Brain Science as a Training Aid


It was a two-day-long science class and we were promised a brain dissection. I signed up immediately and have had the weekend marked off on my calendar for months. I can’t imagine you don’t want to hear all about it.

Our instructor was Dr. Stephen Peters, (Psy.D., ABN, Diplomate in Neuropsychology) a neuroscientist, horse brain researcher, and co-author of the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship. Mark Rashid and Jim Masterson each gave input over the weekend as well, but in the best possible sense, we were all there to learn. It was a wonderful group of profoundly interested horse people. You could tell because it’s summer and we were inside all day.

We got warmed up Friday night with slides of human brains, both healthy and with dementia. The next morning, we dove into the parts of the equine brain and what they do. The presentation included photos of horses getting CT scans and MRIs, images that made me want to jump up and do a few fist pumps! It’s the basis for The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness in 2012 when science confirmed what our intuition knew, that our animals have conscious awareness and emotions.

We went on to talk about sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of the autonomic nervous system, and neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and those misunderstood endorphins. All my favorite words, along with new words like dendrites, the neuropathways built when a horse stays in his parasympathetic state, when given time to be curious and think. Then the resulting dopamine reward, strengthening his self-soothing abilities. That might be the scientific description of confidence. It’s better science compared to a fear-based approach that sends the horse into a flight (or sympathetic) response. Affirming to hear, isn’t it?

Then the amygdala that never forgets trauma, a condition I work with so often in horses. This is the cup that holds all the issues of fear, pain, and survival of the damage from humans thinking they can “desensitize” a nervous system designed to react. In my mind’s eye is the large herd of damaged horses that stays with me; all the client horses I’ve worked with who don’t respond the way we’d like. We don’t have nearly the amount of research we need in the area of brain dysfunction.

Helping horses is part science and part art, but we will never be able to communicate effectively with horses until we understand how they think.

Sunday morning was the dissection. Now is a good time to tell you that in biology class, I was the one hyperventilating with my head between my knees on frog dissection day. I probably would today, too.  Herpetophobia, I’ve never been good with reptiles.

Horses are a different thing and I’ve pushed in at every chance, assisting vets with injuries, surgery, and euthanasia. Over the years, my emotions about blood and guts have had to settle, so I could do the best for the horse. But there was no life in this brain, so my emotions rested easily and let me listen. Gosh, that sounds like I managed to downregulate and stay in my sympathetic nervous system and learn. What does that remind me of?

Some participants were shy about this part, but many were drawn in as I was. Rubber gloves were passed around, as I focused, craning to see as Dr. Steve removed the meninges, the connective tissue covering the brain and spinal cord. It was a darker color and so tough, with no elasticity.

The brain itself is a narrow range of off-white colors. I didn’t expect it to have pastel-colored sections like book diagrams, but I was so struck by its cauliflower-colorlessness, for all the rich and intense activity that had gone on inside. Dr. Steve dissected the brain in half and described each part clearly. The olfactory area is separate from the other senses, that makes sense. By this second explanation of the parts of the brain, the words were more familiar and understandable but at the same time, they became more mysterious. Paper plates were passed with sections of the brain and we were encouraged to touch and hold them.

By the time the cerebellum reached me, many others had held it already. It was cool, no hint of blood or trauma. It was dense and somewhat flexible but not rubbery. There was a wonderful cohesive quality to the material. Holding this small tangerine-sized oval in my cupped hands, I was unprepared for what I felt. My breath shallowed as a huge wave of emotion exploded. Goosebumps, and love for this hunk of “cauliflower” resting in my palm. Humans romanticize about the heart of a horse but for me, it’s always been the horse’s intelligence, his awareness, and how he engages the world. This sacred weight in my hand was the physical home of all that I love about horses, the place where exterior actions become mental reality. It’s the place I want to know most. Holding it, detached and vulnerable, I was gobsmacked to the core, meaning in some off-white “cauliflower” part of me.

Sure, I’m a geek; a horse-crazy girl who spent the weekend scribbling notes instead of filling out my Medicare paperwork. As a professional I need to know this stuff but why should science matter to you?

For the quad-trillionth time, my favorite Xenophon quote from 430 B.C., “For what the horse does under compulsion … is done without understanding and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.” 

