Does the Horse Have a Holographic Brain?

Two weeks ago an interesting thing happened when I rode Mia.  I finally had found my old string fly fringe that goes over the browband.  I really like the anti-fly tack that was developed in the days before effective fly spray.  I try to avoid the fly sprays and persticides as I do not think they are good for my compromised nervous system.  I put ear nets on my horses when the gnats appear in the spring, and I also use a fly whisk on the horses who accept it when the biting flies appear.  I was really excited to find the fly fringe again!  I just hoped it would help Mia with those pesky, irritating face flies.


When my son and I got to the stables there was chaos and confusion.  Debbie and a lot of her students were loading up to go to a show, at least three 6 horse trailers plus various two horse trailers, doors banging, horses neighing, and people running around trying to find everything.  The only place we could find out of the way had plenty of flying insects and Mia was shaking her head alot while we groomed her and I rasped her toes.  She was still shaking her head even after I cleaned out her ears and put the ear net on under the bridle.  When I tied the fly fringe to the bridle she immediately calmed down and stopped shaking her head.  Triumph, it worked!  I moved the fringe around a little and she acted like nothing was wrong.  As we walked to the ring Mia looked at all the chaos through the fringe with calm interest, she'd seen it all before.


Mia stayed absolutely calm until I mounted and asked her to walk.  All of a sudden this calm reliable slow moving creaky mare transformed herself into a snorting jogging motion machine who had forgotten everything I'd taught her the past 2 years.  And what a jog!  Smooth supple movement, full of forward impulse, she was acting like she was decades younger.  I got her over to my son and got her to stop and my son took off the fly fringe.  Instant transformation, all of a sudden I had the old Mia back, creaky, irritable, obedient and calm.  She proceeded through the rest of the ride as if nothing unusual had happened even though all the chaos and confusion outside the ring was reaching its peak.  She did shake her head vigorously at some particularly irritating flies but other than that she was her usual self. 


Over the past 40 years I have been trying to figure out how horses think.  It is obvious to every horseman and horsewoman that horses do not think like people do.  During this time I rode mostly horses that I trained myself, starting with my green-broke first horse and a few young ones who I started, though I did successfully retrain a ruined mare also.  It was only when I started riding other people's horses, older horses often with unknown pasts and frequently ridden by others, that I really started noticing just how much different horse's thinking processes are.  When I ride and train a horse I am always trying to engage with the thinking part of the horse's brain.  This is the only way I have found that trains the horse to adapt to my considerable physical handicaps.  While I ride I "converse" with the horse.   So it is very noticeable to me when all of the sudden the horse's brain seems to flip and all of a sudden I am riding a different horse, one that knows nothing!


Around a year ago I started formulating this holographic brain hypothesis.  I hope you have seen a holographic picture, you can go around it and see the different angles, and you can focus on different parts of the whole picture.  Now imagine a horse's brain like this, there is the whole horse and at the same time there are parts of the horse's brain that "look" different.  Any change of environment can send the horse to a different part of its brain.  If the rider/trainer has already trained this part of the brain everything goes pretty good, but if this particular part of the brain is not trained then all of a sudden you are on an untrained horse.  Any change of fitness also sends the horse into a different part of the brain, one that needs to be trained like all the others.  Different types of weather and pain also sends the horse to a different part of its brain.  This is part of the reason why it takes so long to train a horse, at each stage of training, at each stage of fitness, and in each different environment the horse switches to a different part of the brain that has to be trained, sometimes from the beginning!  We horse trainers need a lot of patience, because we have to train each part of the horse's brain.  It can take a lot of time.  And then when pain enters the picture we have to do it all over again.


