Horses flourish when humans get the science

If you’ve ever sought a second medical opinion or gotten more than one estimate for a home repair, you know that each vested party has a different take on things.

Dr. Steve Peters

Working with horses, every trainer has a distinctive manner of looking at the horse, of training the horse, and of conveying his knowledge to the audience.

The horse, however, has the facts. Its movements and behaviors are results of the horse acting and reacting to its world as only the horse understands. Thankfully, science is helping us humans have a better appreciation for just how and what our horses are taking in and processing. Science can confirm or refute that what we’re doing is appropriate. Research supports, for instance:

— letting horses live in a group and live where they can move about

— solely offering hay and grass without grain or other condensed food

— when riding, letting a horse have free movement of its head for better balance and vision.

These topics and others have been discussed by Dr. Steve Peters in Evidence-Based Horsemanship, the book he co-authored with Martin Black. Increasingly, clinicians are gravitating to the understandings Peters and Black pioneered. The more the merrier, say the pair. As they write in the book:

EBH is an approach that continually evolves as our knowledge base grows. Finding that one has done something the wrong way may be just as valuable as getting it right if it refines the knowledge base so others do not have to struggle with a similar wrong turn.

This approach is not concerned with arguing over a school of thought or following one trainer over another. Egos, persuasive salespeople, and charismatic personalities would have little relevance to EBH.

With that philosophy in mind, the EBH world is indeed growing to incorporate other clinicians who also have an appreciation for the science. Years ago, trainers at the Horsemen’s Re-Union (including Thomas Saunders V, Bryan Neubert, Chris Cox, and Craig Cameron) absorbed EBH presentations. Said Saunders at the time, “it’s something we were seeing, but we lacked the vernacular for it.”

Jim Thomas

More recently, West Taylor, who works almost exclusively with wild horses, hosted Dr. Peters for a weekend event in St. George, Utah. This week, Jim Thomas will host Peters at the Healthy Horse weekend in North Carolina.

As the book states:

There is room for everyone under this umbrella to educate themselves by asking:
“What does our current scientific knowledge of the horse, when applied and empirically observed, show me about getting the best outcomes possible for me and the horse?
Does it work?
What’s the proof?
What is it based on?”

The Brain’s “Low Road” and “High Road”

Mechanics know that one big problem – smoke under the hood – is often caused by tiny, less visible issues. To solve the big problem, you need to understand finer points and foundational concepts. The more you know, the more effective you can be in solving the big problem.

The same can be said with horsemanship and the details of horse brain function. The more you know, the more effective you can be in solving behavior or training problems.

Two books on human brain function are helping me sort through what I see and do with horses. They are reaffirming some of my techniques while dismissing others. This winter, I’ve read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.

Read about Coyle and Deep Practice here.

While it’s a mistake to interpret animal behavior through a lens of human dynamics, better know as “anthropomorphizing,” it is appropriate to relate basic actions and reactions of horses with humans. Why? We humans share with horses the same primitive layers of the brain: the reptilian system, the limbic system, and the brain stem.

We also share basic neurological chemistry and building blocks. The way our brains grow and function is largely the same.

My partner, Dr. Steve Peters, and I have several rescued horses.

  • Brooke, for instance, was kept in a stall with three other horses for years. At every feeding, she had to fight for her food. Read about her here.
  • Jolene, the mule, was born in Missouri, sold at an Iowa auction, and has a history of bolting at the slightest cue. Read more about her here.

Courtesy of NY Times

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk has helped me better understand the neurology behind their “bad” behaviors.

He explains:

The thalamus, inside the limbic system, receives sensory information from the eyes, nose, ears, and skin. It is the “cook” within the brain. The thalamus stirs all the input from our perceptions into a fully blended autobiographical soup, an integrated, coherent experience of “this is what is happening to me.”

It passes information in two directions, down to the amygdala (the primal “low road”) and to the cortex (the conscious “high road”).

The route to the amygdala is several milliseconds faster than the route to the cortex. In other words, the emotional brain has first dibs on interpreting incoming information.

Don’t be confused by the word “emotional.” It is from the Latin word, emovere, and refers to the limbic system and the Flight or Fight response.

