How Brain Science Can Revolutionize Horsemanship

Beyond learning how horse and human brains operate in isolation, we must reflect on how they interact. Mutual interaction is the key to teamwork. It’s the rare partnership in life that lets two brains work together, especially two brains from different species, but that’s exactly what brain-based horsemanship offers. A flutter of nerve cells fires in your brain as you ask a horse to move forward. The horse takes a step, while his brain sends neural signals back to you. You pick them up, and so on. 

Two brains dancing together like this is as natural a form of communication as two species can enjoy. How does the process work? Why does it sometimes fail? How can you maximize it for greater success? 

One thing to do is reject the notion that horses must always bow to human ways of thinking. Of course, you set clear boundaries and firm expectations, but training is much more effective—and more rewarding—when you listen to what your horse is trying to convey. Hollywood sells that romantic myth of horse whispering, but the best trainers don’t whisper—they watch, listen, learn, and think. The horses do the whispering. The human’s job is to rivet attention to their faintest hints. Let’s try to connect with animals at their level, instead of demanding that they constantly adjust to us. 

To develop mutual interaction of this sort, ask yourself what’s going on inside the horse’s head. Suppose you want your horse to lead quietly. Most educated handlers start with the question, “How can I teach him that?” But you need to take a step farther back, asking, “How does he learn?” You want him to stop shying at unexpected sights, “How does he see? Why is he afraid?” You’d like to develop a closer attachment with him, “How does he bond? What does security mean to him?” 

All well and good, you might say, but tick…tock…. Asking these questions and learning the answers takes time. It’s faster to just make a horse follow orders. (Well, sometimes.) But forcing is not teaching, and it doesn’t last. Instead, why not pique the horse’s interest, appeal to his natural curiosity, encourage him to want to meet our needs? And, in turn, let’s meet his! 

Working with a horse’s brain—instead of against it— smoothes every mutual interaction, from a pasture greeting to open flight over an eight-foot puissance wall. Too often, horse-and-human partnerships are a one-way street on which we command and they respond. To a surprising degree, many horses accept unilateral pronouncements. But training improves by leaps and bounds—becoming safer, gentler, faster, more effective, and immeasurably more interesting—when communication within the partnership flows in both directions. We then begin to experience the world through the brain of another species. It’s an amazing feeling, and it illuminates everything we can know about true horsemanship. 

Cross-Species Communication 

Asked which species of animal is best at mutual communication with humans, most people would guess dogs. After all, dogs are the most common pet and have evolved an innate alertness to human signals. But I believe the potential for cross-species communication is much greater between horses and riders. Why? Because in addition to the voice, gesture, and body language we use with dogs, our bodies are in frequent contact with our horses. Each party transmits and receives information through skin, muscles, tendons, weight distribution, and balance. This contact triggers that dance between equine and human neurons that I mentioned a moment ago.

Despite their size, horses are unbelievably sensitive. Imagine asking a horse to slow his pace while working under saddle. One of the cues a good rider offers is to squeeze her shoulder blades together, opening the upper chest. This change causes a neural network to fire in the horse’s brain. The trained horse instantly responds by slowing slightly. That response is conveyed through the rider’s body directly to her brain, which sends the next message to the horse. And so on, with neurons firing from equine brain to human brain and back. It’s the equivalent of a direct neural link with no translation needed—like mainlining nitroglycerine straight to the heart instead of letting a pill melt under your tongue. 

By exploring our own and our horses’ minds, we can achieve several goals: 

• We can deepen bonds by adapting our forms of communication to theirs. Connect with a horse, and suddenly he trusts you to take him to fearful places and ask him to perform difficult feats. 

• With knowledge of his brain, we can train an animal with insight and kindness instead of force or demand. If the animal knows we understand his fears and will accommodate them while teaching, we are on the road to success. 

• We can comprehend a horse’s misbehavior in ways that prompt creative new solutions. Why is this sorrel mare refusing to load? Let’s look at how her brain works and what she’s telling us with her form of communication. 

• By analyzing the differences between species’ brains, we can reduce our own mistakes. Any animal trainer will tell you that the hardest part of the job is training the human. 

This excerpt from Horse Brain, Human Brain by Janet Jones, PhD, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com)

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