Horse Behavior: Are horses Right-Left Brained?

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Hi there Julie,

It was so good to see you at the [CHA] conference. I just want to let you know that you are one of the few people that I look up to and admire. I am sorry that we did not get a chance to chat at the conference about having a CHA certification, but I do have a question to ask you that I was asking to my anatomy professor who is a driving trainer. He did not know the answer, but he suggested that I investigate and see if there is an answer. The question – it is kind of in depth, but since you are a trainer and know everything – I thought that you would know.

Humans are either left- or right-brain dominant – those who are right brained have been generally known to been more creative and artistic and more free thinking and sometimes have learned things differently than others. Horses also favor one side versus the other – many times the left because of training. Have you found that horses that are say – more right sided, train differently, than others? I figured that it would not be a huge difference, but perhaps they would respond better to one-thing verses the other. So basically – are horses parallel to humans in personality with whichever side of their brain is dominant?

Thank you again for all that you do and teach. I am going to go to our local Equifest tomorrow and I am curious to see if it compares to the things that I learn at CHA.

Thanks,

Jess,

Phoenix AZ

Answer: Your question is an interesting one and a subject I have enjoyed studying. A horse’s brain is similar to a human’s anatomically, although they do not think and process information in quite the same way. The human traits that you describe such as artistic ability or higher logic abilities, are not traits of horses. They simply do not have that great an intellectual capacity.

Like the human brain, the horse brain is divided into two lobes, the right brain and the left brain. Like humans, the right brain controls the left side of the body and visa-versa. The two hemispheres of the brain are connected with neurological connective tissue known as the corpus colossum, which allows messages to be transferred back and forth between the two hemispheres. In humans, the corpus collusum is highly developed; in horses, it is very undeveloped– hence, the one-side nature of horses.

So we think with both sides of our brain all the time. When we talk about someone that is “right brained” we are saying that person’s right brain is dominant and since the capacity of creativity seems to be in the right side of the brain, that person has more artistic ability. We all have the capacity for creativity and it is possible that all of us could express ourselves creatively, but some people seem to have more talent than others.

You might be able to tell from my ability to explain things logically and organize information, that I am of the “left brained” persuasion, that is why I don’t do much creative writing. Numbers and logic are very easy for me. Remember, these are human traits, not equine.

There is a fantastic story from the early 1900s about a horse that appeared to have mathematical abilities. He could paw out the answer to any math problem; anyone could ask the horse to solve a problem, even when the owner wasn’t present. After much testing, the behaviorists were stumped as to how the horse was able to do math. Finally, someone had the idea to put a visual barrier between the humans and the horse and the horse could no longer solve problems.

The moral of the story was that the horse had learned to watch the humans for reactions that indicated he had the correct answer. He would begin to paw until he saw the right reaction in the humans and then quit. It worked every time and the horse was a genius, but he did not have mathematical ability. This is another great example of how horses train humans, but that is a whole different subject (don’t get me started).

So, horses don’t really have the intellectual capabilities for the personality traits that we think about in humans as right-left brained and since we cannot interview the horse or test his skills, it is really hard to say how the brain effects his personality. The dominant side does effect how the horse moves and responds to signals from its environment. It also affects how the horse learns. And although horses have little intellectual capacity in terms of logic and problem solving, they do learn quite well. For better or for worse, horses learn the wrong things just as quickly as the right thing, and it seems like it is far easier to teach them the wrong things.

Since there is little communication between the hemispheres of the horse’s brain, a horse pretty much thinks with one side of his brain at a time. This has many implications for behavior and safety. For learning, this one-sidedness means that we have to train both sides of the horse’s brain, but we should only work on one side of the horse at a time. In other words, if you are training the horse to be mounted, you would work first on the left side (see the link to “On the Rail” for trivia on why the left first), train the skill thoroughly, then go over to the right side of the horse and start over with the training until the horse gets it.

For some horses, the second side will come much more quickly; for others, it is like you are starting all over (especially if you have not handled the horse from both sides). Being able to switch from side to side fluidly with any skill will only happen once the horse is thoroughly trained on both sides. How quickly a horse picks up a new skill on the second side is a good indicator of how balanced, or two-sided the horse may be (which of course is a good sign for performance training).

Julie Goodnight

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