Van Der Kolk continues:

The amygdala is the brain’s smoke detector. It identifies whether or not incoming input is relevant to our survival. It does so quickly and automatically, with help of feedback from the hippocampus, a nearby structure that relates the new input to past experiences.

If the amygdala sense threat, it sends an immediate message to hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system to orchestrate a whole body response. It decides whether incoming information is a threat before we are consciously aware of the danger. By the time we realize what is happening, our body may already be on the move.

Danger is a normal part of life…[but] after trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system… Every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.

I can’t help what happened in the past, but I can encourage new habits by the way I routinely, patiently encourage them to not hit the low road, ie, by reacting with fear or aggression.

It’s hard work and, in my experience, it takes years to carve out new, healthier, safer neural pathways. Eventually, I’ve observed that Van Der Kolk is correct:

Generally the rational brain can override the emotional brain, as long as our fears don’t hijack us…But the moment we feel trapped…we are vulnerable to activating old maps and following their directions.

Confidence in Evidence-Based Horsemanship Terms

How to build self-confidence in a horse?

It’s a concept to be discussed at next month’s Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, led by Martin Black and Dr. Steve Peters.

brainPeters said giving horses repeated exposure to novel experiences is a great way to down-regulate their fear component and nurture what we call confidence.

Here’s what a horse challenge (jumping a log, crossing a creek, loading into a strange trailer, learning the feel of spurs) might look like on the neurological level:

Sensations or neural inputs travel up to the thalamus, a part of the brain that’s like a telephone switchboard, routing nerve messages. If you’ve presented the experience in a positive manner, the horse’s reaction will be one of curiosity but not fear. It will likely proceed with your request. The neural message will head from the thalamus to the motor strip, a section of the horse’s brain dedicated to movement.

However, if the sensation is accompanied by pain or fear, the route from the thalamus will lead to the hypothalamic pituitary, adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s central response system to psychological or physical stress.

 Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

“You never want responses to be routed to that pathway,” said Peters. The more consistently you can run sensations through the thalamus and toward where they need to go (usually the motor strip), rather than towards a stress-related response, the better off you’ll be.”

When the horse is able to predict this positive outcome, despite the novelty of each experience, it becomes more confident.

Confidence is not to be confused with trust and joining up. As in, “He’ll go anywhere with me. That’s how much he trusts me.”

When working with a horse, we do not want a horse that relies on our leadership in a toddler-ish, hand-holding manner. Teaching a horse to stick with us like that, says Black, can perpetuate a needy dependency. Women, especially, are prone to nurturing a warm and fuzzy relationship in which the horse does indeed stick with us, he said. But when things get dicey (a horn blares, a ceiling falls, a door slams), the horse will look to the rider as Martin_10an island of safety and it will want to be ON that island (when the rider is on the ground).

“I see it all the time. Students have developed a “trusting” relationship, but then are run over by their horses. It’s dangerous,” said Black.

“The self confidence I am talking about is when they are very sure of their decision making and their ability to judge and handle difficult situations. This comes from giving them experience in difficult situations, giving them choices, and helping them learn the avenues to success. If they run into more discomfort with the wrong choices, then they learn to make the right decisions without us nurturing them to the right answer.”

Learn more about the Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar.

For Lent, can you give up being human for a while?

Our piece on the Death of Natural Horsemanship was one of the most circulated pages ever for BestHorsePractices. It invigorated many lengthy online conversations on the state of today’s horsemanship, which brand of horsemanship is best, and what it all means.

IMG_7228Absent in the conversation, of course, was the other animal in the equation, the horse.

  • What would the horse think of all the scuttlebutt?
  • What would he think of those professing allegiance to one training method or another?

Horses likely don’t see any difference between a Parelli Carrot stick, a Clinton Anderson Handy stick, or a tree branch with a plastic bag tied on the end of it.

They don’t wince over your word selection or accent.

They care less what boots you’re wearing.

They do pay attention to how you use that stick.

They do hear what kind of emotion is put into your words.

They do care how you move in those boots.

In other words, the horses operate more like this: Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18

rrrYou might consider returning the favor. Put down the books and DVDs, walk away from screen time, be quiet, and watch them.

— Watch them move in the field with herd mates.

— Watch how they behave in confined spaces or around you.

