Fred Holcomb: Equine Science as an Action Verb

Editor’s Note:

Holcomb introduces Dr. Sheryl King at the BHPS.

Fred Holcomb is a horseman, BHPS steering committee member, and farrier currently living in Bozeman, Montana. He completed equine research at a Wyoming ranch and Davidson College.

In this guest column, he reflects on our need to understand equine research as a process, not a be all, end all.

Read more about his research here.

Watch the BHP Summit introductory video here.

By Fred Holcomb

I am a nerd. I get jazzed about equine biomechanics and watch slow motion videos of my roping to improve technique. I enjoy knowledge and appreciate healthy skepticism. Think of me as Bill Nye, the Science Guy with a cowboy hat.

I recently attended and worked at the first Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, Colorado. As you might guess, it was an intellectual playground for a horse nerd like me; it was a fantastic venue for horse people of varied experience levels and disciplines to come together, corroborate findings and seek knowledge.

One of the more important discussions I had that weekend was with the BHPS director Maddy Butcher.

Holcomb watches Summit arena presentation with horsemen Martin Black and DeLaws Lindsay

Before her opening remarks, we were discussing what we hoped this conference could provide for its attendees. My simple answer was that I hoped it would help attendees see science as more of a verb than a noun. You can’t say something that broad to Maddy without being pressured for clarification.

So I further explained:

A pitfall in the world of clinicians and trainers is for name, reputation or even mannerism to supersede ability. Plenty of well-intentioned riders who hope to improve their horse work fall prey to the marketing and fanfare surrounding one trainer or another.

Within certain groups, a conversation becomes more about who said it than what was said. My fear was that the Summit could for some become the next unquestionably “true” movement instead of an event that inspired questions, debate, and critical thinking.

I was worried that “science” could become the next object for a cult following within the horse world. Instead of, “I know I am right because Cowboy Bob does that” it could become “This is true because Science says so.”

It’s more complicated.

Yes, objective research should inform what we do. But replacing the trendy clinician with a lab coat-wearing PhD does nothing to improve the process if either message is consumed as infallible truth.

My hope, I explained, it that people better understand the importance of the scientific process.

Holcomb with horsemen West Taylor and Jim Thomas

Science is mode of examination, not just a body of knowledge. Merriam-Webster defines science as, “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”

Guess what?

Science is wrong all the time. There have been times in our history when top scientists thought that the world was flat and that bloodletting could cure everything. There have and will continue to be plenty of times when our “knowledge of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation” is not what is actually going on.

But it’s the process of careful, continued study that allows us to synthesize information and more accurately observe our natural world.

Understanding the process allows us to engage with a research methodology, to question or accept findings, and build informed opinions. That’s precisely what I wanted to enjoy at the Summit with my fellow attendees. I hoped that the Summit would create a bunch of scientists, not a bunch of blind consumers of science.

There are a lot of opinions out there on how to deal with your horse. Some opinions come from experienced and capable horse people and researchers who are trying to share their best answers to today’s problems. Other opinions come from figureheads and pseudoscientists who are trying to validate their beliefs or make a sale.

It’s up to you, the skeptical horse owner, to “experiment and observe” as you establish or alter your handling practices. What is true today could be completely false tomorrow in the eyes of the most current research. But understanding how to use science – the process – to question and validate will ensure that you are doing your best to house, feed, and handle your horse.

Science isn’t the answer. It’s your way of finding today’s best guess.

Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do

If riding simply entailed proper movements to speed up, slow down, and steer the horse, it would be elementary. Like riding a bike.

But cyclists don’t often talk about how much they are still learning 30 years after they picked up the sport. Horse riders, even those doing it professionally, DO say they’re still learning.

It’s essential to be an open-minded “learnaholic” if you’re interested in advancing your horsemanship. The reason riding is the hardest thing in the world to do? Our education has so many angles and it comes in so many forms. To note a few:

Horse movement

One must have an understanding of how the horse moves in order to ride well. Before you start talking about long trots or collection or transitions, you need to know how your horse can move and how it then moves with a rider aboard. It’s about anatomy, conditioning, muscle strength, flexibility, etc. It often helps to just watch horses in a field or paddock, especially with other horses.

Horse behavior

The more you understand what’s going on in the horse’s head, the more you’ll be able to incorporate that knowledge into better riding. For instance, it’s essential to know about prey instinct, herd instinct, and the neurochemical craving for homeostasis.


All around the world, humans are trying their best to be more “mindful.” But in horse work, the need for awareness is amplified and multi-form:

— Body awareness

It’s essential to know what you’re doing with your body and how it is impacting your horse’s movement and behavior. Some riders go for years without realizing that they are out of balance. Others blame their horses for missteps when it has everything to do with rider position.

