans can also be prey and when we explore the emotion of alarm during Focus training we will see how our response when alarmed can be similar to our horses. But when looking at the neuroscience, our brains and senses are strongly impacted by the predator part of our biology and evolution while equines are primarily influenced by their evolution as prey animals. This fact impacts the physical location, size, design, make up and functioning of the sensory organs in each species. They are in each case designed for the survival of the species, but have evolved in different ways for a prey animal than for a predator.
Another key difference is that a significant portion of the human brain has evolved to comprise what is now a very sophisticated (compared to any other species, including other primates) pre frontal cortex, or executive functioning part of the brain, responsible for planning, strategizing, reflecting, judging and exercising impulse control. This part of the brain acts as a mediator in many of the other processes within the brain, as essentially the assessment phase between stimuli and action. This does not physically exist in the equine brain. Thus, while research and brain imagery now shows us that a horse is clearly a sentient being who can experience, express and perceive emotion, and can learn – and remember – many things in a wide range of ways, they simply are not capable of the things that a human uses their prefrontal cortex for. There are many implications of this in terms of how we work with horses to keep them and us safe and to help us relate to each other in mutually beneficial ways.
As you read through this (brand new!) section of the course I ask for your grace and patience. I don’t have a degree in neuroscience! I’m fascinated by it and love to combine what I read and learn from others more knowledgeable than myself with what I learn experientially from my time with clients and horses, and how this all fits with the areas of study (like attachment) where I am more educated. But I will likely make many oopsies (technical term) along the way so please be kind when I do! The plus side of this is that the information will be simplified enough for me to understand it (and feel reasonably confident saying it!) so it may be easier to understand than if it was written by a neuroscientist? I’ll let you tell me if I’m right on that assumption/ hope!
Neuroscience itself is also a constantly expanding and self correcting field of study. And the equine brain has not been studied as much as the human brain. So, while we know far more than we used to, there remains much that we don’t know.
This section is also still in progress as I will keep adding to and correcting it as I discover and learn more! So if you’re reading this in Foundations I recommend you come back and look again in Focus training to see what I’ve updated or changed!
Sources and Acknowledgements
My major sources in researching and developing this section of the course are: Janet L Jones PhD, Dr. Gordon Neufeld PhD, Sue Falkner March, John Shelby Spong, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, the HeartMath Institute, my horses, my daughters, my clients and my students.
I’d like to extend extra and specific recognition and thanks to the work of Dr. Janet Jones, author of the amazing book, “Horse Brain Human Brain”. Much of this section is grounded in my reading and understanding of her book and extensive research, as well as in the time I’ve spent consulting directly with her recently, and many of the diagrams, pictures and examples are either hers or adapted from hers. My main job in this section has been to summarise her material, integrate it with the other theory and information we study within this course (including from Dr. Neufeld and Sue Falkner March) and apply it to the Equine Facilitated Wellness context. Janet has also kindly reviewed some of what you will read in this section of the course and corrected my mistakes and added pieces that I’ve missed. That being said she’s not read everything here, so there may still be mistakes in which case they are all mine and not hers! If this part of the course has intrigued you I highly recommend you both read her book and check out her website: https://janet-jones.com/
Why and How do Human and Equine Brains Differ?
Prey versus Predator
Most of us know that from an evolutionary and biological perspective horses are prey animals while humans are predators. I will often explore the ways in which we humans can also be, and act like, prey animals at times too, but in terms of how our brains, nervous systems and sensory organs have developed there are still many critical differences which come down to the humans as predators, horses as prey distinction.
The main purpose of evolution thus far is for the species to survive. This means equines, as prey animals, developed brains, nervous systems and sensory hardware and internal communication processes to help them prioritise detecting and avoiding predators – usually by running away on those long legs. Humans on the other hand, developed brains, nervous systems and sensory hardware and internal communication processes which allowed us to prioritise finding and securing food and security, and to plan and strategise how best to do this, including for the longer term.
If we want to keep ourselves, our horses and our clients physically safe in our interactions with each other, we would do well to know more about these differences and to stop assuming and expecting (as many of us unwittingly do) that horse brains should, or even can, work and respond as ours do. If we want to go a step further, as is the intent of this course and an underlying principal of the Healing Hooves approach, to develop mutually beneficial and emotionally safe relationships with our horses (and to invite these to arise between our clients and our horses) this becomes even more critical.
To do this we need to step into the area of neuroscience, which is a relatively new and ever being updated and corrected, area of study. And that’s just for the human brain. Equine brains are harder to test; non-sedated 1200lb prey animals – ironically for the very reasons we might ask them to – don’t easily agree to the types of testing that would be needed to image their brain activity in response to a variety of stimuli. So, some of the research I’ll be presenting here may still be somewhat tentative, and future studies may find different conclusions. But, fortunately, there is a lot that we do now know and can learn from to make our equine interactions safer (physically AND emotionally) and more mutually beneficial for all involved.
Much of what I’ve been able to share with you here is thanks to the research, writing and guidance of Janet Jones PhD. Janet has a unique resume in that she has extensive experience with equines AND in human neuroscience. This has allowed her to delve into the area of equine neuroscience and then to write about this in ways in which the rest of us, who don’t have PhDs in neuroscience, have some chance of understanding!
Some Facts: What makes up the Human versus Equine Brain
Please note for my diagrams that it is hard to find one diagram of the brain that clearly shows all the parts that I wanted to show, without also showing a whole bunch of other parts that we won’t be talking about. So, in my equine brain diagram the location of the amydaloid bodies and the hippocampal area is a bit fuzzy and the same applies to where I’ve shown the thalamus in the human brain. So, apologies to any neuroscientists looking at my crude diagrams!
Parts of the Brain that both equines and humans have:
Visual Cortex: In both species this is where our brain detects sights (receives messages from the eyes).
Thalamus: This is where both the human and equine brain collect sensory information.
Basal Ganglia: This is the part of the brain, in both equine and human, that prepares our body to move in response to sensory information gathered in the Thalamus.
Hippocampus/ Hippocampal Area: This is one part of the brain (along with the basal ganglia and the cerebellum) which both equines and humans have and which provide the capacity for learning.
Cerrebellum: Another part of the brain – in human and equine – which facilitates learning.
Amygdala/ Amydaloid body: In the human/ equine brain there are two amygdalas/ amydaloid bodies which are twin areas deep inside the brain that mediate and process emotion.
Motor Cortex: In both species the motor cortex tells our body to move, based on information it receives from other parts of our brain.
Pre Frontal Cortex: Our prefrontal cortex is the ‘executive functioning’ part of our brain that we use for analysing, planning, strategizing, assessing and judging. It’s not fully developed in a human till age 25 (and that’s only if conditions are fully conducive) and is what gives us impulse control. This part of our brain is also very well connected to the other parts of our brain mentioned above which allows us to assess emotion (current and past) and to analyse and determine what to do about (how to respond to) various sensory information we receive. In humans the prefrontal cortex takes up 33% of the space in our brains. In other primates it takes up 15%, in dogs and cats it takes up 5%. It’s not just the size of our prefrontal cortex that is relevant; the human prefrontal cortex is also ‘busier’ in humans with a significantly larger percentage of working neurons compared to other primates for example. Certain parts of the human pre frontal cortex (e.g. the lateral frontal pole, which is the area most strongly responsible for strategizing, planning and making decision) do not exist even in non-human primates.
In horses? There is no Pre frontal Cortex and thus no lateral frontal lobe. This simple fact has huge implications for how horses process information, respond to stimuli, learn and behave, and for these reasons we will return to this fact many times in this section and throughout Healing Hooves trainings.
Human and Equine Sensory Organs – including our Eyes, Ears, and Nose
So, why do horses spook at the most ridiculous things?
Have you ever asked (or thought) that question? I know I have, especially after landing up in the dirt!
The fact that our equine partners often seem to shy/ spook/ run away from/ or otherwise react in ways we don’t appreciate to things we know will not cause them any harm (if we even saw them) and which our equine partner may have seen many times before, can be a huge source of frustration for us humans. This fact can also interfere with our relationship with our horses and become a safety hazard, including in an EFW environment. However, much of the problem lies in our lack of understanding of the equine brain and in our faulty assumptions that horses do, can and/ or should perceive and take in sensory information about and from the world, and process that information, as we do.