It’s the confluence of science, Xenophon, and equine calming signals, along with our own intuition, joining to confirm the art of affirmative horse training.

Some of us have been bullied by trainers who think horses are capable of diabolical plans to trick us into letting them win. Or by railbirds who ridicule us for ruining our horses by training “like a girl.” It can wear you down but stand tall.

There is a shift in paradigm happening in understanding and working with animals, and women are on the cutting edge. Lead with confidence because we’re right about this.

Bullies and naysayers, beware. Brain science has our back.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

61 thoughts on “Brain Science as a Training Aid”

  1. Fabulous. I’ve really come to brain fascination, both horse and human, in the last couple years, through my Eagala-motivated self study, which led me to dabbling in Natural Lifemanship principles as well. My “girly” thoughts from forever have been given a structure, a language, a confident, fresh perspective (on almost everything). So exciting.

  2. Brilliant, affirming, and kicking-up-my-heels exciting! As a student and practitioner of Trauma-Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP) via the therapeutic model taught by the Natural Lifemanship organization, I live and breathe these concepts as I bring them to the work with clients AND to my relationships with my own horses.

    Witnessing the professional “horse world” beginning to recognize the validity of brain science has been so gratifying. As you so succinctly put it, Anna: Brain science has our back. Best of all, it has the horses’ backs as well..

    Thank you for this, and for all of your educational and thoughtful posts.

  3. This is very interesting – the more we learn about these wonderful animals – the better we’re able to understand them. I’ve always felt women & girls just have an edge because we feel for them. (not only horses, but all animals). We understand because far too many of us have been put in the position of being “lesser”. Right?

    • I agree Maggie. I think we women have that experience of being predators by birth and also prey to our own species. It gives us a valuable perspective in training… IMO. Thanks, great comment.

  4. Always being cautious to not overly believe what I think is true “at my core”, I am extremely happy that I read this article and that what I “know” about my horse is backed by science. This is exciting!

  5. I love, love this post Anna! Thank you! Even though I’ve read may books and blogs about getting your horse to respect you and being the “leader” and chasing your horse around so it will join up with you, none of that really sat well with me intuitively. I didn’t know anything about horses when I got my big boy but I read everything the “experts” wrote. But I could never follow through and do what they said to do. I always had the feeling that my boy had feelings, likes and dislikes, and I felt compelled to treat him accordingly. He doesn’t like his space invaded, so I don’t do it. He is a good boy when I have him in a halter and lead rope, very compliant and gentle. But when he is free to roam, he doesn’t want to be bothered. I’ve learned to respect that. It makes me feel good to know that I’m not being a wimpy, push over with my horse. I really am just listening to him and trying to do what’s best for him.

  6. Amazing! What an experience for you and I definitely appreciate your sharing it here. Horses are such fascinating creatures on so many levels and here is one I had never thought much about so what a great opportunity to learn more. Thank you!

  7. I’m so pleased to hear how much you enjoyed the clinic ! Being a clinical psychologist I have always had an interest in human brains, . .. there are so many discoveries almost daily about the human brain, and my goodness, we’ve barely started with understanding the horse at that level.

    Probably not in my lifetime, but I know that many troubled horses could benefit from psychiatric medications, and I hope/believe that will evolve along with the brain science.

    But it’s always so rewarding when science backs up what we knew in our hearts already , isn’t it ?

    • It was the only disappointment; I really wanted to see a mustang brain next to a stalled horse’s brain. I wanted to know about injuries; Peters said concussions don’t show at that point. I wanted to know about disorders and all the things you want to know. But yes, very affirming. Thanks, Sarah.

      • So great to hear Anna. Im sure it was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately we are still missing the point in horses as in humans that the gut is what controls the brain. And it is the gut that is the primary brain. So we still have it a but backwards. While the Chinese have been studying this for over 5000 years and western Medicine can point out parts and pieces and neurochemicals it still is looking at things backwards. And doesn’t realize it.

  8. Being a Biologist by training and a horse woman by passion I would have loved this weekend too. I’m forever feeling like I need to forgive myself for being “stuck” in my training with my horse. I can’t seem to get past the psychology of it all. I am fascinated by this. Thank you Anna.

