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Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship

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An eye-opening game-changer of a book that sheds new light on how horses learn, think, perceive, and perform, and explains how to work with the horse's brain instead of against it. In this illuminating book, brain scientist and horsewoman Janet Jones describes human and equine brains working together. Using plain language, she explores the differences and similarities betw An eye-opening game-changer of a book that sheds new light on how horses learn, think, perceive, and perform, and explains how to work with the horse's brain instead of against it. In this illuminating book, brain scientist and horsewoman Janet Jones describes human and equine brains working together. Using plain language, she explores the differences and similarities between equine and human ways of negotiating the world. Mental abilities--like seeing, learning, fearing, trusting, and focusing--are discussed from both human and horse perspectives. Throughout, true stories of horses and handlers attempting to understand each other--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--help to illustrate the principles. Horsemanship of every kind depends on mutual interaction between equine and human brains. When we understand the function of both, we can learn to communicate with horses on their terms instead of ours. By meeting horses halfway, we achieve many goals. We improve performance. We save valuable training time. We develop much deeper bonds with our horses. We handle them with insight and kindness instead of force or command. We comprehend their misbehavior in ways that allow solutions. We reduce the human mistakes we often make while working with them. Instead of working against the horse's brain, expecting him to function in unnatural and counterproductive ways, this book provides the information needed to ride with the horse's brain. Each principle is applied to real everyday issues in the arena or on the trail, often illustrated with true stories from the author's horse training experience. Horse Brain, Human Brain offers revolutionary ideas that should be considered by anyone who works with horses.


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An eye-opening game-changer of a book that sheds new light on how horses learn, think, perceive, and perform, and explains how to work with the horse's brain instead of against it. In this illuminating book, brain scientist and horsewoman Janet Jones describes human and equine brains working together. Using plain language, she explores the differences and similarities betw An eye-opening game-changer of a book that sheds new light on how horses learn, think, perceive, and perform, and explains how to work with the horse's brain instead of against it. In this illuminating book, brain scientist and horsewoman Janet Jones describes human and equine brains working together. Using plain language, she explores the differences and similarities between equine and human ways of negotiating the world. Mental abilities--like seeing, learning, fearing, trusting, and focusing--are discussed from both human and horse perspectives. Throughout, true stories of horses and handlers attempting to understand each other--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--help to illustrate the principles. Horsemanship of every kind depends on mutual interaction between equine and human brains. When we understand the function of both, we can learn to communicate with horses on their terms instead of ours. By meeting horses halfway, we achieve many goals. We improve performance. We save valuable training time. We develop much deeper bonds with our horses. We handle them with insight and kindness instead of force or command. We comprehend their misbehavior in ways that allow solutions. We reduce the human mistakes we often make while working with them. Instead of working against the horse's brain, expecting him to function in unnatural and counterproductive ways, this book provides the information needed to ride with the horse's brain. Each principle is applied to real everyday issues in the arena or on the trail, often illustrated with true stories from the author's horse training experience. Horse Brain, Human Brain offers revolutionary ideas that should be considered by anyone who works with horses.

30 review for Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    The sections talking about the senses are useful. The parts on learning are… not good. Although the author expressed at the beginning that her intent was to make a layman-friendly, evidence-based book, the sections on learning are out-of-step with current understanding in the field. These sections are still hamstrung by being inexplicably mired in tradition which, given all the research that has been done on animal learning, cannot be said to be truly evidence-based or related all that much to t The sections talking about the senses are useful. The parts on learning are… not good. Although the author expressed at the beginning that her intent was to make a layman-friendly, evidence-based book, the sections on learning are out-of-step with current understanding in the field. These sections are still hamstrung by being inexplicably mired in tradition which, given all the research that has been done on animal learning, cannot be said to be truly evidence-based or related all that much to the science that has been done. This is my particular area of interest, so it bothered me a great deal. Her “types of learning” section is split into categories that aren’t totally necessary. She has “learning by consequence” but then also has “learning by emotion”, “learning by problem-solving”, and “learning by testing.” All three of the latter would fall under “learning by consequence”. The negative reinforcement section isn’t terrible, but Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean (though more technical and not layman-friendly) has a much better discussion in it of the use of negative reinforcement in training. What McGreevy and McLean suggest is using the lowest amount of pressure a horse will respond to and then maintaining that pressure until you get something approximating the response that you want, then releasing. The release is the reward, the crucial part of the exercise. Horse people generally have a pretty good understanding of negative reinforcement, but Jones doesn’t really address common misconceptions. For example, release when you are getting anything close to what you want. Maintain pressure if the horse is performing other behaviors that you don’t want (moving sideways, backing up, throwing their head, etc). If you still haven’t gotten the exact response, then add the same amount of pressure again and again release for closer approximations to the precise behavior. So, if you are teaching a horse to stop from pressure on the bit and the horse is either totally naïve or hard-mouthed, you want to release when the horse slows or shortens their stride at all. Then reapply that same amount of pressure. That’s how you communicate to a horse who does not yet understand what the pressure means what you want. Jones mentions leg pressure and moving away from that pressure being a natural inclination for the horse, but does not mention that things like pressure to the mouth or head caused by a bridle is really arbitrary. There is nothing inherent about putting pressure on the horse’s mouth to make the horse think “oh, they want me to slow down/stop.” IMO, that limits the usefulness of the section. I give her credit for pointing out the downsides of using positive punishment which is certainly an evidence-based stance and not common in the traditional mindset. But she does note another common misconception that it may be necessary for “severe transgressions in horses who know better.” This is always the excuse for positive punishment. There is another point where Jones mentions a horse nipping when you tighten the girth “for no reason”—the nipping is clearly not for no reason, it’s because the horse finds tightening the girth unpleasant. Any decent trainer of any other species (dog trainers, cat trainers, bird trainers, zoo animal trainers) will tell you that if you’re not getting the behavior you want out of the animal, the animal does NOT in fact know better. There is always a reason for what they are doing. “They know better, they just want to be bad” is a cop-out and does not align with the evidence we have about animal (including equine) behavior and learning. There is always a reason for the behavior and it’s often easier and safer when it comes to fight-or-flight based behaviors (spookiness, aggression) to work on fixing the underlying reason for the behavior rather than just arbitrarily determining that there is no reason or the reason is unimportant to modifying the behavior. What’s particularly weird about that line is that later in the book, there is an entire chapter (actually an excellent chapter) about why that is not in fact the case. The chapter on positive reinforcement (“training by reward” in Jones’s terms) is where it really goes off the rails of scientific evidence. There is absolutely no reason to be afraid of using food rewards. That is a purely, 100% traditional stance that has nothing at all in common with behavior science. There are a growing number of positive reinforcement/clicker trainers now who work with horses and can demonstrate why all of Jones’s objections to using food as a reward are utterly unfounded and based more on the common superstitions in the horse world than they are on scientific evidence. I also think her claim that “horses don’t know they can hurt you” is rather ridiculous. Like other social animals, horses learn how to inhibit their behaviors from a young age. And if they are lacking in some understanding of how far they can go with a human, it is absolutely something that you can teach and there is no reason to assume otherwise. Many of her “non-edible rewards” are not really rewards (quiet surroundings, known locations, clear direction, etc.), some are not something you can easily use as a reward in training (equine buddies, familiar people, etc.), and the rest are very low-value rewards (strokes on the neck or shoulders, scratches on the chest or withers, etc.). Her favorite seems to be “conditioned verbal praise.” This is commonly used in clicker training (referred to as a conditioned reinforcer or marker, usually a clicker but can also be a spoken word or cluck). Clicker trainers know very well though that if you condition a word to be rewarding, that word will stop being rewarding if you stop following it up with an actual reward. If you “charge” the clicker by clicking and treating, then never treat after clicking after that, the click is quickly going to become meaningless to the horse again. The idea that rest or not working is the best reward for a horse is, when you think about it, pretty sad as a reward. It’s a clear indication that horses do not actually enjoy what they are being trained to do, nor are they taught to enjoy it. This idea is utterly foreign to trainers of other species who rely primarily on positive reinforcement and food rewards. For those other species, ending the training session can be seen as a *punishment* rather than a reward because they do genuinely enjoy doing the “job” that they’re being asked to do. This is as true of dogs as it is of zebras in zoos, who are taught using positive reinforcement and food rewards to approach people and tolerate handling for veterinary procedures and hoof trims. If you can do it safely with a zebra, why it is unsafe to do it with a domesticated horse? Jones makes a big fuss about how to use positive reinforcement with food rewards properly, you need to have excellent understanding of equine behavior and have excellent timing, which she apparently does not think is as important with negative reinforcement. I am TOTALLY baffled by this. Timing is crucial with negative reinforcement and it does require a lot of attention to detail as well, just as much if not more than positive reinforcement. She also makes a big deal about behaviors learned from mis-timed food rewards being so incredibly difficult to get rid of. This also strikes me as a bit of a bad joke. I once worked briefly with a horse who was just a horrible mugger. I couldn’t even get to the girth to tighten it or pull down my stirrups, much less get him to stand at the mounting block, because he would obsessively turn to me to nudge my pockets. I tried negative reinforcement. I tried positive punishment. The light bulb went off. The horse was telling me what the most salient motivation was for him, so why the hell wasn’t I using it? So I started rewarding him for standing still and not turning to me. I spent like 20 minutes using the other methods trying to get him to stand still and failing. It took less than 5 minutes to fix the behavior once I started using food rewards. It was enormously easier. On the other hand, it can take months to fix a horse who has become hard-mouthed due to badly used negative reinforcement, and that can be rather more dangerous than a horse who just wants to nuzzle your pockets. Her box on “incentives are not rewards” is also poorly explained or understood. The technical term for what she’s talking about is luring. You lure an animal into doing what you want. This is absolutely a valid means of using positive reinforcement! It makes no sense for her to say that learning doesn’t take place here—it absolutely does. The trick though, if you ultimately want to be able to phase out the lure, is to… phase out the lure. The irony here is that Jones later recommends using a lure but doesn’t seem to recognize that she’s doing it—she recommends getting a slow, plodding horse to speed up by following a faster horse, then gradually removing the other horse from the equation. That’s using the other horse as a lure (incentive) and then gradually phasing out that lure. You can find so many books on positive reinforcement training that explain how to do this and it’s bizarre to me that Jones would go out of her way to say that it can’t be done and is not a valid way to teach an animal a new behavior (even while at one point recommending its use when the incentive isn’t a food reward). Again, this is just a common superstition. This is really my biggest problem I have with the book. When discussing applications, she seems to have a very specific (traditional) point of view. The learning section shows just how willing she is to cherry pick evidence to suite that point of view and to avoid questioning her assumptions. There is then a bit on “over-handling” that raises questions as well, but Jones doesn’t ask them. I don’t know enough about this particular subject to know for sure, but her claim is that horses can be "over-handled" and being around people for too long is mentally fatiguing and stressful for horses. This can certainly be true. And there have been studies showing that occasional, brief handling is just fine to produce temperamentally sound foals who accept human contact without fear. The process of imprinting (which was stamped with scientific evidence in the 1990s but has since been debunked, not that debunking has stopped Dr. Robert Miller from making a career out of it) can create animals that are more nervous. But the thing about imprinting is that it often involves flooding--just constantly overwhelming the animal with stimuli in an attempt to get them to habituate to it. So of course, between an animal that has been traumatized with flooding more often than another animal, the former is more likely to grow up to have an anxious temperament than the latter. We know flooding has this effect in any species. Jonesmakes the argument that it is because of the difference in horses' brains that makes them this way. She quotes Temple Grandin that "animals with a flighty, excitable temperament must be trained and habituated slowly, in small steps over many days" which is good enough advice for initial training. BUT Jones extends this to all forms of handling and being around people, and quotes Marine Hausberger saying that "'Excessive' handling may well bring aversive responses." Jones accepts this without question as just a fundamental part of equine nature as a prey animal. Now. I have birds. I have had birds for a long ass time. They are also social prey animals. And if you want peak "flighty, excitable animal", you could not do better than choosing parrots. My conures (particularly Flip) would spend all their time with me if they could. They did not find it aversive--quite the opposite. To me, the natural question is, "Well, what does the handling entail? How are these horses being handled? Why would horses find it inherently aversive to be around people for extended periods of time?" Because this is, I have to be honest with you, kind of bizarre given the behavior of other social, domesticated animals (and even the naturally less social domesticated cat) and even the behavior of social, tamed wild animals that we keep as pets (such as parrots). The difference between the imprinting process of foals and brief, occasional handling of foals is very different in more ways than just the amount of time the foals spent being handled. There is a qualitative difference. As I mentioned, imprinting often involves forcing foals when they are small to subject a wide variety of different stimuli. What would be the result of spending the same amount of time with foals in the presence of humans without humans forcing anything on them? Why would the mere presence of humans, or less intense handling, be expected to cause the same aversion and fearfulness in horses? It seems to me there is not any inherent reason for the presence of humans in themselves to be aversive unless the humans are doing something to make themselves aversive to the animal. But Jones doesn't ask that question. I will say though, the penultimate chapter, “Pointing Fingers”, is really excellent. Jones elucidates a lot of common misconceptions and does lay out the evidence in a way that makes sense and doesn’t dodge crucial questions. If you want to learn more about animal learning and how behavior science can be applied to training, this is not the book. As I mentioned, Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean takes a deep dive into all the nuances of equine learning and how it applies to training. It is not very layman-friendly, however. Alexandra Kurland as well as Shawna and Vinton Karrasch are trainers who were at the forefront of adapting clicker training to horses and have excellent books available (I particularly recommend You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything! by the Karraschs as I think it is the most accessible for people coming from traditional training while also not sacrificing the clarity that behavior science brings to the table). Humane, Science-Based Horse Training by Alize Veillard-Muckensturm excellently explains the concepts of applied behavior science when applied to horses. She also challenges some things that people brought up in traditional training take for granted (for example, the end of work being the best reward). If you’re still very attached to traditional training though, you may find her abrasive as she is a “purely positive” trainer—she does not recommend the use of any negative reinforcement at all, considering it abusive. Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor is THE classic on applying behavior science to both animals and people. The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson is a dog training book, and Donaldson can also be abrasive, but she challenges and debunks a lot of traditional superstitions that are as common in traditional dog training as they are in traditional horse training.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Susan Miller

    This is a great book! I loved the authors sense of humor interspersed throughout. The book is easy to read and understand. It's a rather complex issue in trying to understand how horses think. Jones does a great job of explaining in plain English that horses don't have prefrontal cortex's and aren't in their stall at night plotting how they will unseat us in the morning. More importantly what I took away was that the horses have a very keen sense of human breath, intention and heartbeat and can This is a great book! I loved the authors sense of humor interspersed throughout. The book is easy to read and understand. It's a rather complex issue in trying to understand how horses think. Jones does a great job of explaining in plain English that horses don't have prefrontal cortex's and aren't in their stall at night plotting how they will unseat us in the morning. More importantly what I took away was that the horses have a very keen sense of human breath, intention and heartbeat and can feel when we are frightened and so they become frightened. Humans being their own heads, seem far less aware of what's going on in their environment than the horses do. Horses are hyper vigilant to their surroundings, that includes the humans they interact with. We humans are much slower at perceiving the facial expressions the horse is making and interpreting them to help us understand how best to be a team in any given situation. Horses are masters of body language and scanning their environments. There eye sight is very different from ours. The equine is stimulus driven on things that seem to be on the periphery. It is movement of the unexpected object that will make them startle or react and also our human perception of thoughts as we are goal driven and often thinking in straight lines to that end instead of scanning the sidelines. Jones sums up what it is to be a true horseman in a fabulous last chapter.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Phi Beta Kappa Authors