Because they just don’t.
In fitting with one of the underlying themes of this training and approach I seek here to help us all ‘see’ and understand before we respond. This requires us to slow the process down and stop assuming that horses experience and perceive the world as we do. There are many factors here but I will highlight a few of the key ones I’ve found help me understand the equine noggin (Janet’s terminology, which assured me from the outset that I’d like her book) a little better.
The Equine Brain is Literally Hard Wired for (their) Safety
Humans have evolved primarily as strategic predators. While we can also become prey (and thus sometimes share aspects of a prey response to stimuli with our equine partners, as we explore within the alarm section in Focus training) we have developed complex and sophisticated thinking parts of our brain (including our pre frontal cortex) which we use to assess dangers and make informed choices. We explore this in our section on frustration in foundation training, in our section on integration (mixed feelings) in focus training and throughout other areas of the training.
We can specifically look at this through how the human brain processes an unexpected sight – for example a sudden movement in the corner of the arena. Our brain detects this sight at the visual cortex and sends this information to the pre frontal cortex for analysis and evaluation. This is where we can perhaps recognise the barn cat and smile at his antics. It is only after this analysis that messages are sent, if needed, to the motor cortex to tell it to spring into action.
Our horse however, evolving as a prey animal on the prairie, could not afford this delay and needed to run first so that he might live to ask questions about it later. Thus his brain, when it detects that same unexpected sight (sudden movement in the corner of the arena) sends that information straight to motor context for immediate action, and he spooks.
How the human brain processes visual information
How the equine brain processes visual information
Looking at diagrams of the human and horse brain, we can even see the different routes the information takes and how the horse brain is literally wired to respond so much more quickly; something that has been necessary for their survival as a species, just as analysis and assessment has aided human survival. Understanding this (using our ability to apply that insight before action, as only our brains are wired to do) can save us all a lot of frustration, and lead to more compassionate and safer human equine relationships and EFW sessions.
Equine Vision is Very Different from Human Vision
Our equine partners, quite literally, see almost everything in the world differently than we do. Once we stop assuming that they can see what we see, as we see it, we are better placed to create a safe environment for our horses and thus for ourselves and our clients. Much of the difference comes from the obvious position of equine eyes compared to human eyes, but there are also other evolutionary and biological differences, including the number of rods versus cones in the eyes, which we may be less aware of. Equine eyes have lots of rods (which pick up and transmit movement) and few cones (which pick up detail and colour). Human eyes are the complete opposite.
I’ll highlight some of the key differences between equine and human sight below:
1.Equine vision is fuzzy. Horses, with less cones in their eyes, simply cannot see the strong edges and details that we see. In terms of visual acuity ‘normal’ human acuity is 20/20 vision while ‘normal’ equine acuity ranges from 20/30 to 20/60 vision. This means that even the horse with the best possible vision can only see what you see from 30 feet away once he is 20 feet away – he needs to be 50% closer to the object to see what you see. And the less visually gifted horse sees at 20 feet what you see from 60 feet away – so he needs to be 200% closer.
(Diagram from the book “Horse Brain, Human Brain”)
What we see
What our horse sees
2.Equine ‘blind spots’ are very different to ours. As we walk along together our horses are seeing quite different parts of the world around us. They will see many things we don’t, and will not see many things that we do. So something we’ve been seeing all along (that cat again!) can suddenly appear out of their blind spot when we’ve seen it all along. They may also see and be reacting to something we haven’t noticed yet. While most of us are aware of two blind spots horses have (immediately behind them and immediately in front of them) there are actually several others including between their legs and under their belly. Knowing this should influence how we groom and teach our clients to groom and handle our horses.
3.Horses are attuned to tiny flickers of movement that we may miss. They are looking for the predator crouching in the bushes, or behind the wheelbarrow. This is in part due to the fact that horses have far more rods in their eyes than we do.
4.Human depth perception is very precise because our eyes are close together, so we can see something with both eyes a whole lot easier than a horse can, whose eyes are far apart. Prey animal eyes are designed to detect peripheral motion to escape the predator. Predator eyes are designed for detail and depth perception to catch the prey. For example, at a distance of 16.5 feet (a couple of strides out from a jump perhaps) the average human can distinguish as little as an 1/8 of an inch in depth (eg. a precise assessment of the distance between the rails on the jump) while a horse can only distinguish a 9 inch difference (much less precise). This makes our depth perception (or ‘stereoacuity’) 72 times more accurate than our horse’s. This applies to puddles too.
Most humans see a full spectrum of colour. Equines however, see most things as shades of grey. They don’t have any cones in their eyes to pick up red or green for example – so you and your client out doing a grounding exercise in the field wearing red jackets only become visible to the horse when you move. This provides a good reason to move slowly, to approach our equine partners gradually at all times and to pay attention to when they first notice us. The colours that horses do see well are yellow and turquoise. So, if you want a horse to see something clearly (like tape on an electric fence to keep them away) use yellow, not red. But also don’t be shocked when your horse does a double take when your client turns up in a turquoise jacket!
We tend to assume that horses see well in the dark and while their night vision is better than ours, it is actually still not that great! And again, what they can see best is small flickers of movement, not details. It also takes their eyes quite some time to adjust to changes in light; so when they come into a poorly lit arena or barn (or are asked to step into a horse trailer) out of the sunshine, they can need up to 45 minutes to adjust to the reduced light. Unlike us, they can’t just take off their sunglasses!
We tend to assume that because they have big ears and are prey animals, horses have better hearing than us. But that is not actually the case. In terms of loudness, humans can actually hear quieter noises (at 0dB) than a horse who can only hear things from 7dB.
In terms of pitch the average horse hears things from 55 to 33,500 Hz while the average human hears things from 20 to 20,000 Hz. Thus they hear higher pitches than we do (including the ‘silent’ dog whistle) but may miss some low pitch noises that we can hear. Both human and equine hearing declines over time and in humans the high pitch noises disappear more quickly. So, an older rider on a young horse may be missing a lot of high pitch noises that her horse can hear.
Another aspect of equine hearing that I just learned about is localisation, or identifying where a sound came from. I assumed this would be an area horses would excel in compared to us, but that is not actually true. Current research indictates that humans can detect sound location with less than 1% error while horses have 22 – 30 degrees of error. Proposed explanations for this is that their excellent peripheral vision (especially for movement) and sense of smell compensate for this.
An area horses do excel in though is pitch, and this can be applied to how they, as social herd animals, interpret vocalisations from herd members. An average horse whinny is lasts 1.5 seconds and can be heard from a distance of half a mile. It has three stage: it starts with some high frequency, then moves into some rhythmic medium frequencies and then concludes with some lower frequency. Every whinny is distinct between horses and communicates different meanings, and our equines can identify the difference. From a whinny, they know if this is a horse they know (and who it is), what the horse is communicating (including emotion), and the gender, size and hierarchical rank of that horse. That’s a lot of information we usually miss altogether!
Equine sense of Smell
Other than touch, this is our horses’ strongest sense. Most of us know that dogs have a great sense of smell (and need to be allowed lots of sniffing time) but studies indicate that equine smell may be just as powerful and important. It is an important way that they assess their world and compensate for their less than perfect sight. Consider the equine habit of smelling the poop in the arena or pasture for example. From that pile of poop your horse can tell the identity (if they know the horse) gender, health and social rank of the horse, when the poop was left, where the horse went next and his emotional state at the time. This can be important information for a prey animal!
From sniffing the air a horse can locate water, find their way home, locate and identify herd mates, recognise who (horse or human) was where and how long ago, and much more. They can also smell the sympathetic nervous system hormones of adrenaline and cortisol in both equines and humans.
Our equine partners get to know new horses (and people) best if they are allowed time to smell them, which is a good reason to introduce horses to new horses – and to new people, including your clients – from across the fence before allowing anyone to get hands (or hooves) on.
