Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Making brain waves with your horse

Thinking Horsemen, rejoice!  You are not imagining that your horse responds to your mood and your emotional levels.  His reaction is real, as is yours to him.  But why and how and who cares anyway?

In the continuing discussion of Brain v Mind, I am taking the theory one step further and positing that if my mind controls my brain, then odds are in favor of my horse's mind controlling his brain as well.  I'm not going to venture into the "what in hell, then, is going on in the cockatoo's mind that's causing his brain to signal that he needs to shriek like a banshee while I'm trying to type?".  I don't know the answer to that and possibly never will.  Horses are easier, so I'll pretend to be knowledgeable about their mind/brain dichotomy.

"Can we discuss this?"

Last week I suggested that if you are riding in fear (or doing anything else with an overlay of mind issues), your mind--your "self"--is allowing unresolved problems to trigger responses in your brain that, in turn, trigger autonomic nervous system responses along the lines of massive dumpings of adrenaline into your blood stream, raising of blood pressure, dilating of pupils (making Fuzzbutt look far darker and more menacing than he actually is), humming of show tunes, and so on.  I suggested that the over- or inappropriate reactions could be quelled if you took a moment to recognize the voice of your mind and tell it kindly to step off while you realistically assess the situation.  Quiet the big voice of your mind so that the little one can be heard and felt by the brain.  I reference the intriguing book, Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell.  There is a lot to be learned yet about how the mind makes snap decisions and what intuition really consists of, but for now the idea that our minds have a better sense of the world in quiet moments than in frantic ones seems workable.

So, back to the horse, it seems logical that if our minds talk sometimes overly loudly to our brains, thus causing out-of-proportion reactions in our bodies, the horse has a similar structure to his mental functioning.  That certainly explains why a squirrel close up isn't at all frightening in the pasture while one rustling a few leaves in a tree along the trail is horrifying and worthy of a massive, wild-eyed, sit 'n spin.  He is most likely already on edge as he's in an unfamiliar setting that sets his nerves jangling with possible threats and his is loud mind voice is screaming "Predator!" with such conviction that his quiet, sane mind can't be heard when it whispers, "It's a friggin' squirrel, you wing nut!"

When I was learning about horses back in the dark, pre-Internet ages, I was told repeatedly never to pat or fuss over a misbehaving horse because the attention would only cement the bad behavior.  That would lead to many trials of retraining and relearning new responses.  As time has passed, however, calmer voices have spoken and pointed out that it's imperative to know the reason for the reaction at hand, both in the horse and in ourselves.  I've seen the benefits of this shift for myself with my own horses.  The horse become sulky and sullen and wants to quit working every time you reach a particular point in your riding regimen.  Do you assume it's something he's doing just to spoil your day?  Do you call him lazy?  Do you beat him?  Force him?  Make him see your superior ability to analyze situations?

I would suggest that a better route would be to first determine what role you're playing in his reaction.  Is your loud mind screaming at your brain that there's something amiss?  Did you notice a subtle slowing of Fuzzbutt's reaction time as you made the third pass at the oxer?  Did your loud mind scream at your brain, Kick him before he stops!  Did you do that?  Did your muscles tighten and your heart rate increase?  Did he notice?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then perhaps you cued him to become balky.  Maybe he knows you're going to kick him right about where that dark spot in the ring footing is, and he's become reactive because he hates being kicked.  Maybe the first time he balked it was because he had an itch or was a little sore or just needed a breather.  Did that accidentally trigger a series of events that got out of control?

Did you check in with your horse?  Did you try quieting his screaming mind by changing up the routine, giving him a break, talking to him, petting him, or otherwise distracting him from whatever is bothering him?  If you did, did you take the time to notice whether he quieted and calmed and changed his intentions?  If not, why not?  Do you care?

Thinking Horsemen of the World, the challenge is afoot!  Find a way to put your quiet mind and his into harmony.  It can't hurt, and it might be a step toward enlightened riding.


Unknown said...

This is some good info and something I will try to remember.
Especially when we are galloping wildly across the arena, on 2 entirely different wavelengths. Him thinking, "Must move feets faster" and me thinking, "YO Crazy Horse...I'm still up here ya know!"

Thank you for a great post!

Joanne Friedman, Freelance Writer, ASEA Certified Equine Appraiser, Owner Gallant Hope Farm said...

Thanks, Cindy. Glad you enjoyed it. I sure do know that "Uh...hey! You with the saddle! Attention up here, please!" feeling. I've been working for years on understanding it. Obviously, I'm still working on it. LOL

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. I've come down to three rules for my horses when they get scared: one - face your fear at whatever distance you can keep your feet still and stay there long enough that you blink and lick and chew and check in with me with an ear or eye. During stage one I will examine the potentially dangerous item, breath evenly and not ask a horse to go forward. Once the horse has checked in with me, I ask the horse to use his mind to consider the item. I'll often ask it if it can "touch" something with its nose, awarding it with a treat. Often, just asking the question switches the horse's mind (no longer in alert prey mode) to the playful side of its mind - oh, this is just one of those things I can earn a cookie by touching. Most times it works, sometimes the horse will only be able to reach its nose out toward the object at first or take one or two more steps toward it. As long as the horse makes a "try", I'll say that was good enough and praise the horse, returning to stage one of face your fears and stage two - use your mind to consider the object. If the object is, in fact, not attacking the horse and I don't try to force the horse forward, it will eventually decide to go forward and explore it. We might take a few minutes to go past horse eating monsters, but we no longer have much flight instinct because the horse trusts me not to wig out and force the horse into doing something it thinks will kill it.

Joanne Friedman, Freelance Writer, ASEA Certified Equine Appraiser, Owner Gallant Hope Farm said...

That's a wonderful exercise in getting your horse's mind and body moving in a positive direction. Great comment!