  9. “………parasympathetic state, when given time to be curious and think.” this is the bit that hit me, and the bit I have learned most from you Anna. I’ve always had patience, but now it is a different sort, deeper, the results being that the horse seems able to decide things. A few mornings in a row she seemed disinclined to enter the yard for her feed, I’d click and signal and she’d go in reluctantly. One morning after reading something of yours, I opened the gate and stood back for about 5 minutes for her to decide to enter. I allowed her to sort her own issue, waiting motionless and silent, and now we have no issue. Thanks for this post Anna, mostly way over my head, but your studies and writings are appreciated.

  10. Well, as you probably realise, I am completely jealous of your weekend. I want a weekend like that!!
    My mother said to me once “women will train horses better, because we have to work it out, we don’t rely on strength”.

    • Anne. Wise woman, your mother. Whatever I’ve had to do with an awful lot of feisty horses, old tuggers that mostly came from tough old stockmen, none of it has ever had anything to do with strength, as I never had much. Nor would my own horses tolerate men.

  11. Dr. Steve says something so simple and obvious that your chin drops. “It isn’t possible for a horse to respect a human; they have no frontal lobe.” Huh. Logic.

    Can you say a bit more about Dr. Steve’s statement? “Respect” is a word like “leader” (in that trainers will say, “If you don’t lead, the horse will.”) –it seems to translate into “fear.” The horse fears he will be punished. My 19 year old Arabian gelding, Ryder, seems to understand that I have good intentions, that I don’t force an issue, or talk loudly and angrily to him. That feels like “respect” in my language, but in his, that may be simply that I pose no threat to him.

    I studied with a neuro-physiologist for several years, learning about the human brain, but in regard to horses, I’m ignorant.

    • I can’t speak for Dr Steve, but my feeling was that he was referring to the old idea that horses have to be made, through fear, to ‘respect’ where as the brain science says horses don’t have that human concept or the same part of the brain that comes up with it. My own opinion is that it’s us that need to respect how their brain works differently than ours. Thanks, Dona.

    • Dona, I don’t think we gain respect with punishment and fear. Respect can only be gained with trust, and horses simply need to trust that we won’t punish them, but rather guide them. Obviously you have gained your horse’s trust. I think the difference with their brain is they are reactive, we are proactive, although I have encountered some very thinking horses, they can’t think for themselves if we don’t allow them the time to do so, and we need to try and interpret them. 40 yrs ago I was out in (for me) new country on an old local horse and he speared off the track???? Me, “Where are we going?” Him, “There’s a tiny spring just over here and I’m thirsty!”

  12. Bravo! I remember when I learned of the concept of positive reinforcement training. And that it was based on science. You didn’t have to buy a specially branded halter or a series of books and DVDs or enroll in expensive classes to “get it”. You had science to back you.

    Good ole science has been around much longer. I smile to think it’s there, over my shoulder, whenever I need it.

    Thanks for sharing Anna. Lucky YOU!

  13. Oh my goodness how I love this! When you wrote about holding that small but oh so important part of the horse in your hand, as I knew it was coming, my emotions were welling up too. I feel a sense of relief also -that our intuition about horses is validated. Thank you for this Anna. You give me strength in my little corner of the horse world. I will carry on and proudly be a part of this paradigm shift. ❤️

  14. Not much of a brainiac myself, I do believe there’s room for all of us in our quest to make the world a better place for horses and all living things, whether we rule by our gut, our heart, or our brains!

  15. I was lucky enough to be at this weekend’s seminar, and I’m very grateful for your superb summary. Regarding “respect”, for commentators above, it is a concept that the horse cannon understand as their brains do not have the capacity to think in this way. Horses are trained – accidentally or deliberately – to act as they do. If you (or a previous owner), for example, have allowed the horse to bump into you without correction, you have trained the horse that this is acceptable behaviour. The horse is not being “disrespectful”. We put human traits on horse behaviour, which is incorrect of course.

    It was an eye opening seminar, and will be invaluable in my future interactions with these amazing animals.

    • Thanks for the clarification, Sue. That comment did set people off and for all the things we wish/imagine horses think. Here’s the one that gets me in trouble. I ask clinic participants if horses love us.