They will also smell that an unknown dog was in the arena or barn before they were and from that anticipate that it may suddenly reappear, or that another predator – a coyote, bear or perhaps even a tractor – was in their pasture. So, if it seems like they are worried about ‘nothing’ that may not be the case and they may need some time to use their nose to assess the area more thoroughly.
Organising Sensory Information – Categorical Perception
This is another area where humans and horses differ. Categorical perception means that we humans tend to organise the things we perceive with our senses (sights, sounds, smells etc.) into meaningful groups. A brown horse, a black horse, a horse with a blanket on, an arabian horse and a draft horse are all horses. A horse facing us, sideways on, lying down, in a different pasture than it was yesterday, running away from us – still a horse. The same word spoken by different people with different voices is still the same word with the same meaning even though the acoustic form reaching our ears is slightly different each time. Same thing applies to wheelbarrows, hosepipes and barn cats. They can move to different locations, be different colours, be seen from different angles, be moving or stationary and they are still wheel barrows, hosepipes and barn cats.
Horses brains don’t tend to work like this. This means that for our equine partners a different view of the same object is a different object. Part of being a prey animal is the need to notice tiny differences – and they do. So if the wheel barrow is in a different position than it was yesterday, or has a flat tire, or we approach it from a different angle it is a new potentially dangerous object and may be spook worthy.
How do Horses Learn?
Horses are incredibly teachable and have huge capabilities to learn. In fact, they are learning (from their circumstances and experiences, from other horses and from us) virtually all of the time, including when we are not intentionally teaching them anything. The key parts of the brain involved in learning – the Basal Ganglia, Hippocampus/ Hippocampal Area and Cerrebellum – are present in both the human and equine brain.
In many ways, horses learn quicker than we do. This is in part because they are always paying attention to and taking in sensory information from the world around them, which allows them to notice tiny things, and especially changes and movement, which we often miss. The absence of a prefrontal cortex, which analyses new information before acting on it, in the equine brain can also lead to quicker learning, something which Janet Jones refers to as the ‘purity’ of equine learning. This can be both positive and negative!
While both equines and humans can learn in a variety of different ways, the basic neuroscience of the learning process is the same and it’s all about ‘neural connection’, or ‘what fires together, wires together’. This is easiest to explain with an example: A horse pushes on a loose gate and it opens up into the field full of grass. Two groups of neurons (one for gate pushing and the other for yummy grass) fire at the same time which forms a connection. If this happens several times that connection gets stronger and before you know it you have a horse who tests all your gates. If a learning experience results in something pleasurable (like that grass) or is in response to something that elicits strong emotions in the horse (such as fear) then the brain also releases larger amounts of various chemicals at the same time, which act like glue to that neural connection, making it even stronger.
While human learning also arises as described above, we have an extra layer to this process ( thanks to that pre frontal cortex) where we assess, judge, consider, compare to other experiences, doubt ourselves etc. etc. This slows our learning process down and means that horses often learn more quickly than we do.
Some of the Ways Horses Learn
Association/ Cause and Effect
Association is simply what happens when we link two events together: A is followed by B. An example would be that when I come out of the house in the morning and open up the barn, this is closely followed by hay arriving in the feeder. It only takes me doing this twice in the fall for my horses to meet me at the gate. The next week they are there before me!
Cause and Effect is similar to association but is linked to something we do which results in something else happening, as in the example of pushing on the gate and getting to grass.
This method of learning can also be extended to include problem solving and testing, both of which horses use. Oliver crawling under the fence to find grass when I put him in the field with less grass, is a form of problem solving. And a horse grabbing for grass on the walk from pasture to barn is testing us. We tend to see testing (and some problem solving) as bad behaviour, but it’s simply our horse trying to figure things out within their world.
Horses learn things using these methods all the time, whether we intend for them to do so or not.
This is a way horses learn that may be less well known. In humans we have already explored this within our section on attachment and specifically within the sameness root. We learn to talk, walk, use the toilet and a whole host of other skills by observing and copying those around us, and especially those we are attached to. Dogs learn the same way too and this is something I’ve drawn on while training Daisy. For example, Daisy was car sick as a puppy so for a while didn’t want to get in the car. So, I had Maggie jump in the car several times and get a treat until Daisy was willing to do this herself. That was so much easier (and more effective) than trying to bribe or push her in!
Horses are observing everything, all the time, which means they are constantly learning through observation. The attachment piece applies here too as research has shown they are more likely to observe and learn from the actions of the caretaking alphas in their herd. Once we know this, we can draw on it. Trailering is a classic example. If your horse doesn’t like the trailer, have him watch a friend – ideally one who’d higher up on the pecking order – calmly walk in there several times. Research shows that horses also learn by watching us – so be careful with that!
A relatively new discovery in neurocience (1998) explains how we (and horses) learn from observing. Mirror neurons are brain cells that code or prepare motor neurons for action. They don’t make our muscles move but they tell the motor neurons to get ready to tell the muscles to move. What’s fascinating is that when we watch someone do something our mirror neurons for that activity fire in the same way and at the same level of strength as theirs do. So when Daisy watched Maggie calmly jump in the car and get a treat, Daisy’s mirror neurons for preparing her to jump in a car (and for eating a treat) are firing at the same level as Maggie’s are. Provided it’s seen as a calm experience (Maggie is relaxed and seems to like jumping in the car) Daisy’s already half way to getting in herself – all from observation.
Heightened Emotion (including Fear)
Notice that above I said, “provided it’s seen as a calm experience”. This is the ideal nervous system state for learning, when we are operating within our ventral vagal para sympathetic nervous system.
We, and our animals, can and do learn from experiences which are heightened with emotion – including fear – but in this case our sympathetic nervous system will be activated and our bodies will be producing chemicals – such as epinephrine, adrenaline, corticosterone and vasopressin – that are preparing us for fight or flight. The impact of this is that what we learn in that moment is set into our brain in what Janet calls ‘neural concrete’ along with all the fear and negative aspects and associated context of the experience. There is a good reason for this , especially for a flight animal such as a horse; they need to remember causes and contexts of dangerous situations so that they can avoid them in the future. So a horse who learns something this way may learn the lesson, but they’ll also learn to be scared of the teacher and all the factors surrounding that lesson.
Negative reinforcement is not a punishment. It’s simply the removal of something deemed as negative (usually pressure) once the horse does what we want. We use this with horses all the time – using leg pressure when riding or pressure on the rope to ask a horse to step forward are both examples of negative reinforcement. Because horses use pressure in their own ‘horse to horse’ relationships it’s one they understand and which can work well – provided we are quick to release pressure with good timing. A challenge with this form of learning is our (human) terrible timing. In order for the right neural connections to happen we need to release the pressure at the precise moment the horse responds – or at least within about 3 seconds and before anything else happens, or stops happening – which is not always easy to do! One other factor here is that pressure is not the first ‘go to’ in horse communication – they rarely use pressure first to communicate with each other. So ideally it should not be our ‘go to’ either.
We can also teach horses through negative reinforcement accidentally and these can be difficult learnings to undo. This is why nobody ever rides Teddy. When we first had Teddy, we were training him to be a small kids riding pony and Maren (my daughter) was riding him. But in one session I tripped and startled him, he crow hopped, and my daughter fell off. From that moment on, the pony who’d never bucked once, now bucked and spun every time someone got on him. I’m sure that with some more training we could have worked this through but I also learned from this experience that he didn’t want to be ridden, so we listened and kept him as a non ridden EFW pony instead!
This is a form of training our horses by encouraging them to learn through cause and effect. In this case we need to wait (or ideally set things up favourably for it to happen) for our horse to offer the behaviour we’re looking for and then we reward it. Timing is critical again here and the reward does not always have to be food (better that it’s not, for lot of reasons). Clicker training is an example of training by positive reinforcement and, once our horse knows what the clicker means, allows us to mark the desired behaviour more accurately. The benefits of this approach is that when neural connection happens the brain produces dopamine which acts like glue for that connection – and more dopamine is apparently produced for positive reinforcement than for negative reinforcement. The learning is literally more pleasant for the horse and he learns even more quickly. Other examples of non food rewards would be a gentle word or a scratch or touch (perhaps a T-touch) that we know the horse likes.