    Janet L. Jones ΦBK, Pomona College, 1984 Author From the publisher: An eye-opening game-changer of a book that sheds new light on how horses learn, think, perceive, and perform, and explains how to work with the horse's brain instead of against it. In this illuminating book, brain scientist and horsewoman Janet Jones describes human and equine brains working together. Using plain language, she explores the differences and similarities between equine and human ways of negotiating the world. Mental a Janet L. Jones ΦBK, Pomona College, 1984 Author From the publisher: An eye-opening game-changer of a book that sheds new light on how horses learn, think, perceive, and perform, and explains how to work with the horse's brain instead of against it. In this illuminating book, brain scientist and horsewoman Janet Jones describes human and equine brains working together. Using plain language, she explores the differences and similarities between equine and human ways of negotiating the world. Mental abilities--like seeing, learning, fearing, trusting, and focusing--are discussed from both human and horse perspectives. Throughout, true stories of horses and handlers attempting to understand each other--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--help to illustrate the principles. Horsemanship of every kind depends on mutual interaction between equine and human brains. When we understand the function of both, we can learn to communicate with horses on their terms instead of ours. By meeting horses halfway, we achieve many goals. We improve performance. We save valuable training time. We develop much deeper bonds with our horses. We handle them with insight and kindness instead of force or command. We comprehend their misbehavior in ways that allow solutions. We reduce the human mistakes we often make while working with them. Instead of working against the horse's brain, expecting him to function in unnatural and counterproductive ways, this book provides the information needed to ride with the horse's brain. Each principle is applied to real everyday issues in the arena or on the trail, often illustrated with true stories from the author's horse training experience. Horse Brain, Human Brain offers revolutionary ideas that should be considered by anyone who works with horses.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Debi Robertson

