Crissi McDonald explores whether taking care of your horse’s brain and nervous system is better to create the behaviours you desire.


There’s a question every horse asks before any other questions, says Dr Stephen Peters. “Am I safe?” If we can answer that question consistently and with assurance, our horse can learn and thrive in a safe environment. 

When we think about taking care of our horses, we usually look at their external health: teeth, hooves, coat quality, and nutrition. When we would like our horses to change their behaviour, we look for a trainer or training programs. However, there is another way to take care of our horses, and that is by taking care of their brains and nervous systems. Keeping their primary question in mind, gives our own brain a place to focus and a clear way to help them.


One of the messages that excites me are the ways in which people and horses can rely on each other’s strengths. Horses are motor-sensory creatures. Meaning, they rely on movement for survival, and all their senses inform those movements. Horses are faster, stronger, and have one of the quickest reaction times on the planet. Think of their opposite in reaction time, and you get us, Humans. Human brains, however, are set up for cognition (thinking). When we pair the sensitivity of horses and their athletic prowess to the agility of our brain, what we get is the potential for each of us to surpass what we can do alone. 

What we lack in the ability to protect ourselves (not having access to weapons), we make up for in brain matter. We have something that horses don’t, which is a neo-cortex. Our prefrontal cortex is more robust than theirs as well. They have one, but it is small in comparison to the rest of their brain, controls voluntary movement, and the ability to pay attention. Our neocortex allows us to plan, think in abstract concepts, investigate the future, and extrapolate information. Horses do none of this. They are, like most animals, creatures of the present. If we can get in the habit of answering their most pressing question, “Am I safe?”, working with horses gets less confusing and more rewarding for both horse and person.

We put horses in difficult situations during their life with us, not through any bad intent, but mostly through the desire to share a life with them. This life includes having their feet leave the ground and putting them in a dark box that rattles while pulling them along at high speeds, housing them in another box away from the companionship of other horses, feeding them according to our schedule, taking away a foot (and their ability to get away) so we can trim or shoe it, sedating them so we can take care of their teeth, not to mention teaching them how to carry a rider or pull a cart. We are fortunate that the horse’s willing nature lets us do all these things with them. However, horses are horses and occasionally, they’re going to revert to instinct. It’s part and parcel of who they are. When instinct flares up, the question that they don’t have the answer to is “Am I safe?” They will flee or fight until that question is answered. 

It’s probably not news to any of us that horses notice everything. Some of us do all we can to stop this behaviour, not understanding that horses are hardwired to take in their environment until they know they are going to survive it. A horse can’t ignore internal or external information. How they’re acting is how they’re feeling, unless they’ve been forced into a state called learned helplessness. This is also called ‘shut down’, but whatever we call it, it amounts to a horse who’s learned there isn’t any escape when they’re in pain or scared, and they can’t fight it off, or run away from it, so they retreat internally, seeming to ignore the world outside of them. They’ve stopped trying to figure out if they are safe or not. 

Another bit of news that isn’t new: everything is a predatory threat to horses until proven otherwise. This is helpful to remember when we are with them because during the times they are worried, horses need support, not punishment. Punishment has no place in teaching. We want our horse to be in a state of relaxed alertness, able to look to us to help them feel safe, and able to process the environment, learn from it, and stay in a place of internal and external balance, rather than the heightened states of fight, flight, or freeze. A horse who is curious and seeking answers can grow dendrites (a dendrite is where a neuron receives input from other cells - think of it as a road, and each neuron a town) and create a rich and dense network in their brains.

A horse who is punished or stressed beyond their capacity to deal with a situation will not only not grow dendrites, but the network they do have gets trimmed back. This is a horse who will rely on instinct first, rather than any “training” that has been done. Chronic stress demolishes those dendrites, in both humans and horses. Chronic stress also means a chronic wash of cortisol, the chemical that gets released during situations that we need to survive, and because the brain is in a state of stress, it can’t grow those all-important dendrites, the superhighways that allow a horse to reach for something they’ve learned, instead of reaching for the urge to run, bolt, or any of the other behaviours that riders don’t enjoy. 


If we help a horse’s brain downregulate, that is a brain that is experiencing curiosity and seeking out an answer. This translates into a horse who is available to learn, and then do what we are asking. I like to keep this in mind when I’m shooting for a safe learning environment with any horse I’m working with: small bits of information + space + time = learning. If we help a horse maintain a state of relaxed alertness, break down what we are teaching into small chunks, give them time to feel a sense of relief after we give them a release, and we’re consistent over a long period of time, we support their brains in staying calmer, in most situations. We support their learning. A brain loaded with dendrites, those superhighways, is a brain that has more options in any given situation than a brain with less dendrites. A horse with fewer options is going to be more reactive, which translates into us questioning our own safety. 

We may think that regularly ‘desensitising’ a horse would create a brain and nervous system that would be able to tolerate more of the unpredictability in a life that a horse finds herself in. What we want is a horse to remain aware of everything, playing to a strength they’ve been given over 55 million years of their evolution. Teaching a horse how to self-regulate will get us, and them, further than desensitising ever will. There’s nothing wrong with showing horses things, but doing it repeatedly after they have learned it, doesn’t hold any value as far as building a dendrite rich brain.

When we do our best to help create an environment where the horse feels safe and taps into curiosity, we build a better brain and a quieter nervous system. We build trust and a solid partnership. We increase our awareness and are able to look out for our horses, instead of forcing them into our agenda. Better horsemanship based on sound training principles equals a better life for every horse, and a safer way for us to spend our lives with these amazing beings. When our horse asks, “Am I safe?”, I believe focusing on answering this one question can allow us to be a part of the evolution of horsemanship.

With thanks to Dr. Stephen Peters for his guidance with this article.

If you are interested in more horse brain science, check out these links: