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Training the Brain

Updated: Jun 5

As riders, coaches and therapists we all have one thing in common - we want to get the best from the horses we are working with. However, it can be all too easy to place all the focus on what you do with the horse from a physical point of view. You can use all the training exercises that target working on certain areas of the body or improving the way of going but if you don’t have the horse on your side mentally progress will be slow.

gillian higgins horses inside out dr andrew hemmings painted horse head brain

Having the ability to tune into how the horse is feeling and coping with the training you are doing is key to progressing and ultimately success.

From research the most effective schooling programmes allow for each horse’s individual learning style. Respect your horse’s emotional and psychological needs and you’ll make better progress.

Dr Andrew Hemmings is a world authority on the equine brain and how that organ impacts on behaviour and training. He is the Principal Lecturer in Equine Science and the head of department (Equine Management and Science) at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester. He is passionate about making neuroscience available to horse owners in such a way that all horses will benefit from better training, welfare and management.

His main research focus over the last couple of decades has been the development of behavioural and cognitive tests that can be applied by anyone in a range of everyday training scenarios.

In this video Gillian interviews Andrew to learn more about his background, research and training the brain.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating subject and ultimately train smarter and work more harmoniously with your horse, then our recorded seminar Training the brain with Dr Andrew Hemmings is a not to be missed opportunity.

The seminar covers the anatomy of the brain and how it works and how this knowledge can be applied to the handling, training, welfare, and management of horses.

Get Inside His Head

Your horse’s brain is relatively small and accounts for about 0.1% of the body and weighs on average 0.6kg.

The brain is divided into three main segments – each is associated but not exclusively responsible for specialised functions.

gillian higgins horses inside out painted horse head brain

1. The Forebrain accounts for 75% of the total volume and is subdivided into four regions.

a) The cerebrum is the largest area of the brain. Drawing on past memories it reacts to sensations such as vision, hearing, temperature, touch and smell. It controls and co-ordinates most physical and mental activities and is the centre for learning, disposition, mood, emotion and intelligence.

b) The Hypothalamus forms the base of the forebrain and is about the size of a grape. It’s connected by a stalk to the pituitary gland. It controls the glands of the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system, which your horse has no control. This includes regulating blood pressure, temperature, behavioural and sexual responses, aggression and pleasure.

c) The Thalamus is responsible for the initial sorting of incoming messages and directing them to the appropriate areas of the brain for processing.

d) The Olfactory Lobe - concerned with the sense of smell.

2. The Midbrain – situated behind the cerebrum and controls responses to sensations of sight and smell as well as the voluntary control of breathing, behaviour and movement.

3. The Hindbrain

  • The Medulla Oblongata links the spinal cord and brain, and controls vital processes such as heartbeat, respiration, digestion and breathing. It also co-ordinates coughing, sneezing and swallowing.

  • The Cerebellum (also known as the little brain) is like a smaller version of the cerebrum and is responsible for controlling posture, balance, movement and muscular activity.

  • The Pons links the medulla oblongata and thalamus in the right and left hemispheres.

“Happy horses learn better. Learning requires physical changes to happen in the brain – these won’t occur if the horse is stressed” Dr Andrew Hemmings

And Repeat

You probably already know that horses learn by repetition but did you know that it takes an estimated 10,000 repetitions for your horse to learn and refine a skill and develop the associated neural pathway.

I think this highlights that repetition is needed when training horses but patience and variety are also the key. It takes between three and six months for a new behaviour to become a habit – although this may vary a little between horses. It’s this that also confirms that there is no quick fix when it comes to schooling and training horses.

Change the way you train your horse

“There has been a long association with Andrew and Horses Inside Out,” explains Gillian. As well as being a lecturer when I was studying at the Royal Agricultural College, Andrew also helped to run the first Horses Inside Out dissection courses.

“He has spoken at the Horses Inside Out annual conference on a number of occasions and his lectures are always so popular. His enthusiasm and passion for the topic makes the often complex information easy to understand and above all interesting. I, for one can’t wait for this one-day seminar, it’s going to be fascinating and will transform the way we train horses.”

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