Training Tips 1





Much has been written about this and information on such a complex subject needs to be taken with a measure of caution because we are dealing with a philosophical topic as well as hard science.

Sometimes people will say that their horse is predominantly right or left brain but do we really understand what that means? In humans an active right prefrontal cortex shows a tendency to caution and depression. The basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works in this part of the brain. Is there a horse equivalent?

We as humans have a blend of the two with one being more ‘active’ at different times of our lives even research now says that left and right brain activity changes every 90 minutes. This article covers mainly ‘hardware’ of the brain and will touch on how chemicals and/or herbs can affect the brain, something which can assist with training.


  1. Every horse must understand how to relieve any pressure that you apply. Equally, every horse must know when he can switch off and relax and understand how to have a pleasant experience.(reward)  We as the trainer and rider must remain  consistent. Release of pressure or stimulus of any sort the milli-second the horse responds.
  2. Some rewards are brain pleasure chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin and these can assist with the re-enforcement of positive behaviours. When they occur naturally produced in and by the brain, they are short lived and target-specific ie dock into a corresponding ‘keyhole’.
  3. Introduced and artificial rewards are more general affecting levels of consciousness and longer lasting therefore more risky.
  4. In training what we want to avoid is the survival mode in horses.Note: Both horses and humans have a survival part of the brain called the reptilian brain (amygdala) which triggers the flight, fight and freeze responses. In the horse, this is highly tuned for survival.
  5. When a horse is using that part of the brain, and is in a state of survival, the horse is not thinking and the horse CANNOT learn. It’s brain is reacting to a stimuli and it is very difficult to override that unless  new neuro pathways are established. So for each negative input you will have to override that with a minimum of 10 positive inputs.
  6. We have a larger more functioning prefrontal cortex that helps us override the reptilian brain. So the objective is a happy partnership.


  • The first and most obvious is that horses have a very different physical brain to humans
  • The cerebellum (that part devoted to movement) is proportionately larger in a horse to that of man. The horse therefore is more reliant on the self protective region and instinctive (primitive limbic region) of the brain. Ideally the human will have training tools at his/her disposal to damp down the flight response. Some herbs and drugs are able to calm a horse down by changing the biochemistry of the brain.
  • In humans the prefrontal cortex is proportionately larger in a human being and is responsible for self-awareness the ability to think. In other words responsible for cognitive processes. It’s our job to keep the horse out of its survival state and towards a thinking state and a learning frame of mind.Note: The term “thinking” for the horse is not strictly correct but more to do with more accessing stored responses to certain stimuli from the human trainer. Maybe kinetic memory would be more correct and you will see why soon.
  • So when we want to teach a horse something, we should take care the horse is in a learning frame of mind, and therefore he needs to feel calm, relaxed and comfortable.


 Interesting Facts:

  • The horse has a far smaller ratio of brain size to body size than the human.
  • The human brain is able to think in the past, present and future and controls memory, communication and association found in the cerebral cortex.
  • In a horse all motor movements are quickly and permanently stored in the large cerebellum.  Therefore, once a movement is taught to a horse it won’t be forgotten. As you can see the cerebellum in the horse brain is proportionately larger.
  • The cerebellum is the part of the brain where the integration of sensory perception, coordination and motor control takes place. (make sure your training inputs are right the first time round!)
  • Other brain parts have a different influence on the horse’s behaviour and emotions. See left and right brain
  • The horse’s brain is mainly busy with larger muscle coordination, balance and body functions.
  • The human brain is used for fine-motor skills and language development
  • Most of the horse’s brain is used for analyzing information received from the environment. ( At an instinctive level)
  • A horse is not able to reason through a skill it is merely imprinted in the cerebellum.
  • Horses learn by repetition, and learn to associate things with pain or pleasure.
  • Horses are able to associate cues and signals with desired behavior. Horses have expertise at reading unconscious human behaviour. ( how often do we convey subliminal messages?)
  • Horses rely on their sense of smell which is thousands of times more sensitive than ours.  You are able to see the prominent olfactory bulb on the diagram.
  • While people are experts at cognitive and creative thought processes, horses are experts at analyzing and understanding the environment and learning large movements.
  • Horses learn many times faster than humans and preserve what they learned for the rest of their lives.


Left and Right Brain Function

Humans and horses share a left and right hemisphere separated by a thick fibrous band called the corpus callosum which allows for ‘communication’ between hemispheres.

The term left and right hemispheres used to give the people an understanding of two different aspects of the brain. Some psychological tests try to determine whether you are right or left brain dominant but did you know that this dominance changes every 90 minutes? You can tell by which nostril you breathe more easily from.

