Understanding the Horse’s Mind: Robert M. Miller, DVM, at the Horse Expo 2012

We spent two whole days at the Western States Horse Expo this weekend and feel like we barely saw anything, but we saw everything we most wanted to see (except, alas, the perfect pair of ranch work boots).

Our highlight was Robert M. Miller, DVM. Miller has a lifetime of experience as an equine vet and as a zoo vet, and during his talks would say things casually, like, “my wife and I were on a veterinary safari in Africa…” as if that’s part of real life and not something amazing out of a novel.

First, we caught most of his talk about the connection between horsemanship and artistic talent, which he wrote about in his book The Passion For Horses & Artistic Talent.
He believes that people who love horses also often express themselves in art, without even realizing that their “little hobby” is actually art. He said that the popularity and critical recognition of Western art and cowboy poetry are growing disproportionately to other artistic segments, and he wrote this book to celebrate this and increase awareness of the connection between horses and art.

Jan and I thought that it’s possible that we all have artistic tendencies and that he just happens to be looking at horse people. But the thing about horses is you see their beauty, when they are still and when they are in motion. And to bond with horses you need to open up, and be willing to listen, and to express, and to accept that the default human way might not be the best approach. Miller said that he’s rarely met a farrier who didn’t also do metal art

Then we sat spellbound for an hour for his main lecture of the day, “Understanding the Horse’s Mind.” He is not a showy speaker, but his information is compelling, and his stories are wonderful. I found myself wanting to make slides with photos and bullet-point text for those who can’t learn just from listening. Jan and I can both learn from reading, so we took notes as we listened, and read as we wrote, and have spent the past two days blurting out things like “quick! the 10 essential things to remember about a horse’s mind!” and seeing if we can get them all.

One of the things that made his talk so great was that he illustrated every point with stories from a lifetime of working not just as an equine vet but as a zoo vet. He gave examples from other species to show how horses are different, or how horses are similar but to a different degree, or how horses are the same.

This talk inspired me to buy his book Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands, because he went into detail about what happens in the brain of the horse, not just in the mind. Having read several layperson-friendly books in recent years about neurobiology and neuroplasticity and “the brain and the mind,” we’ve become increasing intrigued by the physical changes in the brain that occur in response to changes in mental and emotional fitness (and, in fact, overall physical fitness as well). Miller says that he wrote this book for people who are already familiar with natural horsemanship, including top-level clinicians, to explain why it works — what is actually going on in the horse’s brain that causes things like the 7 Games to be so effective for horse and human partnership.

For example, one of the 10 things to know about the horse’s mind is that horses are not innately afraid of predators. They are afraid of predatory behavior. Thus, horses can partner with humans, befriend dogs, bond with barn cats. A “dangerous” or “problem” horse with one owner can become an athletic, calm, responsive partner with another owner. Or with the same owner, when the owner changes, as Linda discovered with Regalo.

Jan and I discussed this at some length and realized that when horses drive each other, they exhibit some characteristics of “predatory” behavior. Head low to protect the throat, ears flat, eyes hard and intense, slow stalk that can escalate into a sprint if need be. The other horses might not be “afraid” of the dominant horse’s drive, but they sure can scoot out of the way fast.

Can you guess the other nine of the 10 most important things to know? I’ll share my notes, but I’ll put them after the More link so you can think about it first.

I don’t know if the numbering is meant to indicate priority (with #1 as top priority) or just a way to separate the items and make them easier to remember.

My Notes from “Understanding the Horse’s Mind”
Lecture by Robert M. Miller, DVM
Western States Horse Expo 2012

1. First defense is flight.

The horse is extremely timid. The second defense is fight, but only if he feels cornered and has nowhere to run.

Feet are life to a horse. ~ Robert M. Miller, DVM

2. Most perceptive of all domestic animals.

The horse’s hearing and smell are almost as good as a dog’s. His mouth is sensitive enough to separate dust from food.

Horses have excellent vision but lack depth perception. Horses see in pastels and have better night vision than we do. Their eyes are designed like bifocals, with distance vision in the bottom and close vision in the top. The horse can pick up its head, see something, and run, in less time than it takes the human eye to change focus between short and long distances. The horse doesn’t have time to wait for his lens to change shape between close and far vision, like ours does, so his vision is hardwired.

This is why horses approaching a jump while in collection cannot actually see the jump, because they can’t lift their heads up to see it. This is also why horses can’t tell how deep the water puddle is, because they can’t see it under their nose, and would have to turn their heads sideways and look down, but even then, it’s only one eye, so no depth perception.

3. Fastest learner of all domestic animals.

Horses learn faster than dogs, faster than human children. With the proper teaching techniques, you can do a lot with a horse in 90 days. The Mustang Makeover is an example.

My examples: Pat’s Colt Starting and Mustang Taming events; Chris Cox’s Horseman’s Reunion; Road to the Horse.

4. Best memory of all domestic animals.

Horses never forget. You can override a memory but they won’t forget it. This is natural selection. Horses with good memories of safe places to eat, drink, run, winter, and breed, and of techniques for escaping predation, live to reproduce.