    For any equestrian people out there, this is the book to read. Even the younger persons will understand the concepts and research that is put before them and will change your attitude towards training and working with your horse(s). Dr Jones is concise, articulate, funny and writes so that anyone can understand. Best book I have read in a while and I read a lot of this kind of book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Susanfxtrt Engle

    The real Horse Revealed This is a scientific book about horses that is written so well, any human connected with horses will be able to understand it. Your horse is not at all what we humans think. Your horse has many differences from what most us humans understand. Amazing knowledge in the book which will,help out any person interest is improving their knowledge and this horsemanship....a vague word. This is a must read for everyone connected with horses!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Loni

    Interesting but too full of obligatory pics of neurons, dendrites, brains, etc. to add pages to a book that should have been a long essay. I fully understand our brains and neurobiology - just tell me how the horse processes the same information I do. It's not bad info. It's just packaged to be "sciency" so that we trust the author and that falls flat. You have your Phd, you work with horses, I trust you. Interesting but too full of obligatory pics of neurons, dendrites, brains, etc. to add pages to a book that should have been a long essay. I fully understand our brains and neurobiology - just tell me how the horse processes the same information I do. It's not bad info. It's just packaged to be "sciency" so that we trust the author and that falls flat. You have your Phd, you work with horses, I trust you.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Monique

    Nice information about brains, but very poor understanding of learning theory and equine ethology. Outdated ideas about positive reinforcement, herd hierarchy and quitting as the best possible reward. Still a decent read for some theoretical background on neuroscience, but skip the parts with practical training advice.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jo-jean Keller

    Written with a concise, easy to understand approach, Horse Brain, Human Brain lets us access those brain differences and work within them to establish a more effective relationship with our horses.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jayne

  10. 4 out of 5

    Judy Woods

  11. 4 out of 5

    Annika Martin

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

  13. 4 out of 5

    Taylor Wirkus

  14. 4 out of 5

    Corey Di

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  16. 5 out of 5

    Claudia Pieper

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lisa H

  18. 4 out of 5

    Donata Schaefer

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gosha Machnicka

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany Coulam

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lnstone

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tessa Groll

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sally Winterton

  24. 4 out of 5

    Krista

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lisa M. Zinzow

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Young

  27. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Ackerman

  28. 4 out of 5

    Noemi

  29. 4 out of 5

    C R

  30. 5 out of 5

    SG

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