Humans also learn through reinforcement (both positive and negative) but yet again we – using our prefrontal cortex – add many layers of analysis and consideration which slow the process down. There is also research indicating that when we humans learn and act as a result of a ‘reward’ or from the removal of some sort of pressure, there are negative results for both the health of our attachments and for our natural desire to learn (emergence). Also with humans, especially within many popular behavioural parenting strategies, what is often named as ‘rewards’ would actually be more accurately described as ‘lures’ (or bribes) and consequences (even so called ‘natural’ consequences) as punishments as we are told about them both (and how they relate to our behaviour or performance) either in advance, after the fact, or both. My thought here is that when we know that someone is manipulating these strategies to try to align us to their (rather than our own) agenda our pre frontal cortex causes us to get suspicious and to resist. Gordon Neufeld would call this counterwill and many of our clients will be full of this! While horses are usually less suspicious about whether or not we are manipulating their behaviour or learning, lures versus rewards still create very different behaviour patterns and types of learning for them too. Lures usually only lead to the desired behaviour that specific time (and that behaviour ceases the moment the lure is no longer present), while rewards create the neural pathways that lead to longer term learning and behaviours (because of the neural activity of ‘what fires together wires together’).
Janet Jones has a blog article on a new way of using positive reinforcement based on the operation of the equine brain which I highly recommend you read if you have the chance: https://janet-jones.com/blog/true-training-30-rewards-or-lures
Emergence and Attachment Learning
I’ve included emergence here as it’s the developmental process we talk about in human development where the person is self motivated and wants to learn, and which doesn’t need any form of reinforcement. In fact, much of attachment research shows that rewards can slow down, and even sabotage, true learning in humans. Emergence is where a person is curious, full of questions and hungry for learning without the need for any external motivation or reward. This is a developmental luxury though, which usually only arises once a person’s attachment needs have been met; In order to access emergence we all need to feel safe and secure – as our brains are not great at multitasking in this area!
Humans can also learn as attachment learners – i.e. within the context of a safe attachment – even when they are not emergent, provided they are not in a defensive alpha role. Think of how much easier it is to learn from someone you like and believe likes you, than it is when there is not a great relationship with the person you are meant to be learning from. Attachment makes a huge difference. There are shades here of ‘earning’ our attachment if we are acting in order to please that person, but provided there is also lots of grace (unconditional positive regard) to make mistakes without damaging the relationship or reducing the invitation then there is protection from this less positive aspect.
When I’m working with parents I very much encourage these two forms of learning over the use of consequences of any sort (or the overuse of rewards) and research supports that for our long term learning and emotional health, these two forms of learning are far more effective and safer from an attachment perspective.
Can horses learn these ways too? I think they can, but I don’t have much research or literature to back this up yet. This is something I’m discussing with Janet and know is a current area of interest for her (more info on this below) so there may be more to come on this soon!
And I believe that attachment learning is something that happens when our horses look to us for guidance and leadership. Remember the article from Will Clinging in Exploration training? I believe this is what he is exploring there.
This next piece is directly from Janet Jones who reviewed this section of the course for me:
“Horses can be internally motivated to learn through their natural sense of curiosity. I touch on this in one of my Psychology Today articles at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/horse-brain-human-brain. It’s the one dated Dec 12, 2022. Trainers rarely encourage curiosity; in fact, most actively discourage it. But I have found in my own work as horse trainer that horses can be internally motivated and that the key to doing so is to encourage the horse toward frequent active investigation of the environment, including me as trainer.
Another key is astute observation of very subtle equine body language that asks questions. My Dec 12 Psychology Today article was discussed in detail by the German magazine Feine Helfen in its current issue, and they interviewed me regarding the use of equine curiosity in horse training. There will be more coming from brain-based horsemanship™ on this question. “
Some tentative thoughts from Sue re. behaviour modification!
I have to admit I’ve been experiencing some discomfort in writing this section as I am so opposed to any form of behaviour modification – including the use of consequences and rewards – in terms of how we parent and/ or work with our clients. Research (with people) shows that consequences and rewards may create better behaviour in the short term (at least when someone is looking) but it also can significantly damage attachment and can reduce emergence, thus actually working against the person’s natural motivation and desire to learn, and also against the process of creating genuine caring.
So then, why is it OK/ recommended with horses?
Or is it not OK and we need to find another approach?
This is something I’m still in the ‘mulling over stage’ with but I will share some thoughts on it all for now and welcome your perspectives and discussion!
1. People use words as a primary form of communication whereas horses (with each other) will sometimes use pressure. Thus, in order to communicate what it is we would like the horse to learn or do, pressure (and thus negative reinforcement) is perhaps one way to approach things – for example squeezing with our legs while riding to ask a horse to move forward. That being said, pressure and negative reinforcement are still not the best way to go about things when other options are possible. Janet’s comment on this is: “The horse’s primary form of communication is body language, not pressure. I have found pressure to be detrimental with most horses, contrary to the current principles of “natural” horsemanship. There are good neuroscientific reasons for its failure. Using pressure does not help horses to figure out their world, and it is not necessary or desireable. Usually, it only serves to increase fear in a prey animal who is already driven too strongly by fear. Occasionally, it must be used but only when other methods have failed, and even then it would be a very faint form of “pressure.”
2.Play is an amazingly effective and emotionally safe way to approach learning for people – so perhaps this is one we would all do well to consider as a way to explore learning with our horses too. Play may well be the best way to tap into and work with our horses’ natural emergence and curiosity and through this invite learning in a healthy and enjoyable (for both us and our horses) way. I have included Janet’s article on playing with our horses in the play section in Focus training.
3.Collect, collect and collect, before you direct. This is a term you hopefully remember from our context building sessions! We do provide direction, and often quite a lot of it, to those we are responsible for, including our children, or horses and our clients. But in order to do this in an attachment friendly and emotionally safe way, we need to mind our attachment manners and create context first. Thus, however we communicate with our horses what it is we’d like them to do and/ or learn, we need to first create context. And we need to be sure there are times we create context (collect) without there being any work (or directing) to do or follow, and thus create the unconditional positive regard I’ll explore more in my next point below!
4.In terms of rewards – I’m actually not totally opposed to them with people. I like to use the analogy of dessert. Provided the main course provides us with all that we need in order to be full and sustained, then a little bit of dessert is not usually harmful; it’s when dessert is our main course that there’s a problem. Thus, provided our children and clients are receiving enough unconditional positive regard (the main course) and having their attachment needs met without needing to earn this, then some use of rewards can be attachment neutral. Applying this to our equines: provided we spend lots of time giving them love and attention (and food!) with no conditions or learning expectations attached, then using positive reinforcement for some training is perhaps not a problem. And remembering the difference between a reward and a ‘lure’ (or a bribe) helps significantly here too!
5.Horses are constantly learning from us regardless of whether we are aware of and/ or intentional about this or not, and are constantly trying to figure out what it is we want from them; so by becoming aware of how horses respond to when we release any pressure and when we ‘reward’, we can be more deliberate and conscious about what these actions are teaching them. My hope though, is that we can add plenty of times when our horses can find some times of rest in their relationship with us; when they can trust that we are actually not asking them for anything in that moment. And always aiming to provide our equine partners with real choice (including the option to change this) in terms of their participation (or not) in this work is key here too.
6.The (human) pre frontal cortex plays a role in all of the above discussion. As humans, we analyse things (including stimuli and memories) as a part of our learning process whereas Janet’s research has shown us that (because of the absence of a prefrontal cortex) horses use their excellent memories and learn in a much more ‘pure’ and direct way (i.e. without the assessing stage). In discussing this with Janet, she noted that while humans are usually very alert and resistant to any possibility that we are being manipulated into behaving in a certain way horses have significantly less qualms about this, and this comes down to the fact that they don’t have a pre frontal cortex with which to assess and judge our intent. So it may be that some of my concerns are less concerning after all!