— Watch for their curiosity.

— Watch the micro-movements of their ears, eyes, and how they position their bodies vis a vis you.

Put yourself in their proverbial shoes and stop being human for a while. Or: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. James 1:19

As Dr. Temple Grandin wrote in Humane Livestock Handling:

Troubleshooting animal behavior is easier when you understand how animals think…Some adult humans think almost entirely in words. Their thoughts include very little visual imagery. Animals, however, think only in pictures, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes.

Verbal or word-based thinkers tend to overlook the sensory details that form an animal’s world. This becomes a problem when people handle animals based on their own needs and perceptions rather than on the needs and perceptions of the animals they handle.

rrDr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, says we need to distinguish horses as who, not what.

“Who” animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are. They know their enemies. They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries…A vivid familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.

The lives of our equine partners is deeper and more complicated than we often appreciate. When we slice and dice their reality into neatly packaged portions, then marinate it in fancy jargon, the result is as removed from realness as a fast food burger from cattle on the range.

Seek knowledge, of course. But don’t forget that your best teacher may be waiting for you out in the paddock or field.

Read more about how research can enlighten your horse work.

Read more about Learning to Connect.

Read more about compassion and intelligence.


Life-long Learning, Part II

Read Part I

suemonkkiddI just finished reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. The story takes place in South Carolina nearly 200 years ago, when the acquisition of knowledge for women and slaves was risky business. Books and educational resources were coveted treasures for Kidd’s main characters.

Nowadays, we’re awash in learning opportunities. Information flows like water from the Internet spigot. Our most important skill has become filtering the torrent.

As a life-long learner, here are some strategies I like to keep in mind.

Be wary of cognitive dissonance. That’s when you rationalize old beliefs and behaviors in the face of new and contradictory information. — calbinLike not wearing a helmet when you know it could save you from a brain injury. — Like forcing your horse across a stream, when you know it’s poor form.

Be wary of schools of thought, especially old ones.

Learning Theory and Behaviorism, which focus on stimulus and response, continue to be popular despite their inability to address what we now know about neuroscience and cognition. I talked with Frans de Waal, a renowned scientist at Emory University, about it. He explained:

“Behaviorism considered the animal mind a black box. All we needed was behavior. No mental states or emotions were needed…[It] has stifled many attempts to consider animal intelligence. It has denied animals an inner life. Or at least, took the position that their inner life was unimportant and could not be accessed by science…They had not counted on neuroscience, which does access the black box, and not on the new studies of cognition which indicate all sorts of mental processes and, of course, emotions in animals.”

Read more about de Waal and animal intelligence here.

close up copyDon’t let your faith get in the way of being a good learner.

Randy Rieman is one of the most devout Christians I’ve ever met. But he’s just as committed to a life of learning and encourages students to “think outside the box in everything in life.” He adds, “The more you realize that there’s way more outside the box than there is in the box, then the more exciting it becomes to think outside the box.” Read more about Rieman.

Talk to your Outer Circles.

My friend, David Sturt, wrote about outer circles in Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love:

“We talk to the same five or ten trusted confidants, allies, and buddies about 80 percent of the time…Our outer circle simply means those people that we don’t normally talk to …That’s where we’ll find divergent thinking, unexpected questions, novel ideas, differences of opinion, and added expertise,“ he adds.

Read more about it here.

Talking with outer circles stretches your comfort zone. As Rieman likes to say: Your circle of comfort and your horse’s circle of comfort – they must constantly expand, otherwise they will shrink.” Read more about Comfort.

Consider the hierarchy of evidence.

Your favorite clinician doesn’t always have the best answers, even if he/she is a smooth talker and looks good. Read more about levels of research here.

The most circulated items on social media are almost always fat on flash, thin on real science. Read about the Information Diet.

Have fun out there. As Ms. Frizzle would say, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get messy.

msFrizzle copy


Alberta conference low on bling, high on benefits

Of all the expositions and conferences out there, the Alberta Horse Owners and Breeders Conference stands hands above all. It’s a serious affair, run by the LOGOblack copyHorse Industry Association of Alberta to strengthen their community  “through advocacy, education and research,” according to its mission. The days are full of lengthy educational sessions and the venue is decidedly thin on trade booths. If you’re interested in bling and silly ways to spend money on horses, stay home.

