Thursday, February 2, 2012

It's all in the Brain!

I had some very interesting conversations yesterday, one with our farrier, Bill, and one with my Bestie, Dee. Both about animals, and both really got me thinking.
Let me tell you first about the subject Dee and I wandered upon during a phone call:

Dee was talking about how some animals seem more communicative and interactive than others, and she wondered at the cause. If you have followed my blog for a while, you have read all about how I feel that some horses are "with you and connected" while others are not. All horses are of equal worth, but I do not sense them all as I do Pippi. Sure, the reason might be that I think I feel Pippi, because of my own emotional attachment, but in my opinion it goes deeper than that.
I am a social worker, and human behaviors are quite interesting to me. After many years, oh so many, of working with the generationally poor I could tell you some stories that would have you gasping and/or rolling with laughter. But mostly it makes me sad. The kids I meet are very different than my kids' friends, as they are raised very differently, and have a very different culture. Many of them lack a certain maturity and understanding that leaves me, well, tired. They are somehow stunted, and yes, I know that sounds harsh. I think "who would you have been if.............?"
As you can read in the pic, this is an image of two three year old brains, and the differences are astonishing. There have been extensive studies done on the orphaned children of Romania, that have clearly shown what neglect, abuse and sensory deprivation does to brains. If interested you can read some great info from The Department of Health and Human Services, and pretty good article by The Daily Mail.

Babies are born with Brain functions, synapses, that govern essential body functions, such as breathing, swallowing, rudimentary movement, etc. The development, and strengthening, of synapses beyond that is highly influenced by outside forces.  In other words, intelligence is learned and developed by sensory stimulation, and interactions.

On the Right is a healthy brain, and on the left an abused brain. "Abuse" in this instance would be like that of a neglected brain. One is clearly "brighter" than the other. Isn't it odd that the word "bright" is what we use to signify intelligence?       
So, what we know is that children's brains are very much influenced by their social interactions. (if your kids are bright, pat yourself on the back NOW, and if you are bright this would be a good time to call mom and dad and say "thank you")
It is not a stretch to assume that this is also true for the other mammals we share this earth with. I have many times stood in front a vacant muzzle, and wondered if "anyone was home." If you communicate and interact with your horse, the synapses will develop and strengthen and that horse will communicate back. They will learn and develop an intelligence beyond what is needed for hay, water, poop, and lay down. We know this to be true, because we see it every day. Crinkle the plastic on a peppermint, lift the lid of your treat box, wrap the legs of your horse, and you see behaviors that correspond. Pippi knows that wrapped legs means we are trucking somewhere, and she knows that western saddle means trail ride as opposed to jumping lesson. She also knows to paw her right hoof for a treat when asked, she knows to nod up and down to get her feed, and she moved sideways to give me room with the wheelbarrow when she is in the aisle. None of that came pre programmmed.
Now, where some people may think I am taking a leap is whether we humans can sense the "brightness." I totally and unapologetically say "Hell to the YES!!" Look at the pic above, of course we can sense that kind of electric brain function. And we can sense the lack of it. Probably through a lot of non verbal communications, and lack of it, but also just the actual firing of neurons and electricity surging through the brain.
A few weeks after we met Pippi, I took the Son to the barn and let him walk around seeing the dozen or so horses that lived there. He knew nothing about them, but very quickly told me which horses he liked and which he did not. The reason he didn't like some was because, as he described them, they were "robots." They all stuck their heads out, and looked at him, but some he liked and some he didn't. The Black and White gelding was a "robot", while the giant QH Mare was "really cool." Gelding never dumped a rider, Mare did, by the way. But Gelding also ran right into a wall because rider was not paying attention, hurting himself more than rider, could not walk a straight line (no EPM or other issues, tested several times), and was oblivious to the world at large. Mare placed well at QH Congress, is quite beribboned, and can/will dump any rider that pulls on her mouth or kicks her sides. She is not evil with her dumping, she just seems to "remove riders by the power of her mind" as described by one dumpee. One minute you are on, and the next you are safe and sound on your butt in the sand.