Equine Emotion and Cognition
Emotion, Instinct or Feeling?
All mammals (human and non human) experience and are influenced by both instincts and emotions. While both emotions and instincts drive behaviours, there are differences between the two. An instinct results in one specific and automatic type of behaviour each time, almost like a reflex. Me recoiling when I see a big hairy spider, the startle response, or Daisy drooling when she sees (or smells) her (or my) dinner are examples of instincts.
An emotion on the other hand can result in a wide range of behavioural responses. A horse who is scared might run away, but he may also stand and tremble, chew on our arm, or look to us for guidance. Equine brains are equipped with the parts of the brain (the amydaloid bodies) in the limbic system that mediate and process emotion.
This 2 minute video explains the limbic system in humans:
I couldn’t find a diagram specifically of the equine limbic system but their brains do possess all the parts referred to above!
Feelings: In focus training we start to explore the difference between emotions and feelings, where feelings are the conscious part of emotions that allows us to take up a relationship with that emotion and thus have more decision making power (and impulse control). Can horses feel their emotions? Scientists are still arguing about whether they have emotions (although the evidence is certainly very much in favour of that) so it may be a while before we know about the feelings part. If they do feel their emotions I suspect it will be different to our process due to the absence of the pre frontal cortex.
The Human and Equine Response to an Emotion
We mentioned above that emotions drive behaviours and that is true for all animals. Thus, emotion (not thoughts) are the underlying ‘why’ for what we do, as we explore during during Focus training! We also noted above that while an instinct results in an automatic reflexive behaviour (drooling at dinner time), emotion may result in a variety of possibly behaviours.
So what about the process that takes us from emotion to action?
Our human amygdalas are connected to our prefrontal cortex. So when we experience an emotion (e.g. fear) we can evaluate this within the overall context and our past experiences and make a decision regarding how to respond. We start to explore this in our section on frustration in foundation training and return to it again in various sections (including those on emotions, flight from vulnerability, alarm, alarm dysfunction and integration) in focus training, so I won’t go into any depth here. But the key point here is that while the process starts off with an emotion, in the human brain our pre frontal cortex and cognition gets involved before we move to action.
Our horses may be able to refer to their knowledge (including from training and from their past experiences) and override fear in the moment, which is why we can get them to do things like walk onto a horse trailer and allow us to ride them, but they can’t assess and analyse it like we can, because they simply don’t have that pre frontal cortex! Thus, just as we discussed in our section on the senses, our equines are highly likely to move to an action designed to keep them safe far quicker than we might (who are still mullling it all over, or perhaps didn’t notice anything in the first place!)
What about other Emotions?
We’ve mainly focused on fear/ alarm above which is fitting as prey animals are very attuned to that particular emotion! But there is also lots of evidence to indicate that horses also experience other emotions including frustration (e.g. when we close the gate on the spring grass) and happiness (e.g. horses playing out in the pasture). They can also experience sadness. The biggest example of sadness I saw in one of my own horses was when I tried a grazing muzzle on Dubh many years ago when he was presenting as a founder risk. I thought he’d do better in the pasture with his herd than separated into another pen. I also thought he’d figure out how to eat some grass as the instructions assured me he would. Not so on either assumption! At first I saw signs of frustration – he both tried to effect change trying to rub the thing off and get the grass in various ways, and he charged around the field for a while and even chased off a few of his non muzzle wearing buddies. Hopefully you are recognising the frustration traffic circle in here! But eventually he went to the far corner of the field, away from everyone else, and just stood their with his head hung low. His sadness was palpable. But it didn’t feel like the type of adaptive sadness we explore in our section on frustration – it felt more like a giving up, depression, helplessness type of response. So off came the grazing muzzle never to be used again. So I guess he was able to effect change after all!
Perceiving Emotion in Others
Something that Sue Falkner March often talks about when she joins us in trainings is how expressive horses are and how they can read that expression in each other. We often miss much of this as we can’t see past all that fuzz! Apparently horses have the most expressive faces of all animals with 17 different facial movements which can be combined in all sorts of different ways. You then need to add body language, whinnies, snorts etc. and horses suddenly become master communicators of emotion. It would bode us all well to become better at detecting and reading what our horses are telling us with their facial expressions as they usually express things here first, before moving to heels and teeth. If you watch a herd of horses (as we do a lot of in this training!) you’ll notice lots of things happening and the horses reading and responding to each other without things usually ever having to escalate.
Studies have shown that horses can also read human expressions of emotion – both in person and even from photographs – moving away from angry expressions and towards calm and happy expressions. Other studies have also shown that they can sense stress hormones in people.
Forethought, Intent and Blame
The human brain is wired to survive, including for the long term, through planning and forethought. There is evidence that some of this is also true (but to a lesser extent) for apes and some birds. Many people believe horses do this too. If we’ve just been ditched in the muddy water jump and watched our horse run off to eat grass, that may be understandable! But while humans needed to plan in order to survive, horses needed to NOT plan in order to survive.
Human impulses (and responses to stimuli and emotion) are tempered and influenced in two ways: By learning and by reasoning. The learning part happens in the basal ganglia, hippocampus and cerebellum. We learn through observation, past experience, and cause and effect. We can then augment this with further risk analysis, including a focus on long term versus short term pros and cons, all of which happens in our pre frontal cortex. If we are six, we have experienced less learning and have highly immature prefrontal cortexes so will make more impulsive decisions. But by the time we are 25 we should hopefully be capable of reasonable decision making for our long term wellbeing and viability. We are also able to judge harm. We know that hitting a punch bag doesn’t hurt the person we are frustrated with but hitting the person does. We know that expressing our frustration in a mad letter that we never send (or in our journal we keep private) can be a good release while sending the person a nasty e-mail will cause them emotional pain. We can use our pre frontal cortex to apply that knowledge in the moment and choose NOT to hit the person or to send that e-mail.
Thus if we, as adult humans, engage in an action which causes harm to another we can be seen to have done this with at least some intent to cause them that harm. In which case some form of retribution or of holding the person accountable for their actions can be seen to be appropriate. A child is usually held to a lower level of accountability because their brains, in the areas (including the prefrontal cortex) which impact the ability to assess, plan and control impulses, is not done growing yet.
Our equine partners also have the basal ganglia, hippocampus and cerebellum and thus the ability to learn from observation, past experience, and cause and effect, and to remember and apply this knowledge in the moment when presented with a stimuli and emotion. But attributing intent and assigning blame to a being without any pre frontal cortex functioning makes no sense whatsoever. He likely spooked in that water jump because of the scary shadow which may have been an alligator, or in reaction to the dog which suddenly appeared in his peripheral vision and reminded him of a dog who used to chase him round his field in his last home; them, after running (successfully) for his life and snorting a couple of times, he smelled and moved on to the grass he’s now munching on. He doesn’t, in fact he can’t, understand that the sideways maneuver he just performed in the water is any different than the one he did in his paddock yesterday when you appeared unexpectedly out of the barn and laughed uproariously at before giving him his bucket. Smacking him on the butt or yelling profanities will teach him nothing other than to fear wet humans emerging from water jumps. Or to fear all water jumps. Or all humans not holding a bucket.
The plus side of all this is that our horses don’t judge us either. When we couple this with their ability to read our emotional states and to experience and express a similar range of emotions to us, we have amazing partners to work with who truly can provide the empathy and genuineness (minus the judgement) that our clients, and ourselves, need so very much.
So, what does this all of this neuroscience mean for us as EFW folks?
This is a section of the course which I’m quite sure I’ll be updating regularly as new connections (or perhaps even new neural pathways!) and aha’s around all of this happen in my own brain, but I’ll share some key application pieces for now and look forward to discussing it with all of you!
I have also recently had this section reviewed and added to by Janet Jones as so much of this is grounded in her research and writing. So a huge thank you to Janet for catching my mistakes and adding in suggestions that I initially missed!
Keeping Our Clients and Equine Partners Physically and Emotionally Safe
Having an accurate understanding of how the equine brain works, and how it differs from ours, is critical for us to keep our clients (and ourselves) physically safe during EFW sessions. Assuming that our equines see, think and process information just like we do can lead us all into dangerous territory.
