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Training the Equine Brain with Dr Andrew Hemmings and Horses Inside Out

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

I have been looking forward to this weekend since it was announced that Horses Inside Out would be hosting it a few months ago. A day long seminar with Dr. Andrew Hemmings... and if you missed it, it is now available to purchase in the Horses Inside Out Academy!

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

Andrew is a Principal Lecturer in Equine Science and the head of the Equine Management and Science department at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester.

I was lucky enough to have a taster of what this seminar would be like when I attended the Horses Inside Out Conference in 2020. You can read about his presentation there in my previous blog.

This day was aimed at equine professionals and designed to help us understand more about the brain itself, how it works, what stimulates certain behaviours and how we can use this knowledge to adjust our training of the horse or our therapy sessions also. Andrew began the day with a really thought provoking point.

He asked ‘what is our primary trait of interest in the horse?’

In comparison to a pig, cow or sheep for example where our primary trait of interest may be their meat, milk or wool.

We can have a horse with near perfect conformation and fantastic good looks but if the horse has a difficult temperament or is not trainable they are essentially no use to us.

Therefore, our primary trait of interest in the horse is temperament and trainability.

And to understand this and even be able to predict it we need to understand the brain.

Now if that doesn’t excite you as to what is coming next what would?

I couldn’t wait for the day to unfold.

There were to be 3 parts to the day.

  1. Anatomy of the brain

  2. A LIVE horse brain dissection

  3. Behavioural and cognitive Indicators of brain activity

gillian higgins horses inside out painted horse head anatomy of brain

Even though I had already heard Andrew speak previously about some of the brain anatomy I learnt so much in the morning section. I was so pleased that we were provided with links to handouts of the slides that we could print out and use for making notes. I made soooo many notes! (When you purchase life-time access to the seminar you will also get the handouts as well as the links and the certificate.)

Some interesting points that stood out to me in Session 1:

  • The horse brain weighs around 700g, the human brain around 1400g

  • The frontal lobe of the horse, the decision making part of the brain, is significantly smaller in the horse in comparison to the human

  • Therefore humans have much more control over their primitive instincts

  • Mindfulness and meditation is great at calming the pre frontal cortex (desires and addictions)

  • Digestion has a clear link to the brain via the Vagus Nerve

  • Pain has 2 dimensions, emotional and sensory

  • The Striatum, in the forebrain is responsible for fine motor control, habit formation and also the reward/pleasure centre

  • The Striatum in the human and equine brains is very similar

  • Changes to the Striatum in a crib biting horse are very similar to changes in the brain of a human with Bi-polar disorder or Schizophrenia

I actually made tons more notes than that but too many to include here - if you want to learn more Gillian Higgins, who was hosting the day, has said she is going to add the recording of this seminar to the Horses Inside Out Academy, so you will be able to go there any purchase your own copy of the day. Find it Here.

gillian higgins horses inside out take home messages dr andrew hemmings learning training the brain

After a short break the next part of the day was a live horse brain dissection.

This was really exciting for me. I have been lucky enough over the past couple of years to see lots of horse dissection pictures and even videos, but this was my first opportunity to see this done live. Andrew had the head of a 16hh cob from which he removed the Nuchal Crest at the back of the skull to reveal the Cerebellum (this is the unconscious proprioception and motor memory part of the brain).

He then removed the frontal bone and parietal bones of the cranium to reveal the brain.

The first thing that struck me when the brain was revealed was how distinct the 2 cerebral hemispheres were to see and how beautiful it looked too.

Andrew then removed the brain from the cranium revealing the sphenoid bone and occipital bone. As a therapist that works around the head and around these structures I was fascinated to see these as well as the brain itself.

When the brain was removed the pituitary gland remained in the skull lodged into the sphenoid bone. This was also really interesting to me, especially as one of my own horses suffers with PPID or Cushing's disease which effects the pituitary gland, so it was really cool to see what the structure actually looks like and exactly where it is in the skull.

We then got to look at the brain itself, identifying the structures we had learnt about in the first part of the day.

A few of my key notes from this part of the day:

  • Starch feeds yield glucose which boosts serotonin in the hippocampus (pleasure centre) in the brain which can then affect horse behaviour

  • There is very little blood in the brain, instead there is cerebral spinal fluid

  • The periaqueductal gray area of the brain releases analgesic (pain relieving) endorphins. This is the area we wish to have an effect on with manual therapies.

  • Horses have amazing on board pain numbing mechanisms most likely related to evolution and not showing themselves as a weak member of the herd

  • The anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for the emotional pain response. This is very clear in the horse’s brain showing horses can suffer emotionally from pain

Really fascinating stuff!

gillian higgins horses inside out dr andrew hemmings indicators of brain activity brain

The last lecture of the day was more about practical applications. Firstly using SBR or Spontaneous Blink Rate to measure dopamine in the brain. SBR increases as Dopamine increases and reduces as dopamine reduces.

I think the most clear indication of this is when a horse has a ‘staring eye’ either when they are in pain or when they are frightened.

Interestingly going back to PPID horses like my own. Andrew shared with us that PPID causes a death of dopamine containing neurons, so with that SBR reduces.

Could measuring SBR assist in diagnosis of PPID alongside the ATCH test that is currently used? SBR can also be an indication of anxiety or docility in a horse. Could measuring SBR be used as a temperament predictor in horses?

And Andrew also teased us with some current research that is being carried out into dopamine genes in horses and how they may correspond to temperament traits in horses.

What’s even more exciting is that Gillian announced Andrew will be speaking at the 2023 Horses Inside Out Annual Conference and is hoping to be able to share more about this research with us there AND the conference is going to be a hybrid event this time, so you can attend live in person or online. This is going to make the conference accessible to so many more people and is really exciting!

If you found this blog interesting I would highly recommend looking out for the seminar recording and purchasing a copy. There is so much to take in and learn and Andrew also gives some great things we can do with our own horses to measure their levels of curiosity, vigilance, anxiety or docility including a fascinating card game which I can’t wait to try with my horses and my dogs too, and of course measuring of SBR.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

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