  16. Anna, your deliciously phrased personal account knocked my lights out yet again. Felt emotional while reading of your reflections about amygdalae you’ve encountered, the “sacred weight” of a cerebellum in your hand and your balance of science and art while working from deep within yourself to help horses. Steve’s endeavors have intrigued me since reading his/Martin’s book. Savoring several presentations plus dialogue exchanges with him have further fueled my pursuits. Understanding the mental/emotional/physical impact of saddle equipment on equines remains my focused mission. I’m beyond grateful when horses and people let me know my work has resulted in positive differences. Thank you for yours.

  17. How exciting to attend such an event! It was my obsession with trying to understand my anxious horse’ behaviour that first led me to Mark Rashid, then Dr Peters and then I discovered your writing Anna, the science and understanding combined will hopefully change the way we humans interact with horses… a lifelong journey …. so incredible!!

    • Lifelong, but so exciting. I think we are all on a brink of some real understanding. Yes, totally incredible!! Hope you’re having a good summer, Annette. Hello to the barn.

  18. I so respect both Dr. Steve and Jim Masterson as they have presented theories and exercises that mirror my intuitive training for the last 30 years. Communication with my horses has been the opening of many hearts and minds when they witness and learn to be quiet minded themselves. Thank you for sharing your weekend experiences.

  19. My gelding suffered a severe head injury 10 months ago, and for a few weeks it was touch and go. I wish that I had kept a journal of his critical healing stage which lasted five months. It was so difficult to witness his physical limitations ; however, the veterinary team along with various equine professionals just kept telling me to let him heal naturally. FIVE LONG, QUIET MONTHS. And, then, one “magical” day, he trotted up for his morning feeding. Within days, he cantered, and even bucked. One constant that I can pull from my seemingly 24 hr observations-he ALWAYS moved in a straight line and he was ALWAYS quiet, and he is an extremely vociferous guy. Also, for quite a while, he seemed to have vision issues in shady areas. In summary, I’m happy to say that we have been trail riding and he’s back to talking to every man and/or beast he sees in our neighborhood.

    • So glad he recovered and is back to his old self. I find this is fascinating to read, I asked so many dysfunction questions and there is little research. I think more will come in the future. I imagine all of this was painful to witness, but it’s good to know. I believe in the “natural” (meaning give it time) methods. Glad you had good help for your boy, and thanks for sharing this, Laura.

  20. Great article! As a teacher of humans, I want my students to be in the rest state (parasympathetic nervous system) because that’s where they learn. Sounds like the same is true of horses.

    Can you clarify this: “But there was no life in this brain, so my emotions rested easily and let me listen. Gosh, that sounds like I managed to downregulate and stay in my sympathetic nervous system and learn. What does that remind me of?”

    Did you mean “parasympathetic” and not sympathetic?

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  21. Love this! It makes me think of all the amazingly clever and wonderful things I’ve seen my mare do. Of her own volition, not as part of a training session. To convince me she is a personality and can express as such. Does amazing things with her body I would not do. In the absence of the verbal skill, there are so many other ways. Maybe not frontal lobe cleverness. It’s deeper. Like the whole body is controlled by a spirit that is the real horse.

    When she knows I’m watching, but engrossed in conversation with fellow humans. I’ve left the tail brush on the broad table of her rump – temporarily! All at once she lifts her neck and tucks a bit at the pelvis. The brush tumbles to the ground. Not a shake, not a sidestep – this other thing. A lift of the spine? Not even sure what that was!

    She knows I noticed. I remarked on it, with gesture of the hands.

    The most amazing things.

  22. I’m wondering how horses establish herd hierarchy – is that considered a form of respect ? It’s very interesting to see herd dynamics. and how horses behave differently with different people.

    • I think the language of the herd is all about safety. Hierarchy changes in different situations, and they absolutely see us as individuals, too. I love watching it all unfold, too. Thanks, Catherine

  23. My vocation, a nurse caring for pregnant teens, is an area where respect is central. I can’t teach them the health and life skills they need if they don’t feel respected. My avocation, horse’s; the same holds true. I understand that horses may not be able to respect us, but trust and respect are closely aligned; and I think that horses can learn to trust…..or not, based on our interactions. Spectacular blog Anna; wish I could have attended this training right along side of you.

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