But if you like hearing about sound equine research and serious-minded, welfare-oriented advocacy, this weekend’s for you. (Plus, the cold and dreary Red Deer conditions combined with paltry dining and entertainment options will only heighten your interest in conference sessions.) It annually draws at least 500 attendees from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, and the Yukon, according to conference manager Robyn Moore.

I missed this year’s event in Red Deer, but am happy to report on some highlights as provided by Moore:

  • 090615b1

    Dr. Rebecca Gimenez

    Dr. Rebecca Gimenez presented “Emergency Preparedness on the Road and on the Trail.” Always an excellent presenter, Gimenez discussed obstacles and measures to take before and during an equine emergency.

Bottom line: If you think it’ll never happen to you, you’re mistaken. Get educated. Educate those around you. Prepare.

Read more about Gimenez and TLAER here.

  • Dr. Sheryl King discussed stable management’s impact on horse behavior. The President of the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois and Professor Emeritus at Southern Illinois University Carbondale sent a clear message to those still keeping their horses in stalls: You’re harming them.
    Dr. Sheryl King

    Dr. Sheryl King

Over six years, King and her students studied the effects of confinement (full and partial, during days and/or nights). Compared with horses given 24/7 pasture access. Stalled horses (even for part of the day or night) had increased incidence of digestive disorders, hoof and musculoskeletal problems, and development of stereotypies (like cribbing and weaving). All “damaging effects of too much care,” she said. Read more about King’s research here.

Bottom line: Less is More

Read more about how Less is More and how to make a healthier environment for your horse.

Photo by Darrell Dalton

Photo by Darrell Dalton

Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black presented Evidence-Based Horsemanship to a full house. The scientist-cowboy collaboration continues to serve the community and open new windows of understanding related to management and riding. Black explained what many fans have given as feedback after reading the 2011 book: “Reading a horse isn’t a new concept to me, but learning the science behind what I was seeing has given me access to better tools and a better understanding.”

Check out their book and DVD here.

Read more about Evidence –Based Horsemanship here.

Read more about the Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference here.


Exploring Evidence-Based Horsemanship DVD is here

Over the course of several months, Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black worked with Emily Kitching, president of Eclectic Horseman Communications, to 10351760_794633487259360_7475000953155685934_ndevelop an insightful debut DVD.

The new release serves as a welcome compliment to the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship, which was published two years ago and has cultivated a steady following.

Order your copy of the DVD directly from BestHorsePractices and NickerNews.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER a single copy of the DVD.

To order more than one, visit this page on NickerNews.

Eclectic Horseman for your continuing education

eclectic-horseman_logoFor 13 years, Eclectic Horseman Communications has brought us regular, vital doses of straight talk and continuing education. Eclectic Horseman, the magazine, has some 3,000 subscribers, including several hundred in Australia, United Kingdom, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
The Horseman’s Gazette, an adjunct DVD subscription service, has 400 loyal fans.

Got some favorite clinicians in mind?
Chances are, Eclectic Horseman has featured them:



Emily Kitching, president of Eclectic Horseman

Emily Kitching, president of Eclectic Horseman





Deitz. King. Curtin. Zettl.

The list goes on. You can listen to them or read their thoughts, thanks to EH.

We spoke with president Emily Kitching about the company she founded with husband, Steve Bell, more than a decade ago and about its mission: “To be the best resource to help students develop their own horsemanship.”

NN: What’s your process for deciding who is featured in Eclectic Horseman?

EK: It’s mostly people we’ve worked with for many years or new people I come across. I rely on suggestions from my readers, suggestions from other horsemen. I also go to clinics or see them at events and verify with my own eyes that they have something that I feel will be compatible with our mission.
NN: When you started the magazine, what were you seeing out there for equestrian publications and what was missing? How did you fill that gap?

EK: I always felt like I wanted to create a magazine that I myself would be interested in reading. There was a dressage magazine, out of print now. The articles were meaty and educated. They weren’t five- or ten-minute fixes. They had substance. That was interesting to me.

I feel like what we produce is for people who are serious about improving their horsemanship. Whether in a show ring, out on the trail. These are people who have a passion for it. It’s not just on the surface.

