This informative book unravels how a horse’s brain is wired and gives you knowledge to help improve your communication and horsemanship, and your horse’s overall well-being.
“Great feel with horses takes practice, experience, and special awareness. From a big picture perspective, feel is the ability to be in the moment while also drawing on reams of prior experiences. If we think too much and try to bring in language and self-consciousness, we miss the moment for effective communication with our equine partner.”—Excerpt from Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights
As much as horse owners love their horses and want to give them the best care possible, they must remember horse are not humans, stop anthropomorphizing them and learn to understand their true nature. Author Maddy Butcher takes a proactive stance on this subject and supports it with scientific research and expert advice in Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights, which she co-wrote with neuroscientist and equine brain researcher Dr. Stephen Peters. A longtime writer, horse owner and producer of the annual Best Horse Practices Summit, Butcher has a stable of credible sources and is able to take scientific information and distill it into terms and applications horse owners can understand.
“Horses are not people,” she writes at the beginning of the first chapter. “We know this is true. But attend any horse event, enter any tack shop, open any horse magazine, and you’ll come away thinking otherwise.
“You’ll be convinced horses have human-y feelings, motivations, and goals. We tend to replace their simple needs with our more complicated ones. We anthropomorphize. We make horse actions personal and emotionally complex. He likes kisses. He needs his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Look, he’s nodding, ‘yes.’ We’re friends. He loves me!
“It’s fun but it’s wrong. Of course, horses DO have feelings, motivations and goals. But from a scientific point of view, they’re much more basic than ours. They want to move. They want to forage. They want to rest. They want to be with other horses.”
Throughout the eight chapters in the book, divided into short sections, Butcher explores equine brain science as it relates to a horse’s behavior, training and care.
“We can be guilty of keeping our horses in that perpetual comfort circle, where nothing is allowed to rile them,” Butcher writes. “But from a neurological perspective, experiencing discomfort may reap far more benefits than rutting oneself in comfort.”
She draws examples from the book Evidence-Base Horsemanship, by Peters with horseman Martin Black, where they “describe the ideal learning environment as one that takes the horse to a state just outside its comfort range. It’s a place where the horse feels curious and a bit concerned.” Of particular note is her support of cattle and ranch work to keep a horse mentally and physically in shape.
“There’s also something to be said for the life of a working horse and the mentality of a working cowboy,” she shares. “I’ve had the privilege of helping to move cattle in recent summers. I experienced firsthand what every clinician tells me: Jobs can benefit the horse and rider partnership tremendously. Indeed, side-passing, galloping, long-trotting, and quick starts and stops all come more easily when the focus was on something else.”
Besides neuroscience and training theory, Butcher also addresses equine vision and practical horse-care practices, including adequate pasture and turnout space, feeding, hoof abscesses and dentistry. Her insights are a reminder of how amazing horses are and what a privilege it is to own and ride them.
The latter sections of the book focus on Butcher’s personal essays and reflections as a horse owner. She shares stories of her own experiences with horses, as well as an interview she did David Phillips, a reporter for The New York Times, on managing wild horse populations, and insights from her outspoken burro Wise Ass Wallace. Butcher closes with her observations on the history of horses and their role as “beasts of burden” and their current role in society.
Filled with quotes from reputable horsemen such as Martin Black, Randy Rieman, Mark Rashid, Warwick Schiller, Amy Skinner and West Taylor, this book offers diverse perspectives. The book’s short sections make it easy to stop and start. Though it’s a quick read, it’s filled with valuable information horse owners will heed regularly.