I also believe that the horse remembers in "total pictures", there is the stimuli and the horse is all of a sudden back in the past and everything it has learned since the original memory causing occasion is just not in that part of the brain, unless that particular memory complex has been gone through and retrained.  Mia's triggers are--snaking hissing hoses, my fly whisk, and now the fly fringe.  Any of these send Mia into a flashback, all of a sudden this normally calm been there done that mare is in a frenzy and will not calm down until the stimulous is removed, then she is immediately sane.  She starts dancing in place if she can't run away.  Her eyes become anxious and she just won't calm down no matter what we do.  If I can get her attention away from the scary thing right when she starts becoming anxious she is pretty handable though still snorty, but if I wait too long (three seconds or so), only getting away from whatever bothers her will calm her down.  I think these three things trigger memories.  With the fly whisk and fly fringe she turns into this barely trained horse.  Could it be that a previous rider, equally determined to protect Mia from flies, LIKED his horses to jog in place?  Some people seem to think that this makes them look like good riders---"ooh, look at him controlling that uncontrollable horse, he must be a good rider!" type of thing.  This has been the ruin of many a good horse.  Whatever happened in the past, these memories are still there and are vivid whenever the stimulus re-appears.  It is just our bad luck that two old time effective anti-fly pieces of equipment trigger this frenzy.  It could be anything at all, for instance Mia also hates curb chains.


I know many ways of "curing" Mia of these fears.  I elect not to do them.  Mia is around 30 years old, and many of these memories seem to be ancient and deeply rooted.  To inure her I would have to 1) expose her repeatedly to the negative stimulus, and 2) force (yes, force) her to focus on me instead of the scary thing.  Mia has been very good to me, she always gives me fair warning about any suspected snakes and as long as we are 20 feet or so away from them she calms down though she keeps an anxious eye open.  The fly whisk and fly fringe I'll just do without, they just are not worth putting her through the trauma necessary to de-sensitize her.  Since she has been utterly reliable through several unexpected scary things, like when a horse got loose and galloped wildly around the ring trailing a lunge line buzz bombing Mia, or when the tarp over the shavings got halfway loose and started violently flapping in the wind, these problems are not the fault of Mia's temperament.  They are deep rooted memories, and I try to avoid triggering them.  When they are triggered I get Mia to obey me, and eventually that becomes its own memory and habit.  Since she is 30 I doubt I will ever get her happy around suspected snakes.


Cider has also recently come up with unexpected flashbacks.  These seemed to be triggered by the anatomic girth I tried and by the running martingle coming up between her front legs.  With these two things Cider eventually turns into a nappy spoiled pony, refusing to go forward in response to the normal leg aids (I end up using my seat.)  She is now back in her old girth and I've decided I'll just have to learn to use the Spirit bridle without the running martingle.  These seem to be old defensive maneuvers that obviously were successful when she was a leased pony.  I've never run into this particular phobia (tack between the front legs) before but it is there with Cider.  Since she is so willing to move forward no matter what else I have put on her (a LOT of different types of tack) I figure that this must also be an old memory.  I do not know what happened or what could have made any piece of tack in this one place so unacceptable.  So I will avoid triggering these memories again, and eventually I will have the old ever forward energizer bunny Cider back.  She normally loves moving forward!


So people, you buy a perfectly trained calm horse, bring it home and it turns into this completely untrained frantic horse--the horse is not out to get you, don't take it personally, the horse is in a different part of its brain.  Patient training will educate this new part of the brain and in a while, if you do it right, you will have the horse you thought you bought.  Does your old reliable horse suddenly go bonkers in new conditions?  Maybe an old traumatic memory has been triggered, or it could just be the horse moving its mind to an untrained part of its brain because it is in a new environment.  Again, patient training is the answer.  All the old horsemen say that it takes a LONG time to completely train a horse.  I think this is why.  With consistent training over the years you can end up with a totally reliable horse, he's been there, done that, and every single nook and cranny of his brain has been trained and educated.  Until then be prepared for surprises, and be prepared to go over the basics over and over again.  Eventually the horse learns how to learn and sometimes will be able to "reason" its way around new situations, at least until the fire breathing dragons of the world appear.  Then it is back to square one again. 


Have a great ride! 

Jackie Cochran


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Comment by E. Allan Buck on May 23, 2011 at 10:51am

The 'flashback' for horses is no different than for humans.

One of my clients has a wonderful horse who has shown a head shyness......yesterday I discovered that he had be hit by a man in the head....

I discovered this by his response to me in a situation....previously we could not pin point the cause, now  we know.

And rather than focus on the cause, we shall go forward with his schooling and allow time and patience to relieve his fears.

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