Good Horsemanship

How The Horse's Brain Works

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Training methods which are brain-compatible enhance learning because they are based on the natural functioning of the brain.

They strengthen the connections which exist between nerve cells or 'neurons' and they enhance the formation of new connections or 'synapses'.

Recent findings suggest that the brain has some plasticity and ability to change, and that parts of the brain are not necessarily fixed at birth but are shaped by experience and learning.

"There is direct evidence that when learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, and less input is required to activate established connections over time. New evidence also indicates that learning creates connections between not only adjacent neurons but also between distant neurons, and that connections are made from simple circuits to complex ones and from complex circuits to simple ones."

"What happens during a child's first three years can have a lifelong impact on mental development. Brains of children that received little stimulation have been found to be 20% smaller than those exposed to more stimuli. Why? Most connections between neurons in the brain, or synapses, are made in the first three years. Increasing the activity of a child's brain boosts the number of synapses formed. In one study, children who received lots of early stimulation had brains 15% more active than others."

Can this also apply to horses?

We believe so.

The brain has millions of neurons and dendrites (see image below). The more neurons, dendrites, and synapses, the more brain power. When a horse is stimulated through learning, the dendrites are stimulated, they grow, which facilitates learning.

In early stages of learning, neural circuits are activated at a low strength.

"With more experience, practice, and exposure, the circuits become stronger. As exposure is repeated, less input is needed to activate the entire network. With time, activation and recognition are relatively automatic. This also explains why learning takes time. Time is needed to establish new neural networks and connections between networks."

Teach a behavior without over-doing it; give the pathways a chance to establish and grow; re-visit the behavior in a few days and the horse should catch on quicker.

The more your horse is stimulated, the more dendrites, the more brain power he has; the faster he learns. The horse's brain starts out as a small two-way road when he learns his first behavior which may take a while, but as his learning progresses, his brain turns into an eight lane freeway, and he learns faster!

The brain's plasticity also means that there are times when negative experiences or the absence of appropriate stimulation are more likely to have serious and sustained effects.

Not only in the early years, but later on the brain has the capacity to change. Appropriate timing also plays a part in that ability. For example, if a horse has some problematic behaviors, the brain itself can be changed with timely and appropriate re-training.

If a positive training paradigm is offered to the horse, new pathways will be established and the older ones will shrink. Care should be taken not to expose the horse to previous stimulus that would reactivate the old pathways, and the new dendrites and synapses will grow stronger.

Horse's brain neuron dendrites

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