Having a better understanding of how equines experience their world, process stimuli and emotion, learn and react to potential threat can also make us better horse handlers, trainers and partners. Once we start to see things from their perspective we can stop blaming them for doing things that are part of their natural makeup or for not doing things which their brains simply don’t allow them to do. We can create environments for them which help them feel safe as well as learning experiences for them which match their skills. We can also become more aware of what we may be teaching them unintentionally and not blame them for the results of that!
With Janet’s help, I’ve come up with a list (definitely not exhaustive) of recommendations grounded in this understanding. Most of these recommendations and considerations we have already discussed in various sections of the course, but now we have the neuroscience to explain WHY and to support these recommendations. These are all points we can also coach and support our clients around.
1.Remember and normalise that as flight animals with no pre frontal cortex our horses may spook, run, shy or otherwise try to move to safety in response to stimuli which we can’t see, didn’t notice, can’t smell and/ or have assessed (using our pre frontal cortex) to be of no threat. Thus, always allowing the horse an ‘exit route’, keeping our clients in safe zones around the horses, staying on our feet (not on our knees or sitting) around horses, wearing suitable foot and head gear, moving slowly and calmly, grounding prior to horse time and all of the other physical safety considerations we discuss throughout trainings make even more sense.
2.If a horse does react during a session, we can depersonalise this as natural and not a rejection of the client or the relationship. The flip side of this is to guard against any romaticising of the human horse relationship to think or say that they would never do anything to hurt us. Remember the article from Leif Hallberg in Exploration training? She stated that when triggered, a horse is not thinking relationally. Now we know why.
3.When taking our horse into the barn/ arena/ a different pasture allow them time to use their senses to assess safety; let them have a good look (with both eyes) and time to smell and listen before asking them to go to work in any way.
4.If we moved or changed something since they were there last time, or if we approach it from a different angle, remember this is a new object to them and let them check it out!
5.Be aware of how horses see colour. For example, if we want or need them to notice something, use yellow or white against a darker background. If we want to not overstimulate them, don’t use yellow (or turquoise). Using red, green, or darker muted colors that blend with the background would be less stimulating.
6. From Janet: (In facilitating this work it’s important to remember) “the little-known fact that horses have MANY blind spots. People often believe the myth that wide-set equine eyes afford a huge view, so that the horse can see virtually everything around him. That assumption is not true and it leads to dangerous human behavior.” And “(It’s) also helpful to recognize that horses can sense things that our senses are too weak to detect—and vice versa. The horse’s most powerful senses are smell and touch. Ours is vision. Human brains often make the mistake of assuming that horses have excellent overall vision. It’s better than ours in terms of peripheral range and detection of very rapid motion. But it’s worse than ours in terms of acuity, depth perception, color perception, and vertical range. And the mismatch between human and equine blind spots leads to many problems. People need to understand that horses can detect stimuli that we cannot detect, and vice versa, so a horse might be rightfully concerned about a stimulus in the environment that our senses cannot even pick up.“
7.If a horse seems unsure of something, give him the opportunity to see it from the side (not straight on) and to sniff it. Janet has added, “and give him TIME. Expecting too much too soon is a frequent error around horses. The equine brain needs a lot of time to make sense of the human world, just as our human brains would need extra time to process a fully equine world.”
8.Always approach horses from the side and invite them to smell you.
9.Be aware of our timing when we either release pressure or reward our horse in any way. From Janet: “Release has to happen instantly. We’ve got a neurological maximum of 3-5 seconds to reward IF the horse does not perform any additional behavior prior to reward.”
10.Remember mirror neurons and the option of our horses learning through observation. This can also apply to our own and client’s learning too.
11.Never punish a horse; all they will learn from this is to fear you. If you feel your frustration creeping up, use your prefrontal cortex and take a break.
12.Try to avoid restricting a horse’s peripheral vision; it’s how they assess safety.
13.Try to avoid direct eye contact with a horse (that’s what predators do). Instead, look around at the environment – they may come to trust that you are going to notice any danger so they can relax and leave it up to you. Remember our material on being the caretaking alpha here! If they do seem to be uneasy, have a good look around, listen and maybe even sniff the air. You may discover what they are concerned about and/ or you may reassure them that you have their back and they can relax.
14.If there’s an unexpected noise try to show them the source of it. This could be as simple as going to a source of music to turn it on (or up) rather than using a remote.
15.This should be obvious, but never creep up on or try to hide from your horse. They do not respond well to hide and seek games! Janet’s comment on this was: “It’s not obvious. This is an extremely frequent mistake. I see it in established training barns almost every day. It’s dangerous to horse-human teams, annoying to riders and handlers, and scary for the horse. People need to SPEAK as they approach an area where horses are being handled or ridden.“
15. A final point from Janet: “(never underestimate) the importance of learning and attending to equine body language so that the horse’s early warning signals are apparent. Many handlers ignore the horse’s early warnings of nervousness, not noticing that something’s wrong until the horse must escalate behavior to dangerous degrees.” This is something we explore experientially through our work with Sue Falkner March and theoretically in the other horsemanship sections of both foundation and focus training. There are also many aspects of this can be built into EFW sessions in ways which support a client’s therapeutic goals as well as keeping client and equine safe!
Enhancing the Client Equine Bond
Understanding our equine partners’ brains can be very powerful in helping us understand what may be happening for a client during a session and in facilitating and supporting the development of a relationship between the client and our horse/s which will hopefully lead to healing and growth for the client. Some key points to remember include the following:
1.Horses DO have the ability to experience and express varied emotions and to read and respond to these emotions in others (including us) which both allows us to explore these emotions ‘one step removed’ with our clients through our animals’ experiences and stories and invites clients to experience a genuine and reciprocal emotional connection and relationship with our animals.
2.Horses simply do not have the parts of the brain that would allow them to plan or seek revenge, intend to harm anyone, hold grudges, tell lies, misrepresent themselves or judge others. They show us their truth and they see us as we are in that moment. This can be an incredibly powerful experience for a client and we can trust (and encourage them to trust) that it is real. No equine professional facade at work here! This is where I come back to the Rogerian conditions of empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. Horses truly are designed well to offer this!
3.There will be times when a client sees/ interprets something quite different than the above in our horses’ behaviour. For example, if a horse walks away from a client, that client may experience rejection, abandonment, judgement and a wide range of other emotions. I don’t suggest we immediately challenge this out loud to the client, but I do recommend that we reframe it for our own understanding and get curious about what may be happening for the client in that moment. How we respond to the client will depend on many factors. Yes, the client may be projecting parts of themselves onto the horse and his actions, and/or being triggered to past hurts from other relationships in that moment. But the client may need to be invited and allowed to feel and express this part and these emotions and to keep it ‘indirect’ and safely about the horse and the present moment until they are ready to connect the dots for themself. Or, the client may simply be making some of the same assumptions almost all people do about why horses do what they do, in which case a reframe may be appropriate.
Are we Anthropomorphising?
Anthropomorphism is essentially ascribing human characteristics or behaviour to animals. Are we guilty of this in EFW? I suggest that this depends on our approach.
In terms of exploring the clients’ experience in response to the animal where this is focused on the clients’ own emotions, thoughts, behaviours and process this is probably not anthropomorphism. If the client’s emotional response is grounded in something they believe the horse is thinking, intending or feeling then this may well be anthropomorphism, but I rarely challenge them purely for the sake of correcting their knowledge, as my job is to support their wellbeing and growth, not to teach them equine neuroscience. This is an area we have touched on several times already throughout the trainings and will come back to again!
In terms of exploring, discussing, and observing the expression of an animals’ emotions we have plenty of evidence to support animals having rich emotional lives and experiencing some of the same emotions we do. That being said, none of us can safely make assumptions about another’s emotions even when that other is human, so when we are exploring our animals’ emotions with a client, or seeking to interpret our animals’ behaviours ourselves in terms of what they may be experiencing emotionally, I encourage we exercise caution about making assumptions, keep conclusions tentative, listen a little better and a little longer, and seek to better know and understand the context. It’s also important to remember that our equine partners process their emotions differently than we do as we have extra ‘checkpoints’ in our brain between stimulus and action than horses do.