Generally, horses have a harder time if their riders are out of shape and inflexible. Fitness and range of motion, therefore, become essential components of good riding.

— Mental awareness

Distracted? Stressed? Nervous? Apprehensive? Angry?

Those human emotions have very real consequences when we interact with horses. Not only do horses sense them, those feelings affect how we move and react to horses’ movements.

Good riders learn to shed those mental hang-ups when they interact with horses. Some seem to walk away from daily people problems. Others develop strategies to use mid-ride, like singing when galloping or leaving the cell phone at home, to ensure a focused, mentally-healthy ride.

There’s also another level of mental awareness. It has to do with being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and faults as a human being. Clinicians often note that life’s challenges and baggage will impede horsemanship improvement. Amy Skinner explains: “Problems in our day-to-day lives carry into our riding lives. We can’t fix our riding problems without fixing our lives.”

While we work hard to shed detrimental elements of our humanness, we must nonetheless retain the smarts gained from research and experience. It’s a challenging duality unique to humans: how to be smart, savvy, mindful, and adaptable all at the same time!

[Skinner noted that teaching horsemanship doubles her challenge: “It’s hard because you have to figure out your student psychologically and physically. What are they doing and how might I get them to move their bodies differently? Then you also need to see what the horse needs and help the rider feel that and follow directions,” she said. Read more about the challenges of teaching riding here. ]

Amy Skinner

This spring, renowned horseman Warwick Schiller had a “full-on epiphany.” He tried giving a horse more time to think, decide, and relax. The results astounded him:

A troubled horse laid down and napped for hours in the middle of a clinic. ‘”And I really think that horse had not had a relaxed moment in his captive life,” said Schiller of the horse, a mustang who had been rounded up, split from his herd, and sold to adopters.

With another horse, haltering was always a problem. Schiller would see his jaw tighten and turn his head away. Again, the Australian looked to make changes in the most basic elements of his horse work.

“What I’m after is so much more microscopic than I realized,” said Schiller. “When horses can’t calm down, it’s up to us to let them find it. Often it’s just slowing down and waiting.”

In October, you’ll have a great chance to learn more from Schiller and fellow world renowned presenters. Check out the Best Horse Practices Summit roster.

Warwick Schiller will be at the BHP Summit

Extra reading:

Juliana Zunde on testing your harmony.

Check out HorseHead: Brain Science to improve your horse work

Rider Fitness articles

Read more on Balance

Multi-tasking as good horsemanship

Downregulation in practice

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western at Jim Thomas’ Bar T Ranch. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. She

Amy Skinner, Dr. Steve Peters, and a horse brain

heads to Maine next month to teach lessons.

Recently, Skinner attended the Healthy Horse Seminar which featured Dr. Steve Peters. She writes about applying what she learned to her work.

She writes:

It’s a very exciting time in the horse world right now. There’s more information available to the layman than ever.  We have a better understanding of the horse physically and mentally, and with Evidence-Based Horsemanship, it seems like we literally have an operations manual with a scientific approach to the horse’s brain.

As a trainer, all this new science-y information swirled around in my head and I looked for ways to apply it. When Dr. Steve Peters talked about keeping horses interest peaked without panic setting in, I thought about how I often went about trying to introduce a horse to something new and scary.  I set out to experiment a little, to get out of my set ideas of how horses “should” be trained and just be a scientist for a little bit.

Peters will present at the Best Horse Practices Summit.

The Bar T Ranch is home to five cows. They live in a field behind the arena.  Sometimes, I think they get a kick out of seeing what sort of trouble they can stir up; they might lie down by the far end of the arena and stand up just as I ride a young horse near them. To the colt, I imagine this looks like a monster just popped up from underground.  Several horses in training have some aversion to the monster end of the arena.

One horse is particularly scared of the cows.  I’ve ridden him around them and worked the cows off him. He’d settle down for the moment, but his deep suspicion lingered and every new day in the arena he’d spot the cows and start snorting and bracing his neck and head like a submarine periscope.

Dr. Peters explained how a horse can vacillate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In my new mindset of experimentation, I took the colt to the far end of the arena with a bucket of grain and set it right by the fence. The cows, curious and greedy, came running.  At first, the little colt eyed the cows with concern, unable to eat his grain. But after a few minutes he started munching, even with the cows poking their muzzles through the gate.  He lifted his head up out of his bucket and for the first time touched the cows with his own muzzle, then went back to eating.

