Follow a frightened OTTB’s journey in becoming a confident, playful partner. Read how Meghan applied neuroscience and positive reinforcement to help her horse find safety, relaxation and happiness.
Strong minded yet insecure, Meghan’s horse Quint is a gorgeous off the track thoroughbred. While loving and affectionate, Quint is also somewhat of a wildcard and can be quite unpredictable and spooky. While Quint stole Meghan’s heart from the get go, their journey wasn’t without hurdles and Meghan got seriously hurt along the way.
This post is about their journey and how applying neuroscience and positive reinforcement helped them find confidence and relaxation. Meghan and Quint now enjoy riding with a bitless bridle and instead of getting tense and running away, Quint transitions voluntarily and confidentially between walk, trot and halt. Here are the 3 steps that lead them back to confidence and happiness.
Step1: Find the Root Problem and Two Root Causes
While tracing the problem to its origin Meghan realized their root problem was that Quint would get uncontrollably fast when asked for trot or canter, leading to Meghan using a lot of rein and leaving both of them tense and frazzled. Neither of them seemed to enjoy riding anymore. Meghan identified the two root sources as Quint’s lack of confidence and his inability to stay calm when facing a challenge, possibly originating from his race track years.
Step 2: Apply Neuroscience To Understand The Neural Cause
Why does a horse run? Thanks to science we can now find answers to this question by exploring underlying neural causes and looking into the structures and processes of the horse’s brain as it has been shaped by evolution. Knowing a bit of neuroscience, Meghan realized Quint’s brain was always on the lookout for potential danger.
The horse acquired the capacity and tendency to run over hundreds of millions of years. While being a prey animal living among predators, a solution to survival got built into the nervous system of a horse. The brain learned how to keep the body away from things that were painful and threatening, by igniting the flight / fight response. It also learned how to acquire pleasurable things like water, food, shelter and sex. From a survival process, the first has more urgency and impact than the second. If you fail to find water in the next minute, you can still get it later, but if you fail to immediately run away from a mountain lion, you might not live to see the end of the day. Over hundreds of millions of years, the brain learned that it was important to pay more attention to threats and react to them intensely, remember them well and become even more sensitive to them.
Whenever there was a slight negative trigger, Quint’s amygdala would send an alarm to the hypothalamus and to the sympathetic nervous system control centers in his brain stem. The hypothalamus would call for adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, creating a faster heartbeat, a racing mind, elevated blood pressure. The hyper arousal would spring a snowball effect of stress, causing Quint to stop thinking rationally and run from whatever he perceived as a threat. To make things even worse, the cortisol in the brain overstimulates, weakens and eventually kills cells in the hippocampus. That’s an issue, since the hippocampus helps Quint to put things in perspective, calming down the amygdala and stopping the hypothalamus from calling on the stress hormones.
Step 3: Use Positive Psychology During Training
Meghan realized scary experiences -like the neighbors alpacas, or a squirrel in the bushes- quickly overpowered good ones for Quint. His brain overestimated threats and underestimated sources that could help him cope with those threats. She learned that in order for Quint to start thriving, she needed to help him repeatedly install beneficial mental states and positive experiences in his brain. His positive moments needed to outnumber the negative ones by a ratio of 4 to 1, to help him hard-wire his brain toward positivity, relaxation and confidence.
To help Quint decrease his vulnerability to stress and fear, Meghan realized she needed to create a sustainable way to bring more positivity into his training sessions. Most traditional horse training methods rely on negative reinforcement and punishment, using the sensitivity of the amygdala for threats, to install behavior modifications in the horse. While that approach works for horses who are relatively confident, it does not work well for horses who are more fearful. Meghan decided on positive reinforcement training and stopped riding with tools and methods that might be perceived by Quint’s brain as negative.
She started teaching Quint that he was alright right now, that he was safe and cared about. That no behavior was wrong, but that for some behavior he would get a big reward. Positive experiences like carrots, rest and praise increase the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the hormone oxytocin. This makes the amygdala react more intensely to good facts and experiences, making the brain stickier for positive experiences and causing the horse to feel like million bucks. Slowly Quint crawled out of his shell and started to explore with new behavior. He quickly realized that when Meghan exclaimed ‘yes!’, a steady flow of carrots would emerge from her pockets. He realized he loved feeling good and started seeking out ways to cause her say ‘yes!’, strengthening the neurological pathways, building and expanding the synapses and biasing his brain toward confidence and positivity. He learned that shaking his head, stepping back, moving over a tarp, parking on a doormat, playing with a toy, touching a target, picking up things and following her at liberty at walk, trot and canter all resulted in a reward at some point. He also learned that certain behavior never lead to anything good and stopped exhibiting it.
To help transfer the groundwork to riding, Meghan created predictable patterns for Quint with an anchor point of safety, relaxation and reward in each pattern. Quint loved to play with a tennis ball on a stick and this quickly became his anchor point. Whenever Quint started worrying, Meghan would gently guide him back to his anchor point of positivity where he could take the time to find his equilibrium back.
Each training day focused on helping Quint acquire safety, connection and satisfaction through positive reinforcement. Quint steadily found a more lasting sense of security and confidence. He learned that the arena could be a place of fun, enjoyment, happiness and that he had the ability to transition between walk, trot and canter without losing his cool. On her own, Meghan was making similar strides; learning how to stay safe and patient, remaining calm and quiet, even when miscommunication and setbacks occurred.
Over the year Quint gradually gained confidence. He improved his ground manners and began galloping up to meet Meghan in the pasture. A few weeks ago it felt right to climb on board again and the bridle and bit were switched out for a bitless bridle. Their first day of riding was joyful and involved more standing than riding while Meghan kept herself centered with breathing exercises and a mindful attitude toward her body language. Their next ride included a few more steps and they are progressing from there, always residing in the positive.
Here they are at last, trotting a pattern on a loose rein, with Quint staying calm and relaxed, transitioning through the gaits with Meghan just giving tiny hints of suggestions through her body language. Notice the soft eye and Quint's confident, relaxed body language while he stands in his safe space next to his favorite toy; the tennis ball. The extensive change in approach and commitment to positivity paid off, and created a more harmonious, mindful and peaceful relationship between rider and horse.
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