Is your Horse Left or Right Brain Dominant?

  • Is this really a valid assumption when looking at the dominance of the reptilian brain in the horse? This is something that need further investigation
  • In humans left and right brain dominance can be consciously changed in some cases by repeating phrases, doing exercises, even breathing through a left or right nostril but how can we change dominance in horses? This can be done through training and understanding plasticity.
  • It is claimed that some horses tend to be more ‘right-brained‘ whilst others horses tend to be more ‘left-brained‘. The same can be applied to human’s:  right prefrontal cortex dominance (more cautious by nature)  as opposed to left prefrontal cortex ( more laid back not too focused on risk).
  • A horse that’s in a state of fight or flight will use his right brain more. When the right brain is dominating the horse tends to be emotional unstable (easily disturbed/stressed out easily/sensitive/nervous/angry/anxious). In this frame of mind he is unable to learn new things from the trainer. It is more in tune with its reptilian brain also.
  • Training aims to keep him out of his survival state,(reptilian brain,) and out of his right brain by training. This is where herbs acting on the amygdala and pituitary gland will help.
  • When a horse is using his left brain more he tends to be emotionally more stable (calm/secure/confident/relaxed). In this frame of mind he is able to learn new things from the trainer. This is the state you want when creating new desirable neurons. A happy relaxed horse will have optimum levels of serotonin and dopamine. He will move with more elasticity and brilliance.

NOTE: The horse must understand how to relieve any pressure that you apply. Equally, every horse must know when he can switch off and relax and understand how to have a pleasant experience


Brain Plasticity and Tools using Repitition

NOTE: “There is direct evidence that when learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons creates connections between adjacent and distant neurons, from simple circuits to complex ones and vice-versa.” This is the essence of successful learning outcomes by repetition.

Brain Plasticity and Brain Compatible Training and Horses

  • Training methods which are brain-compatible enhance learning because they are based on the natural functioning of the brain.
  • They strengthen the connections which exist between ‘neurons‘ and  enhance the formation of new connections or ‘synapses’.
  • This knowledge is fundamental to rider safety be and an essential tool  used in addressing prey animal behaviour.
  • The brain has millions of neurons and dendrites. When a horse is stimulated through learning, the dendrites are stimulated, and new behaviours activated.
  • In early stages of learning, neural circuits are activated at a low strength.
  • With more experience, practice, and exposure, the circuits become stronger. Repetition requires less input to activate the entire network and in time become automatic
  • Time is needed to establish new neural networks and connections between networks to tend a horse towards left brain dominance.
  • The more your horse is stimulated, the more dendrites, the more brain power he has; the faster he learns.
  • The brain’s plasticity also means that there are times when negative experiences leads to undesirable traits. This is when the use of plant extracts can help the horse overcome the negative experience and be receptive to new positive stimuli and learning.
  • Positive training systems lead to new pathways with the older ones shrinking. Care should be taken not to expose the horse to previous stimulus that would reactivate the old pathways.


Just a summary on a very complex subject which will help you understand that plant extracts can affect brain chemistry. Used correctly will enhance training.

Here are some brain chemicals that can be affected enhanced or damped down by either drugs or herbs.

Neurotransmittors to include:

  • Dopamine responsible for feeling of pleasure and movement
  • Serotonin responsible for feeling of contentment
  • Oxytocin (pleasure)
  • GABA inhibits nerve transmission in the brain, calming nervous activity.
  • Endorphins are the body’s natural opiates feel-good chemicals naturally-manufactured in the brain when the body experiences pain or stress. Endorphins flood the space between nerve cells and usually inhibit neurons from firing, thus creating an analgesic effect.

There are times when chemicals whether by pharmaceutical drugs or natural substances like herbs can be used to break circuits of tension, alter neuro-transmittors, influence dendrite connections etc.

Herbs that act directly on the brain are:

  • Vitex agnes acts on the pituitary gland in the brain to help damp down the stress axis.
  • St John’s Wort which acts on levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the perception of pain by also acting on its counter balance substance P.
  • Valerian, chamomile and passionflower all act on the GABA levels in the brain.
  • Ginkgo improves oxygen delivery to the brain and may influence the brain proteins that are created through stress.
  • Omega oils will also improve the transference of neural communication within the brain

DISCLAIMER: The information in this page must not be used in place of professional veterinary treatment . We recommend that either a qualified herbalist or your animal professional carry out diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Herbal remedies must not be given not be taken in conjunction with other medication with out consulting a medical professional.

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