Grazing is a good way to encourage engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system

After he finished the grain, I worked him on the ground and allowed him to stretch his neck down and sneeze. He let go of his back and walked balanced circles.  I then rode him past the cows for the next hour. He was buttery in my hands and stretchy through his back. From Dr. Peters lectures, I know that the colt had successfully down-regulated, in other words, with that healthy exposure, the horse was now responding less to the stimulus. He was no longer concerned about the cows and more interested in paying attention to me and having his body be aligned.

Read more about the comfort zone here.

I had another insight when working with my mare, Dee. For a long time, she has struggled with crossing Bar T Ranch’s tippy bridge obstacle.

Following the seminar, I had a new strategy to try:

I let Dee graze by the bridge for a while. She was able to be comfortable near it and engage her parasympathetic nervous system (“Rest and Digest”). She eyed the bridge while she chewed grass and hung out. Then I asked her to cross it. Success!

Dr. Peters reminded me that it’s not really about the food. “It is about managing where the horse is within its nervous system and less about the food. We are just using the food to activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” said Peters.

Now I’m realizing that I have no reason to hold on to old beliefs and habits that don’t serve the horse.  Learning new things can challenge my belief system. This is good! I urge you to be a scientist and a horseman.  Use your eyes, ears, and mind always.  Don’t just believe what you’re told:  think, compare, observe, and experiment.  You owe it to your horse.

Skinner heads to Maine next month to teach lessons.

Watch what happens after Dee is allowed to graze before tackling an obstacle.

Understanding “Deep Practice”

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle discusses the merits of soccer hotbeds in Brazil and training methods of famous pianists. So, what does all that have to do with horsemanship?


As Coyle explains, it all comes down to one microscopic detail, shared by horses and humans alike: the development of myelin.

He writes:

  1. Every movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.
  2. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
  3. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

Coyle traveled the world to research what’s called Deep Practice.

Deep Practice is built on a paradox:

Struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.

Experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them…end up making you swift and graceful.

Randy Rieman’s clinic last year confirms this approach. He extolled the virtues of slowing down and getting the fundamentals sound. These basics become habits and movements to build and rely on. Time and again, he had students return to simpler forms in order to work on smoothness.

“When the horses are in a hurry, their minds are uncomfortable because their bodies are uncomfortable. When we break things down and move more slowly through an exercise, we work on removing the anxiety and extending their range of motion. They aren’t livening up and getting tight. They are livening up and getting loose,” said Rieman, who studied at length with Tom and Bill Dorrance. “Tom Dorrance used to say, ‘Do less more often.’”

Writes Coyle in The Talent Code:

“…[T]he best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.”

Why does slowing down work so well?

“ …Going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing – and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. As football

Dr. Steve Peters with Martin Black

coach Tom Martinez likes to say, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Second, going slow helps the practice to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”

At a recent Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, Dr. Steve Peters used a passage from the book to remind students that giving horses the option to seek and search, yields better results. He shared this table:


A                                                             B

ocean/breeze                                       bread/b_tter

leaf/tree                                                music/l_rics

high school/college                             pencil/p_per

chair/couch                                          l_nch/dinner

When people were asked to recall the words in each column, researchers discovered they had far better recall from Column B than Column A.


The process of seeking and problem solving is far more powerful than rote memorization.

“We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn,” said Robert Bjork, a researcher highlighted in the book. “Things that appear to be obstacles turn out to be desirable in the long haul…one real encounter, even for a few seconds, is far more useful than several hundred observations.”

Turns out my cartoon hero, Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame was right all along:

“Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”

Read this week’s related content on Brain and Trauma.

Check out this article on the Cons of Comfort.

Healthy Horse Weekend in NC

This week, we hear from frequent guest columnist Emily Thomas Luciano. Together with her father, Jim Thomas, Luciano is coordinating the Healthy Horse Seminar, March 3-5, in PittsboSiler City, North Carolina. Click here to check it out.

She writes:

Where else can you learn the literal ins-and-outs of a horse in one weekend? From the brain to the stomach, the trigeminal nerve to the hind gut, the Healthy Horse Seminar in Siler City, N.C. will delve into evidence-based best practices for horses.

“We’re very much looking forward to bringing in such accomplished and knowledgeable guests,” said event organizer Jim Thomas of Bar T Horsemanship. “Evidence-Based Horsemanship has probably influenced my horsemanship more than any one individual, book or DVD, so we’re

Jim Thomas

especially excited to host Dr. Peters for the seminar.”

Evidence-Based Horsemanship co-author Dr. Stephen Peters will be the headliner for the weekend. As a neuropsychologist and horseman, he has a very unique perspective on horse training and care. He’ll even lead a horse brain dissection!

Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about equine nutrition from Harmany Equine’s Dr. Joyce Harman, world reknown holistic and integrative veterinarian, on Saturday.

Sunday, a veterinarian from the N.C. State Vet School will talk parasite control and will teach participants how to conduct their own fecal tests!

Here’s the schedule for the weekend:

Friday, March 3:

5-8 p.m.: FREE teaser session with Dr. Stephen Peters, co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship. Welcome session with booklet handout, Meet & Greet, PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Peters and discussion. Dinner will be served ($10).

Saturday, March 4:

9 a.m.-2 p.m.: GET TO KNOW YOUR HORSE’S BRAIN: Dr. Peters will lecture about horse brain structure and development, neurochemistry, neuroanatomy, horse behavior as it relates to brain function, and how to apply that knowledge to proper training and management practices.

3-5 p.m.: NUTRITION: Dr. Joyce Harman, world renown holistic and integrative veterinarian, will talk nutrition. From forages to feeds, probiotics to supplements, Dr. Harman will talk about what your horse really needs and what he can deal without.

Sunday, March 5:

9 a.m.-2 p.m.: GET TO KNOW YOUR HORSE’S BRAIN: Dr. Peters will continue his discussion about about the horse brain and lead a dissection.

3-5 p.m.: A veterinarian from the N.C. State Vet School will talk parasites, control and will teach participants how to conduct their own fecal tests.

The cost for the weekend is $250 with dinner included Saturday and Sunday. To register, click here.

When Multitasking Pays Off

There’s a lot of research out there disparaging multitasking. Scientists say it’s inefficient. They say ideal productivity and

Warwick Schiller on Avoiding Horse Accidents

efficiency requires focus.
But often horse handling requires a certain lack of focus and an ability to take in, understand, and react to multiple developments all at the same time. The key, I say, is to be in that moment.

When I visited with BestHorsePractices Summit presenter Warwick Schiller in Phoenix last weekend, we shared some thoughts on the issue. His video “rant” (his words, not mine) explains so-called Freak Accidents and the many warning signs horses give us leading up to these usually completely avoidable accidents. Watch it here.

Consider working with a horse in a paddock with other horses:

As you approach a horse for haltering, you must assess:

  • His temperament
  • His location and relationship compared to the other horses (like whether he likes to screen himself or whether he gets bullied)
  • How hungry they may be.
  • How bothered by bugs they may be.

As you halter and move your horse, a whole new set of tasks appear:focus

  • How does he move through gates?
  • Will the others want to come, too?
  • How well does that gate close?

You answer these questions by:

  • Watching ears and lips and tails.
  • Watching for bracing or willingness.
  • Listening for movement that you might not see.
  • Being aware of the environmental conditions (like an approaching storm or slippery surfaces)

Our work is not unlike that of an Office Manager or Stay-at-Home parent. On any given moment, working with horses requires us to be all there, but it doesn’t require us to focus on just one thing. If we were to focus on just haltering a horse, we might end up hurt or horses might get loose.

The wider lens often serves us better.
Read article on Feel.

A Nod of Thanks and A Look to 2017

We want to take this moment to thank you, our readers, for another great year of support. Thank you!

Thanks to you, we defined ourselves as a premier purveyor of top quality articles concerning horse science and good horsemanship. Our features reached readers of all disciplines and in all parts of the world. We enjoyed lively discussion on controversial topics and benefited from the support of many top trainers and advocates in the country.

2016 will also be remembered for the establishment of the BestHorsePractices Summit, an exciting new conference debuting on October 8-10, 2017. It will be an innovative meeting of the minds, embracing equine research and practical horsemanship in a collaborative manner. We’re excited to have some of the best names in the horse world already committed to present at the Summit in Durango, Colorado.

Read more here.

Beginning next month, Remuda Reader subscribers will get first access to interviews and articles about BHPS presenters, before the features are available to the general public. Remuda Readers will also receive extra BHPS-related content. Stay tuned for details.

The BestHorsePractices Summit is a Colorado non profit with pending 501 (c)(3) status. To donate, head here.