Where we may well be stepping into more dangerous ground is when we start speculating about the horses’ thought processes and particularly any time we assign pre-planned intent to a horse’s behaviour. Horses don’t plot revenge, hold grudges, deliberately cause us harm with intent, or assign blame. How do I know this? Because these are all cognitive processes that require a prefrontal cortex; which we know horses do not have. Is there a possibility that there is some form of this processing that happens in another part of the equine brain that neuroscientists don’t know about yet? There may be! But from what I’ve studied so far, I don’t think that is very likely.
Janet added, “a third factor here is that equine intelligence can often be explained by the superiority of horses’ memories. Without a prefrontal cortex, horses’ memories are more “pure” than humans.” She also noted a need for caution, “when we ascribe a level of consciousness to equine emotion or thought. And when assuming that knowledge of past and future have the same effect on a horse that they have on a human.”
So what about my stories? Sometimes when I share one of my stories with a young client they ask, “Did this really happen?” My response is that some of the events (e.g. the day the water trough broke and the fact that Maggie regularly chases her egg when I’m feeding the horses) did and/ or do happen, and that the animals’ behaviour in situations described in the story fit with how I see them behaving in those and in similar situations. However, the discussions between the horses and what they were thinking at those times are both speculative and fictional. Is there anthropomorphism in there? Definitely, but I’m OK with that when it’s within the context of a story.
What about the Mystery?
As much as I’m seeking in this section to understand more about how equine brains work and to apply this in ways which will hopefully enhance the effectiveness and safety of EFW, I still feel a strong need to acknowledge that there remains much I, and even we as a species, don’t understand, and perhaps never will!
Some (ok, lots!) will be pieces that I just don’t understand yet, and that I can seek to learn about, and share with my students, as I continue my own learning journey. I’m confident I will learn some of these pieces from you, my students, as we discuss this section together! There are no doubt other pieces even the neuroscientists haven’t figured out yet, but will do in time. I believe there’s a third piece here too though – aspects that may remain a mystery to all of us, and I’m good with that.
There are the times when one of my horses ‘shows up’ for a client at exactly the right moment and in exactly the right way. Like the day I was with a client in our back pasture doing some trauma work with the horses spread out over a 15 acre pasture. Just as she was processing an intense moment of feeling alone, insignificant and abandoned, my whole herd arranged themselves in a semicircle around her at a distance of about 100 feet. Lucky coincidence? I’ve witnessed this sort of thing happen too many times now to explain it that way. Did they feel and respond to my client’s emotion? Research certainly indicates that they can perceive emotions in others, but that doesn’t fully explain their response that day. Were they tapping into some form of ‘knowing’ that we don’t yet understand? Neuroscience would suggest their brains are not built that way, but certainly can’t rule it out.
An area of research which comes to mind here is Heartmath. The following short video provides a bit of an introduction to Heartmath and horses:
You can also find more information about heartmath here: https://www.heartmath.org/heart-coherence/ and about the research completed with horses here: https://equusmagazine.com/blog-equus/california-study-documents-horse-heart-rate-coherence-and-links-to-human-interaction/
There are also many anecdotes which show things like dogs knowing when their owners are on their way home, even when the timing is different from any normal routines and their owner is many miles away; animals finding their way through unknown territory to old homes (or owners) well beyond what their sense of smell could explain; and animals who seem to sense and respond to a human’s distress or danger even when separated by several hundred miles. I don’t have an explanation for these examples and when I ran this past Janet she stated, “neuroscience has not yet begun to study such examples or attempt to provide explanations for it.” An interesting (if somewhat controversial in academic circles!) book if this area of discussion interests you is, “Dogs that know when their owners are coming home and other unexplained powers of animals‘ by Rupert Sheldrake PhD. Dr. Sheldrake suggests that theses phenomena depend, at least to some extent, on the bond between the human and animal. Thus it comes back to attachment again!
One of my favourite quotes comes to my mind here:
“I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick.
So, while I will continue in my quest to understand more, I’m also Ok with some aspects of the equine brain, and how they input into our EFW sessions, remaining a bit of a mystery. In fact I celebrate it!
Optional Section - Self Consciousness and How we Differ from other Animals
Preface to this section
At the risk of getting philosophical I am going to be brave and jump into some more tentative and personal territory here. Please feel free to disregard or disagree with anything you read in this section. Most of it is not research based or ‘fact’. Rather, it reflects my personal opinions and where I’m at in my own journey at this point of time. So give me a few years and I could be in a different place yet again! I hope so, because I hope I never stop learning, growing and challenging myself. The reality is that you are likely to be in a different place than I am on some or all of what I discuss below, and that is totally OK. More than OK, I welcome the wide variety of perspectives we may have on this and look forward to some interesting discussions!
So, please do not feel that you need to agree with all or even some of what I share below in order to work in this field or to train with Healing Hooves. There are many times that I don’t agree with me either! I realise I’m stepping into controversial areas here (including evolution and religion) and I’m doing so with some trepidation and anxiety, so please also be gentle with me where you do disagree! I’m not for one moment intending to suggest that my views here are any more valid than anyone else’s, but I do hope that some of what I share here may help make sense of some of the human/ non human animal distinctions and discussions, and perhaps even lead to safer and more effective EFW sessions.
If this is not feeling like an area of discussion you want to jump into right now please feel free to skip this section altogether!
Neither are ‘Superior’ but we are Different
There are many people in this world who believe humans to be the ‘superior’ species and all other animals to be ‘inferior’. This can be the root of ‘dumb animal’ or ‘just an animal’ thinking and talk, the justification for mistreating and using animals for human gain, and so much more. I don’t think anyone with that perspective would make it this far into this training, so I don’t have to spend much time here! The research certainly supports than equines (and other animals) are sentient beings: they are capable of experiencing a rich social life with those of their own and other species (including us), they are highly sensitive and notice many things in the world around them and within other animals (including us) that we often miss, they are smart and very capable of learning in many of the same ways we do (and often more effectively and quickly than we do), and they experience themselves, and perceive in others, varied emotions.
There are also people who would argue the other direction, claiming that animals actually have things clearer than we do, and that this in some way makes them superior to us. I think to one of my favourite quotes from Susan Chernak McElroy:
“In their innocence and wisdom, in their connection to the earth and its most ancient rhythms, animals show us a way back to a home they have never left.”
I have that quote scattered throughout my material and website and have often referred to it over the past two decades. I often hear from my students and clients, and have felt it at times myself, that they prefer relationships with animals over relationships with people. And I hear and read a lot about the wisdom of animals and the ways that this may be superior to human wisdom.
I also acknowledge that there is much we don’t yet understand – some of which I referenced within my paragraph “But what about the mystery?” within the ‘So What?” tab above.
However, while I agree with McElroy that our animals have much wisdom to share with us and that humanity could benefit from far better connections to the natural world we live within, I don’t believe that any form of ‘going back’ is either possible or recommendable.
The rest of this section is my attempt to explain why I believe this, and to explore another possible option.
I see two pieces at play here – one that is relatively easy to put words to and support with evidence, the other much less so. I don’t believe these two pieces are the same, but I do see them as related. How they are related, I’m not quite sure! But I see them as both being aspects of humanity that have evolved differently than the evolution of non human animals. One aspect is the pre frontal cortex, that part of our brain that is far more evolved and complex in humans and not present at all in equines. The other aspect is human self consciousness and both the potential and the anxiety this creates in humans, which seems to not be (as) present for or in other animals.
The Prefrontal Cortex
As we’ve explored throughout this section of the course the human prefrontal cortex allows us to process stimuli, information and emotions in complex ways. On the plus side it allows us to analyse, assess, plan, strategise, exercise impulse control, disagree with ourselves and much more. It takes about 25 years to develop in the human brain which is a testament to how complex it is. And that’s only if conditions are conducive and attachment needs have been met. As we learned in our section on frustration it’s our prefrontal cortex which allows us to mix emotions, to ‘think twice’, and thus to have impulse control, hopefully leading to more civilised and compassionate behaviour and relationships.
