Review: Horse Brain, Human Brain

Since I did my first book review on a work that is nearing the end of its first century, it seemed fitting that my next be something literally hot off the presses. In fact, this book is not yet available in some countries – coming to the UK in August, I am told by friends there. (Information on when it will become available, and how to get a copy can be found at the end of this review.)

The author, Janet L. Jones, is an accomplished cognitive scientist and equestrian. She taught neuroscience to college students for 23 years, and has trained horses and riders across multiple disciplines. With this book she seeks to blend these two areas of her life into one resource to help riders better understand their horses – and themselves. I have spent my life around institutions of higher learning, and not for nothing is academic writing considered dry. Fear not! This book is engaging and informative all at once.

The author has the big ambition of aiming the book at everyone who interacts with horses – from beginner to expert trainer. Writing to such a broad audience brings with it inherent risk, as the author herself acknowledges in the first chapter.

Unfortunately, this breadth gives me the opportunity to offend everyone by either talking down to the expert or talking up to the novice. Please forgive me for points that are pitched to alternate skill levels.

Page 15

There are certainly parts of the book that go into brain science perhaps more than some would prefer – but those moments where your head might spin or your eyes might roll are certainly rare and short lived. The book is rich with anecdotes of equine behavior that anyone who spends much time with horses will surely recognize. The author uses these familiar tales to launch an explanation of everything from senses to attention. The book provides answers to such questions as:

  • Which of these senses is strongest in the horse – sight, hearing, or smell?
  • Do horses learn through observation?
  • Why is trailer loading such a difficult task?
  • Do horses have complex emotions like jealousy and frustration?
  • How is a bond formed between horse and human?

Depending upon your experience with horses (or neuroscience, for that matter) there may be many surprises for you, or perhaps only a few. Personally, from the perspective of understanding horses, I found few surprises – but I have spent a half century observing them, and giving them more credit for their abilities than science has. (I will admit to believing they hear better than they actually do.) Having said that, it was still fascinating to learn what science now knows about why these things I have observed happen. I can only imagine that I would have made far fewer mistakes along the way, had I been armed initially with the information packed into this book.

I recently wrote about my thoughts on horses and science, for which I was criticized for short-changing science. Imagine my delight in reading the following from this book, written by an accomplished scientist!

So, Do Horses Have Emotions?

You bet they do! But until a few years ago, and still today in many academic circles, animals were not believed to have the capacity for emotion. Anyone who’s been around horses for long knows better. And as researchers begin to explore animal emotions, a growing body of evidence backs us up.

Page 232

Let me be clear on one thing – this book is not a compendium of cutting edge studies on the equine brain. Those don’t really exist, a fact that the author points out many times. What she has done is taken what science has learned about brain function in humans, and across other species such as primates and dogs, and uses that with what we do know about the horse’s brain, folding that together with her broad experience working with horses. Where studies do exist on horse behavior, she brings them in, such as one where handlers’ anticipation of a scary event caused reaction in their horses in advance of the event.

I expect that many readers will find challenges in this book – not in the reading, but in the content. As I read it, I encountered many topics or statements in which I recognized challenges to popular preconceived notions. Dressage riders may not like what she has to say about the outside rein and neural fatigue. Positive reinforcement (R+) proponents may balk at her take on food as reward, and especially her description of negative reinforcement.

Many a time I have been told by an R+ proponent that negative reinforcement requires an aversive that is highly unpleasant for the horse, and that my denial of this ‘fact’ showed my ignorance. Imagine my delight at this passage, which will find it’s way into such arguments in the future.

Negative reinforcement is a form of training in which we apply painless pressure until a horse responds as we wish. This pressure ranges from barely noticeable to moderate, depending upon the situation, and often falls into the category of encouragement. As soon as the horse responds, we remove the pressure.

Page 145

What may be further challenging to the R+ folks is what the author classifies as reward to the horse – no food required!

I found my own challenges within the book, with her frequent references to the predator/prey relationship and to horses needing a hierarchy/leadership. I am averse to these simply because of their overuse and twisting by too many training ‘philosophies’. Her points on us as predators and the horse as prey are cogent and science based. I am not convinced that the domestic horse actually sees us as a predator, having dealt with too many horses who (even from birth) show more curiosity than fear. But the predator/prey comparison certainly accounts for many of our functional differences.

On the hierarchy/leadership front, she soothes my concerns quite handily by taking the same approach to leadership that I subscribe to – and far from the “horses want us to control them” that I have heard in various forms for decades.

Horses will transfer their respect for a superior herdmate to any human who offers consistent guidance that yields safe results. … A horse needs a reliable guide, similar to a parent – a person whose kind leadership he can trust to provide help in negotiating the human world.

As a guide, you are in a position to allay the fear that drives so much equine behavior.

Page 241

It is clear throughout that book that the author has affection, admiration, and respect for the horse. She succeeds in providing a wealth of information to better understand the horse. Her clear objective is to improve the bonding with a horse she believes we should all have, and that the relationship between horse and rider is a unique one.

Asked which species of animal is best at mutual communications with humans, most people would guess dogs. After all, dogs are the most common pet and have evolved an innate alertness to human signals. But I believe that potential for cross-species communication is much greater between horses and riders. Why? Because in addition to the voice, gesture, and body language we use with dogs, our bodies are in frequent contact with our horses. Each party transmits and receives information through skin, muscles, tendons, weight distribution, and balance. This contact triggers that dance between equine and human neurons that I mentioned a moment ago.

Page 9

But what if you just want to know how to be a better rider? Well, she has you covered there, too! Chapters 8 and 9 not only talk about how your brain works as a rider, they also offer a number of tests and exercises – off and on the horse – that will improve your feel and balance. I am trying to get back to riding fit, after a long layoff, and will be taking advantage of this information to improve my body and brain function before climbing back into the saddle.

For those who finish the book and want more, there is a rich list of source materials at the back, listed by chapter. You can comb through those to find books, articles, and websites to further explore any topic covered in this book.

It is difficult to convey just how much I adore this book! As you can see from the photo at the top, I already have my copy well flagged for future reference (and that was when I was only halfway through it). I have been urging anyone who will listen to get a copy, and am already responsible for a dozen or more orders/pre-orders, that I know of.

This book is truly a must read for anyone who wants to better understand horses and, more importantly, to improve the relationship they have with their current horse(s). And, as the author says, there may be other benefits to be had.

Thinking through other minds is not the worst skill to awaken, regardless of whether you use it in the saddle. As the world grows smaller and more diverse, we all benefit from learning to walk in someone else’s shoes. Meld your mind with a horse, and you’ll find it easier to understand your human neighbors, dogs, cats, even your kids and parents!

Page 263

Information on where and how to purchase the book, and when it might be available in your region of the world, can be found on this page on the author’s website.

2 replies

  1. Based on your review, Ishin and I have ordered this book from Amazon smile! We will let you know what we think! Jan Mullis

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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