Favorite Reads of 2016

We asked a few contributors for their favorite reads of 2016. Here’s what they picked:

Emily Luciano, occasional guest columnist and director of Lucky Dee Communications

Emily Thomas Luciano

Less is More

Feel Defined

Amy Skinner on Self Carriage

Amy Skinner on Guiding

WiseAssWallace on Gear

Amy Skinner, frequent guest columnist and owner of Essence Horsemanship

Wise Ass Wallace videos

Focus on Fitness articles

Amy Skinner

Katrin Silva’s feature on contact

Use Mental not Mechanical Gear

Creating Self Confidence in your Horse

Julie Kenney, Focus on Fitness guest columnist

Amy Skinner on Education versus Learning

Julie Kenney

Katrin Silva’s feature on contact

Wise Ass Wallace videos

Amy Skinner’s Drop Rotten Routines article

Amy Skinner’s Pitfalls of Training article

Dr. Steve Peters, author Evidence-Based Horsemanship and occasional guest columnist:

The Case for Cowboys

Steve Peters

Greed in Full View

Mustang Emergency and How We Got Here

Use Mental not Mechanical Gear

Another Call against Cross Ties

Creating Self Confidence in your Horse

Wise Ass Wallace

Stay in the Flow, by Shelley Appleton

Students talk about EBH Seminar

We talked with several students after the recent Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar in Mancos, Colorado. Here are their thoughts on how things went and what they came away with.

West Taylor, TIP trainer and owner of Wild West Mustang Ranch

It was very rewarding to put scientific terms and words to what’s happening with the horse, to know that it’s a scientific img_4193process. It makes it real instead of this magical horseman thing.

Now, it’s very tangible, it’s very real instead of ‘what the heck is the horse guy talking about?’ It’s the science side. That was awesome to put that together. And to observe Martin working with the horse and to see the magic. It’s great to know that there’s science behind it and to see it from someone who is very, very clear in that communication.

You could see the results, see the physiological changes – fear, dopamine and all that. It was confirming for me, in my horsemanship and in what I’m doing – I felt really good about what I’m doing, I just had different words.

It gives me so much reassurance. YES. Such a confirmation and now I can take the words and phrases that I learned here. I picked up vocabulary. But most importantly, I want to go back to the round pen and take what I learned to the horse. The horse is going to bring that back to me. As I get proficient in feeling more, then I can take people with their horses and have them experience that together.dscn1212

Petra Sullwold, equine chiropractor

My biggest takeaway? With my horses, I’ll be able to fine tune my relationship with them. It’s made me realize that it can be a very, very subtle thing to make this connection. That’s what I want to strive for. It made me super excited to go work with my horses again.

I loved the neurological part, the brain part, because as a chiropractor, there are so many things that we still don’t understand and don’t know about. This connected the dots for me. Working on the horse and also what happens when we adjust them. It’s a must for all animal chiropractors. The biggest part of the adjustment is that within a few minutes you have to get that big animal to trust you. If they’re tense and tied then I shouldn’t even bother to adjust them because I will not outweigh them. I am not going to force anything. I need to establish a good relationship fairly quickly so their body is relaxed and they are calm and I can have a better session with them.


My biggest takeaway is just how little it takes to get in sync with your horse and how priceless that is.

Regarding the potential for the horse’s learning, the laying down of dendrites and myelin. To learn about that is extraordinary. It’s amazing to have this information, I can give my horses much better opportunities for learning. Absolutely. The whole connection with dopamine and learning and dwelling… I think we all have learned about dwelling in the past but never appreciated the significance of it – to watch the process, to see the licking of lips and know that the horse is getting addicted to img_4206learning.


My biggest takeaway is to now have a better understanding of how the horse processes in their brain. That applies to whatever I do with the horse, whether it’s therapy work or riding the horse…the dissection of the brain. The whole thing. We got to put two and two together.


Biggest takeaway? All the information and how valuable it will be to use on a day-to-day basis as well as for any future scenarios down the line. It was just incredible the amount of information we got in such a short period of time – information we can use in such a multitude of ways. I got so many things out of it.


My biggest takeaway is that the door has been opened to want to learn so much more about the horse’s brain, chemicals, and how little you have to do and how amazing the science, the evidence is. It’s incredible.

Introducing the Horse-unculus!

In the world of neuroscience, researchers and instructors have developed the “homunculus” to show through exaggerated size screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-3-51-34-pmthose areas of the human body which we know to have a greater representation of neurons in the somatosensory cortex in the brain, the main sensory receptive area for the sense of touch. Check out the image at right.

The Horse-unculus is a model developed by BestHorsePractices to illustrate through exaggerated size and shining light those areas which we know to be more sensitive, ie, having a greater representation in the somatosensory cortex of the horse’s brain. This understanding will be discussed by Dr. Steve Peters at the Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar later this week.

Areas of high sensitivity include the entire head, especially the muzzle area (which is loaded with vibrissae, or whiskers, each of which has its own nerve). Horse’s eyes, ears,  tongue, and nose are represented by larger portions of the somatosensory cortex as these areas are densely populated with sensory nerves.

Withers, lower flank, and where the hoof wall meets the hairline are additional areas that have greater representation in this part of the brain. The horse-unculus highlights through exaggerated size and brighter color those noted areas.



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