Are Horses Left or Right Brain Dominant?

Hi there Julie,

The question - it is kind of in depth, but since you are a trainer and know everything - I thought that you would know. Humans are either left- or right-brain dominant - those who are right brained have been generally known to been more creative and artistic and more free thinking and sometimes have learned things differently than others. Horses also favor one side versus the other - many times the left because of training. Have you found that horses that are say - more right sided, train differently, than others? I figured that it would not be a huge difference, but perhaps they would respond better to one-thing verses the other. So basically - are horses parallel to humans in personality with whichever side of their brain is dominant?

Thanks, Jess, Phoenix AZ

Jess, your question is an interesting one and a subject I have enjoyed studying. The short answer is that no, horses are not right-brained or left-brained like humans, as it relates to personality, but they are right and left brained. The human traits that you describe such as artistic ability or higher logic abilities, horses do not possess at all. They simply do not have that great an intellectual capacity. The long answer follows.

Like the human brain, the horse brain is divided into two lobes, the right brain and the left brain. Like humans, the right brain controls the left side of the body and visa-versa. However, in humans the two hemispheres of the brain are connected with neurological connective tissue known as the corpus colossum, which allows messages to be transferred back and forth between the two hemispheres.

So we think with both sides of our brain all the time. When we talk about someone that is "right brained" we are saying that person's right brain is dominant and since the capacity of creativity seems to be in the right side of the brain, that person has more artistic ability. We all have the capacity for creativity (horses don't as far as we know) and it is possible that all of us could express ourselves creatively, but some people seem to have more talent than others.

You might be able to tell from my ability to explain things logically and organize information, that I am of the "left brained" persuasion, that is why I don’t do much creative writing. Numbers and logic are very easy for me. Remember, these are capabilities that horses do not possess. There is a fantastic story from the early 1900s about a horse that appeared to have mathematical abilities. He could paw out the answer to any math problem; anyone could ask the horse to solve a problem, even when the owner wasn’t present. After much testing, the behaviorists were stumped as to how the horse was able to do math. Finally, someone had the idea to put a visual barrier between the humans and the horse and the horse could no longer solve problems. The moral of the story was that the horse had learned to watch the humans for reactions that indicated he had the correct answer. He would begin to paw until he saw the right reaction in the humans and then quit. It worked every time and the horse was a genius, but he did not have mathematical ability. This is another great example of how horses train humans, but that is a whole different subject (don't get me started ;-)

So, horses don't really have the intellectual capabilities for the personality traits that we think about in humans as right-left brained. The dominant side does effect how the horse moves and responds to signals from its environment. It also affects how the horse learns. And although horses have little intellectual capacity in terms of logic and problem solving, they do learn quite well. For better or for worse, horses learn the wrong things just as quickly as the right thing, and it is far easier to teach them the wrong things.

Since there is little communication between the hemispheres of the horse's brain, a horse pretty much thinks with one side of his brain at a time. This has many implications for behavior and safety. For learning, this one-sidedness means that we have to train both sides of the horse's brain, but we should only work on one side of the horse at a time. In other words, if you are training the horse to be mounted, you would work first on the left side, train the skill thoroughly, then go over to the right side of the horse and start over with the training until the horse gets it.

For some horses, the second side will come much more quickly; for others, it is like you are starting all over (especially if you have not handled the horse from both sides). Being able to switch from side to side fluidly with any skill will only happen once the horse is thoroughly trained on both sides. How quickly a horse picks up a new skill on the second side is a good indicator of how balanced, or two-sided the horse may be (which of course is a good sign for performance training). While we are on the subject of horse brains (or lack thereof ;-) there are a couple other important characteristics to consider. Forgive me, I am not a vet or professor, but it goes something like this... Like us, horses have an upper brain (cortex) and a lower brain (brain stem, amygdala). The upper brain is where higher thought occurs; the lower brain controls instinctive behaviors, survival instinct and basic life functions like breathing and heart rate. Humans have a very large cortex and small brain stem. Horses have a large brain stem and small cortex.

If you think about it, this fits perfectly with what we know about the differences between horses and humans. We have tremendous intellectual capacity but are not always keen on instinct. For instance, we have the ability to invent a nuclear bomb, without realizing that it could kill the whole planet. Horses, on the other hand, have very keen instinctive response, but very poor problem solving ability. You can train them to do just about anything, but in an instant, your well-trained horse can become a 1000 keg of dynamite capable of spontaneous combustion.

Given the horse's theoretically inferior intellectual capacity, it is embarrassing how easy it is for a horse to train humans to do their bidding. But that's an answer for another question and I've got about 20 others in my inbox to get to! Thanks for thinking about it ;-)

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host

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Comment by Julie Sweet on March 5, 2010 at 2:14pm
Thanks, Julie I look reading your articles, very informative ;-)

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