NN: Quick fixes are more popular than ever.

EK: For us, there will always be a core group of committed people. Horsemanship and continuing education are really important to them. We’re truly serving that need. I don’t feel there are resources out there serving that need better than us.

I hope more and more people continue to be interested in learning what goes on in animals’ brains. I hope it will translate into more people becoming interested in considering their horse as a thinking, feeling entity. That’s my hope. That’s been my hope for 20 years.

NN: Sometimes the pursuits with the most integrity don’t get the most attention?

EK: Right. I feel like I’m just doing my thing.  This is kind of a side bar, but I know that my life without horses would have been a complete disaster. And I the-horsemans-gazetteknow that they came into my life at a time when I could have gone down a bad path or I could have gone on a positive path. I feel all the strength and confidence that they gave me, I have a debt to horses to repay the positive things that they created in my life.
I’m doing it for the horses.
Our mission would like to take that further to really focus on helping the humans help their horses. After all, the humans are the ones paying the bills and the humans are the ones who are going to create a positive environment for their horses. So you have to focus on helping people or else the horses will suffer.

NN: Any new features?

EK: We’re working on new segment, Clinic Takeaways, reviews of something positive that riders took away from a clinic. It will be a good way to put some ideas in front of readers who might say, “Oh, this person learned…I might go check that person out. I’m interested in that, also.”

NN: Thanks for all you do!

Evidence-Based Horsemanship opens to raves

An eager and engaged crowd attended the opening session of the Evidence-Based Horsemanship seminar Friday evening at Parker Stables in Sherwood, Oregon.

Dressage riders, barn managers, ranchers, and trail riders gathered to hear neuropsychologist Dr. Steve Peters and horseman Martin Black open the door to a new way of thinking about horsemanship and horse management.

That door connects the rooms of traditional horse work with equine brain science.

Peters told the packed room:

“Some of you might get uncomfortable. But that’s a good thing. It’s mental growth. It’s asking what this is all about,” he said.

Peters introduced the crowd to the idea of cognitive dissonance: that’s when you have two theories, practices, or understandings that don’t jibe with one another. For example:

You understand that smoking is bad for you, but you smoke.

In terms of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, some examples of cognitive dissonance might be feeding grain and blanketing horses, when you have nonetheless learned that science tells you these routines don’t benefit the horse, said Peters.

Students traveled from as far as Washington and California and provided some stated motivations for attending:

“I like to see the social science and physical science blending,” said Ilona Serrao, a horsewoman from San Diego county.

Attendee Wendy Murdoch, a popular clinician herself, had lots of questions. “I’m always interested in putting science behind the process as opposed to just guessing,” said Murdoch.

The idea, of course, is that horses will benefit, said Black, who expected that participants would find “a different way, a more refined way” of working with their horses.

“What I really enjoy is seeing the change in their horses. To have them seek relief instead of moving from pressure. That may be something new to them,” said Black.

Parker Stables, site of Evidence-Based Horsemanship in Sherwood, Oregon

Parker Stables, site of Evidence-Based Horsemanship in Sherwood, Oregon

Parker Stables welcomes Evidence-Based Horsemanship




This weekend, the Evidence-Based Horsemanship seminar is lucky to call Parker Stables home.

parker2Owners Cindy and Duffy Parker bought their bucolic, 15-acre property more in Sherwood, Oregon, 11 years ago. Back then, it was not so pretty. But over the years, they’ve turned the quiet but busy stables into a gem.

Over 30 horses have daily turnout in clean, connected paddocks. There are several large pastures and grazing spaces. Riders can work in indoor or outdoor arenas or ride around a beautifully-groomed perimeter trail. Clients’ horses are turned out every day, regardless of weather.

“In the last five years, they’ve missed one day,” said Duffy Parker, who with Cindy dug every fence post and built every shelter, completely renovating and improving the former vet facility. “And that was when we had two feet of snow.”

Cindy said the seminar was a welcome affirmation of what she’s seen with horses all along.

“It’s so obvious that by keeping an open mind and by being with the horses, that they’re not ‘stupid,’ as ignorant trainers call them. I think it’s great to have these facts to back up what we’re seeing,” said Parker.


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