On the more challenging side, our prefrontal cortex can make life unpleasant for us when we second guess ourselves, judge ourselves (and others) and essentially get stuck in our own thinking processes and/ or create defenses (conscious and/ or unconscious) which inhibit the natural flow and intent of our emotional processes. We talk about some of these challenges throughout this course including when we look at the developmental process of integration. We also explore the ‘stuck’ aspect of emotional processing, expression and feeling in our sections on alarm dysfunction and the flight from vulnerability.
I can certainly see the temptation to wish we were more like our horses who don’t have this extra layer of reasoning and the complexity it brings, but I don’t think we have the option to make this change! Horses evolved differently from us, at least in part because they are prey animals. People with a compromised prefrontal cortex (e.g. due to illness, brain injury, lack of conducive conditions for its growth) tend to be more aggressive, to lack impulse control and to get themselves into all sorts of trouble; they do not tend to be happier, more content or nicer people to be in relationship with. And they still struggle with ‘stuck’ emotional processes.
The Double Edged Sword of Self Consciousness
If we look (briefly!) at the evolution of life on our planet we can see that all life very gradually (over billions of years) evolved from single cell beings which appeared within the first billion years of earth’s existence and went through a process of dividing and subdividing for about three billion years. Then, about a billion years ago, life moved from monocellular to multicellular and at some stage this life split into the separate categories of plant and animal life. 500 million years ago the first fish with internal skeletons arrived on the scene and then after another 50 million years came insects and then amphibians. Reptiles developed after another 150 million years and we entered dinosaur times. About 65 million years ago the first mammals arrived in the form of furry mouse like creatures. When we humans arrived on the scene depends on how you define our species. ‘Homo Erectus’ could be as old as 2 million years, but if we define our humanity in terms of self consciousness and language, we’ve only been around for about 150,000 years. Exactly how, when or why this move from conscious to self conscious life happened in the human species could be a very long debate which I won’t step us into right now! Regardless, for billions of years, there was abundant life on our planet which had no conscious awareness of itself; no awareness of their ‘being’ or ‘non being’, and no anticipation of (or anxiety about) death or the future. Self awareness in the human species changed all that.
Do you need a prefrontal cortex to be self conscious? Are any non human animals self conscious?
I don’t know the answers to those questions and when I asked Janet she said neuroscience doesn’t have these answers yet either. I suspect that some other primates have levels of self consciousness and I know they have a pre frontal cortex, albeit it much smaller and less complex than a human one. But I do believe that the human level of self consciousness is unique to humans and that this comes with many blessing, yet also many struggles, as well as a greater level of responsibility for how we live and act in this world – including towards other animals, other life forms, and towards the health and wellbeing of our planet as a whole.
The self conscious human species is blessed with many advantages in that we can anticipate and plan for the future, including protecting ourselves from potential danger and taking steps to secure our future wellbeing which, paired with that pre frontal cortex, has allowed us to become the most adaptable species on earth. We are also capable of complex relationships through which we, to varying degrees, no longer always put our own survival and wellbeing first, and which invite us to recognise and step into that enhanced responsibility I refer to above.
There is another side to this though. We are aware that we exist and with that comes an awareness that our existence has finitude. Because as soon as we know that ‘we are’ or about our ‘being’, we also know about the possibility of our ‘non being’. With that comes awareness of our mortality and with this a new form of anxiety not, to my knowledge, experienced by any other species. Our horses may experience alarm when a coyote runs in the field, but I don’t think they sit out in that field worrying about who will provide for them in their old age, or what happens to them after death. Described by Freud as, the ‘trauma of self consciousness‘ and by the progressive Christian theologian Paul Tillich as, the ‘shock of non being‘, this appears to be something only humans experience.
In order to survive the potentially overwhelming anxiety that accompanied our self consciousness, anthropology can show us that humanity developed many ever evolving ways of coping and of understanding and explaining the mysteries of this world, the factors and the forces that impact and threaten our survival, and the purpose of life. This has been a uniquely human endeavor which can be viewed as highly necessary and effective survival strategies; could we have survived the anxiety, that ‘shock of non being’ without these strategies? I guess we’ll never know! However, with the explosion of scientific knowledge over the past several hundred years, many of the explanations of the past no longer make sense. This is where I see us, as a species, entering a new level of anxiety and angst as scientific knowledge collides with some of the beliefs that have kept us emotionally safe, protecting us from that trauma of self consciousness, for thousands of years.
The response to this angst is as varied as we are. We currently have high levels of violence, mental health problems, suicide, addictions and more in our species; not things we typically see in non human animals. Many of our clients will be living with the impacts of these struggles and a major goal of these trainings is to understand these in terms of human development and defense, attachment needs and separation. The ‘shock of non being’ can certainly be viewed through the lens of the separation complex. We have fundamentalists within all religions who are accused by those with a secular worldview of hanging on to past explanations with denial, and at times attack, of scientific knowledge. We have many who move away from spiritual beliefs of any kind and focus only on what can be scientifically proven and explained. We also have many who look to animals and nature for the answer, seeking a simpler more natural way to living, and to sources of wisdom which perhaps our animals have retained (or maybe discovered) where we’ve forgotten. Increasingly these responses (which I see at least in part as fear based) seem to be creating silos where we each need to somehow choose, hold tight to and defend one set of beliefs to the exclusion of the others, rather than us all being open to the potential for the wisdom which may come from being curious about what we don’t know and which others may help us understand.
And again, just as we can’t change the fact that we have a prefrontal cortex, neither can we reverse the reality of self consciousness or ‘unknow’ what we know. We can benefit from relationships with horses, animals and nature, we can treat them with respect as fellow sentient beings, and we can appreciate and value their way of relating and being in the world as sentient prey animals. We can also learn about our emotional processes, including where they have become stuck or dysfunctional, by observing theirs; this I believe is enhanced because their emotional processes are not complicated by a pre frontal cortex, making them purer in expression and thus easier to observe. It is also enhanced by the fact that our horses don’t (in fact can’t) judge us which can create an experience of emotional safety for those of us in relationship with them. It is my hope (and a challenge to my self!) that we can also make space for the possibility of mystery and the existence of things we can’t explain, including within the emotional and cognitive lives of animals. For me, this includes being curious about the possibility that there is a different way of knowing and understanding, which animals may currently have purer access to than we do, and which science can’t (yet) explain. This is a growing edge for me which my rational brain resists, but my experiences with animals requires me to at least challenge! But what we can’t do, at least not in a healthy way, is to live and experience life as non self conscious animals live and experience life, and I feel we do ourselves and them a disservice if we try. We can love, honour and respect our animal partners but we can’t be just like them; our brains and awareness are simply different.
Moving beyond a ‘survival’ mentality to something deeper
I hear the temptation to ‘go back home’ and/ or to restrict ourselves to relationships with animals who don’t judge us. It feels safer in many ways. I believe there is much we can learn from and with our animals, but that we can do this best if we approach it with an understanding of how and why we are different as well as of how we are similar. I don’t see it as a choice between science and mystery, but as the courage to make space for and embrace both, with all the confusion and complexity that will bring. I think we need to keep evolving through where we are now to an even better place that invites us to step a little further into that area of responsibility that comes with those differences. This really is stepping into territory far beyond the scope of this course (out of my scope of practice!) but I will share that I see this as the next evolutionary step facing us as a species and that this involves us somehow moving past our essentially narcissistic and self centred survival focused mentality (be it survival of ourselves, our family, or our ‘tribe’ however we identify and define that) to a more expansive way of living, loving and being.
John Shelby Spong describes this as living fully, loving wastefully and having the courage to be all that we can be. And maybe our horses, and the invitations they offer us to experience both grace and space in relationship with them and with each other, can help us in this process. And who knows – they may even greet us in a new and deeper way when we get there, having come by another route. I hope so!
Group Discussion and Reflection
Copyright: © Susan McIntosh, Cremona, AB, Canada 2021
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