“Horses never forget, but they often forgive.” ~ Pat Parelli

5. Reaction time of flight animal is faster than reaction time of fight animal.

Cutting horses are examples of this. The cow thinks about going left; the horse’s eye sees the cow think this, tells the horse’s brain, which tells the horse’s muscles, and the horse gets there first.

Horses can move faster than we can. A horse that wants to bite, strike, or kick will always be faster than we can move. Where we stand and how we are with horses has to respect that, and them.

6. Easiest to habituate (desensitize) to frightening stimuli if you know how to do it.

This is why horses have been so valuable in warfare. But you have to do it right. Three methods people use:

  • Flooding. Dangerous method for most people. Has to be done right, by a skilled person. Miller uses this method effectively on newborn foals. Doing it right involves: rapid stimulation, fast repetition, of stimuli that does not cause pain. Can be sight, sound, smell. Between 30 to 50 repetitions the horse realizes it’s okay and stops the flight reaction. A little more, the horse is habituated and becomes unaware of it.Horse doesn’t generalize. Replace a blue tarp with a green one and the horse can’t think “oh that’s still a tarp.”

    All zones also must be habituated separately (e.g., nose can be okay with something but ribs and tail can still fear it). “Sacking out” is a method of flooding.

  • Progressive desensitization. Much safer than flooding for most people. In Parelli terms, this is the Friendly Game. End result is the same as flooding but it takes longer.
  • Retreat. Horses are not instinctively afraid of predators. They are afraid of predatory behavior. This includes the stalk and the charge.

    Because of the predator stalk, horses are sensitive to silhouettes and stationary objects, and also to intense stares and slow, tense approaches. We should approach casually, relaxed, from an angle, and if the horse’s head goes up, stop and rest. Don’t stare.

    Because of the charge, horses are sensitive to anything new that comes up rapidly, like a bicycle or a fluttering piece of paper or a grocery bag. To desensitize, take the object and move it away from the horse. Predators don’t retreat, so if the thing retreats, the horse learns it’s not a predator. Eventually the horse will relax, sigh, let down, and now curiosity can replace fear.

The horse wants to flee from novel stimulus, so why is it so easy to habituate? If it couldn’t learn quickly what’s not dangerous, it would be running all the time, with no way to eat or drink or reproduce.

7. Body language.

Humans use a lot of verbalization, but horses use body language. For example, a head coming up rapidly means run away. A low head means submissive. This is a foundation of Parelli too. Miller used Monty Roberts’ method of achieving join up as an example of body language at work.

Horses can only breathe through their nostrils. The more scared a horse is, the tighter his mouth gets. When a horse relaxes, his lips part.

Horses react. They don’t reason. ~ Robert M. Miller, DVM

Miller believes that each species communicates submission by assuming a posture that makes them the most vulnerable. Humans’ primary defense is to grab — a closed fist, a club, a weapon. All human cultures show submission or nonaggression with some form of open hand, like hands up or a hand shake. Humans also bow, which exposes our neck to the club. Dogs lower their heads, lift their fur to make themselves bigger, bare their teeth. To submit, they get small, expose throat, roll over to expose their vulnerable parts. Cattle submit by raising their heads to get their horns out of the way and expose their throats.

Horses are most vulnerable when grazing, when they can’t use their nose, eyes, ears. They use an eating and drinking motion to signal submission. Hence, the “lick and chew” and the “popping” thing foals do (that adult horses still do too sometimes).

Humans have to learn to interpret the signals correctly. Some people have thought the popping lips meant a foal wanted to bite them, and would hit the foal. Really it means “I’m a helpless little baby and you are god.”

8. Herd creatures.

Most domestic animals are group animals, pack or herd. Only the domestic cat isn’t, although they often like other cats or at least tolerate them. The smallest mustang band he’s ever seen is 2. Never 1.

Horses can do “surrogate bonding” if they have no other horses around. We can’t be with them 24 hours a day. That’s why race horses have donkeys, goats, chickens as companions. Horses form very deep attachments.

9. Hierarchical.

Animals that live in groups form hierarchies. Horses choose leaders based on controlling each other’s feet, not based on physical strength and “who can whup ’em.” Feet are life to a horse. Wild horses are lead by an older mare. She has experience, has memorized more things. The stallion nips along behind saying “keep up with her!” To learn about controlling a horse’s mind, watch the boss mare. That’s why we can have control over an animal so much bigger than we are, why a 5-year-old child can dominate a 2,000-pound horse.

“Show them who’s boss” does not work. But leadership by moving their feet, does.

10. Precocial species.

Horses are born with all faculties they need for survival. Their learning capacity peaks in the minutes, hours, and days after birth. You can train a horse at any age, but the optimum time is in the first minutes, hours, and days after birth.

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Categories: Events, Lessons, Reflections | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Understanding the Horse’s Mind: Robert M. Miller, DVM, at the Horse Expo 2012

  1. Thanks for sharing this with the world. I work with Redwings Horse Sanctuary and Dr. Miller teaches his safety class to each new volunteer vie his DVD. Great stuff from a wise man!

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