So, as I told Dee, I think animals are as much a product of their environment as any child. Pippi has been treated as though she can communicate, and we have expectations that she meets in that regard. Kevin once announced at a horse show that Pippi had a "head ache," and was quite embarrassed at the certainty in which he made the statement. I just smiled, because I hear her too, and find myself answering her. Kevin no longer doubts this, and calls her "my buddy." And at our barn, no one thinks it odd when I say "no, Pippi I think we will just stay in today" to an unasked question.

I wish we could scan Pippi's brain, because I bet she it is as lit up as a Yule Tree.


  1. Very interesting!! The brain images are very cool. You know I have a perfect example of this too. My dogs. Storm was raised in my childhood home and I didn't do much beyond basic obedience and a couple of tricks with her. She also rarely ever left our property. Jackal on the other hand has been clicker trained since he was 7 weeks old and knows almost forty tricks! He met a lot of different people and I took him to a bunch of places. The difference between them is amazing! Even though Storm is a high energy breed she is perfectly content to sit around the house all day and do nothing until I tell her we can go outside. Jackal on the other hand complains all day if he has nothing to do. He's more interested, vocal (whiner lol) and engaged than she is. It makes me really sad that I didn't give Storm the same start in life, but we're making up for it now and I didn't know any better. She's always been healthy and happy so that's what matters. Just thought I would share. :D Great post!

  2. Being happy and healthy is truly all that matters. And I am sure she has a very nice life. From your blog I know how much you care for and about your furry friends.
    It does show however how far these formed synapses can take a brain, and shape development in animals. Which dog gets the most attention and is most liked by strangers? Would be hard to tell since most likely Jackal seeks people I suppose?

  3. Actually everyone is more attracted to Storm because she is so beautiful, but once they get to know the dogs Jackal is definitely the one who seeks attention. :) Where I see it the most is in our training because Jackal will try, try, try until he gets it right, but if Storm gets frustrated she gives up easily. She also doesn't try new things, she just goes through her old behaviors. I have to "show" her how to do things, where Jackal will figure them out on his own. She's also more content to do nothing than he is. It really is interesting the difference between them. :)

  4. This is an excellent post. The pictures of the brains really hammer the point home too. I agree with you that horses are as much a product of the environment that they were raised in as children. I also believe that they can change and open up more - maybe not to the extent of "what could have been," but I have seen some horses develop into more than they were after time and positive energy was spent with them.

    And I talk to my horses and calves at our dairy farm just like they were another person.

  5. Absoutely brilliant post! My understanding is that my Sug has always been bright, and has had very loving homes where she has been treated like somewhat of a family member, which is why I feel (yep, totally anthropomorphizing here) she's so darn full of personality and spunk.

    Don't I remember that you had a show this weekend? Just wanted to check in and see how that went, and all that - let you know I was thinking of you guys.

  6. Totally awesome post! Totally agree that Pippi looks like a Christmass tree or a carnival.

    hey, didn't you have a show? did i miss that? was thinking about you and thought i'd reach out. hope all went well1

  7. This is a really good post and a subject that is quite near and dear to me. I studied neurobiology and behavior in school and I can tell you that you are right on the money with this!

    Numerous studies have shown that all social animals need social interaction to be healthy, both mentally and physically. Many of the husbandry practices common in the horse industry (stalling, private turnout) limit the horses' ability to have the social interactions they need. It is our responsibility as their caretakers to provide them with the interaction they need by spending as much quality time with them as possible.

    Intelligence can best be described simply as the ability to solve a problem. We exercise our intelligence through problem solving. For a social animal, most "problems" involve social interaction. By giving our horses enough social interaction, we exercise their minds and build their intelligence.

    Again, great post! Sorry I wrote a novel in your comments :)

  8. I love that you are drawing attention to this. So many riders do not truly listen to their horses. They basically hear what they want to hear. For me, its important to watch for signs of what my horse likes and doesn't like. I want my partner to be happy in his job.


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