Horse Brain, Human Brain

I decided to try to read this book even though there so little research on equine neuro-science and what has been done is so poorly designed that any conclusion are suspect.And what do you know, Jones has a great deal more to say about how our human brains work than about how horse brains work. And she does insist on projecting the so very very over used term ‘predator/prey’ popularized by those selling ‘ so-called ‘natural horsemanship’ onto the horse. Anthropomorphizing horses is the fundamental cause of problems between horses and humans (click here), so I find many of her examples suspect.

Very little of what she says about horses is new. She just uses slightly different words. What I do find useful is how she describes human eyes and brains. We humans are specialized to focus on details. Horses see the bigger picture:

A Horse’s Eye View

I did not find her comparing the way her human students process the environment in the average riding stable which is NOT particularly horse friendly with the way horse perception has evolved to function wonderfully while running free particularly helpful.

But she does offer an occasional thought provoking image. One image that caught my attention was a computer simulation of how horse eyes might perceive a three bar show jump. The whole thing is a blur except for the center third of the top rail.

It reminded me of a hunter/jumper course ridden by the legendary hunter/jumper George Morris, that was filmed through his helmet cam. I wanted to include a link to that video here, but George Morris videos have gotten scarce since he was been convicted of abusing young men. That also makes me question his horsemanship, as abusers usually abuse other living beings, human and animal.

Regardless of his abuse of other living beings, George Morris was and is still renowned for his ability to consistently ride fast clean rounds with impeccable form. But I have only found one comment from him that gave me a hint to his success. When a successful show-jumper’s poor form was pointed out, George Morris replied that they could do even better with correct posture in the saddle.

My mantra is ‘Horses Read Bodies, not minds’. So I do my very best to stay focused on what people’s bodies are doing. Often, that means ignoring what their mouths are saying.

What stands out to me is his incredible focus as he rides over a course. What I saw was that George Morris’ helmet cam was focused on the center third of the top rail of every single jump. I saw that his shift of focus came in the air. Once his horse had left the ground and was soaring over the jump, his camera’s view switched to the center third of the top rail of the next jump.

He was able to let his horse land and redirect themselves in the direction he was looking without interfering. In order to maintain that focus, George Morris’ entire body had to be able to absorb his horse’s movement on take off and landing so fluidly that his focus on the next fence never wavered. I got intrigued with what that might look like anatomically for the rider.

Without a video, I cannot be sure of the exact movements of an animated skeleton through the full sequence of approach, take off and landing. But the rider’s position at that moment when both horse and rider are balanced enough in the air to be able to shift their focus to the next jump might look like this:

Keeping lower back resilient and flexing at the hip over jumps

George Morris’ horses were able to understand what he wanted them to do because he focused on exactly the same part of the jump they could focus on. They were able to actually do what he wanted them to do because he stayed focused on each jump until it was completed. He shifted his complete focus to the next jump at the same moment that his horse needed to shift their focus.

Regardless of what a rider with poor form may be thinking in their heads, their eyes and their body are telling their horse not to go up and over the fence. They are going to have more refusals, poles down and slower times over a course. Poor form over jumps looks something like this:

Poor form with tense rounded lower back

Janet JOnes points out that neurologically, our brains are designed to block out everything but the details we are already focused on. The official term is in-attentional blindness. That means that we humans literally do not perceive information we are not already primed to notice.

Unfortunately and especially on horseback, we all too often focus on details that are not relevant to what we want to accomplish. We are never going to be able to change our human hard-wiring. Horses will continue to read our bodies and not our minds. BUT:

We humans can learn to how to focus on what makes sense to our horse so we can communicate our intention to them clearly.

We can learn to communicate that focus to our horses through coherent congruent body language.

And then all we have to learn is the really hard part of riding: Trust our horses to do what they are hardwired to do. And that is pay attention to how they move through the greater environment around them smoothly and efficiently. Te easier we make balancing our weight on their backs, the easier they can negotiate the demands we make of them.

2 thoughts on “Horse Brain, Human Brain

  1. I enjoyed your post! I use to ride hunter/jumpers so I totally understand what you are talking about and with good form from jump to jump I know your horse performs better. Interesting facts about George Morris, didn’t realize what the horse focused on so that was really interesting. Thanks for sharing! 🐴🤠 ~Diana

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