Book Review: Horse Brain-Human Brain by Janet L. Jones PhD.

It is winter. The arena windows and doors are closed. There cannot be any dangers getting in from outside so why does my horse spook? I don’t see anything that could have spooked him. Herein lies the difference between the horse brain and the human brain. My human brain knows everything it closed up tight. I am not even thinking about what is outside. But my horse, a prey animal , has been robbed of some of his critical and life saving senses. He can hear sounds outside but he cannot see what is making those sounds. He is now existing in a heightened sense of alertness. This is how horses have survived for millennia. Here is a quote form Janet L. Jones book Horse Brain Human Brain.

Horses and people have been working together , or trying to, for at least 5500 years……. Today horses are an estimated 60 million strong worldwide. The American Horse Council Foundation reposts that our four- legged friends pack a financial punch of $122 billion a year and create almost 2 million full-time jobs in the United States alone. About 27 million Americans ride. That’s a lot of cross-species pairs trying to work with each other.

Janet. L. Jones

This book looks at the differences between horse and human brains and how they function. It explores horse vision, hearing, smell and taste . Here are two interesting illustrations from the book .

Above is the human view of the trail. The human’s focus is on the house at the end of the trail. There are many other things the human does not pay any attention to. Look at the horse view of the same trail. The horse’s brain is stimulus driven, not driven by internal mental goals like reaching the house. On the left the horse sees the owl, the bird the animal tracks and the leaves which cross his path. He also sees the tree branch that has fallen and the deer on the right.

The stimulus driven brain of the horse is not made for long marathons of goal-driven human expectation. So a day of clipping , grooming , braiding and then loading onto the trailer for a trip of more than an hour to a horse show may be too much for the horse brain to deal with. How could we break up the day to have a more relaxed and happy horse at the show ?

The book goes on to examine the process of training horses and what problems we may find if we do not understand how the horse’s brain functions. Do we go toward negative reinforcement or reward training? The one sensory communication that is direct is proprioception. This is the body awareness that tells us where our bodies and body parts are at any given time. It also tells us where our horse’s legs are, how their backs feel. The horse also , by proprioception, can tell where our legs are and what they are doing. This is how we can communicate what we want the horse to do. According to Janet Jones we humans can improve our proprioception and this will enable us to give clearer aids to our horses. She has several exercises in the book to help us improve our proprioception.

We all know that horses live in the present moment and do not concern themselves with the past or what is happening at the end of the week or next month. We humans have a group of brain cells just above our eyes that deal with planning, organizing, evaluating, goal setting and arranging a plan to achieve those goals. This area of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. Human prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until age 25. In horses it never develops as horses do not have a prefrontal cortex. This means they are not in their stalls thinking of ways to thwart your goal of competing at the Prix St. George this summer. They have no idea that is your goal. If you can be clear and consistent in your training requests and give praise for tasks accomplished well you may realize that goal. If you are not clear or are too overbearing in how you train the new tasks then you may not achieve the goal. Your horse does not know your goal and is not setting out to upset you. He is not capable of that kind of thinking.

I found this book very interesting and certainly shed light on my relationship with my horse Biasini. It helped me to understand his point of view much better. In some places the book was too academic for my little brain. Diagrams of neurons, axon terminals and dendrites did not help me understand the electrical connections of the brain any better. But for some people this may be a valuable add on to this book.

I would like to close with a poem by Ronald Duncan which is featured in the book.

The Horse

Where in this world can man find nobility without pride,

friendship without envy, or

beauty without vanity.

Here, where grace is laced with muscle and

strength by gentleness confined.

Ronald Duncan (C) Ronald Duncan Estate

I enjoyed the book and found Janet Jones information well researched. She earned her doctorate in Cognitive Science from UCLA and has spent much of her life training horses and teaching people to ride. She has competed in Hunter, Jumper, Halter, Reining and Western Pleasure. If you are a horse person I would recommend this book as it will help you understand your horse much better and that is what we all want isn’t it?


14 responses to “Book Review: Horse Brain-Human Brain by Janet L. Jones PhD.”

  1. workinacresnothours Avatar

    Howdy great post will definitely try get my hands on this one. It has always fascinated me that when we ride we sit where a predator may pounce & horses trust us enough to allow us to do that, it just reinforces how amazing & beautiful they really are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen Avatar

      Yes it is across species relationship that is pretty amazing. They could flatten us with one well placed kick but they don’t. Thanks for leaving this comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Subbashini Meenakshi Sundaram Avatar

    This review helps to understand about horse’s brain. I believe horses are always in Mindfulness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen Avatar

      They are as they always live in the present moment. Thanks for commenting and reading the post.


  3. I. J. Khanewala Avatar

    Very interesting point. The perception of the world does not only depend on the sensorium (is smell predominant, does the individual sense three colours) but also on lifestyle. I suppose they are connected, but they are not the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen Avatar

      The book also describes how horse vision is not as sharp and clear as ours but they can detect motion of even a mouse at
      great distance. And with eyes at the sides of their heads they can see a wide range around them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I. J. Khanewala Avatar

        Not only a wide range, also greater perception of depth at long distances.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. JD Avatar

    Such an informative post, Anne. I can’t wait to read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen Avatar

      It is an interesting book. Glad you found the review informative.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. aghisla Avatar

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this inspiring book review!
    I am curious how many explanations from this book make sense when you observe Biasini and the horses you are familiar with: I bet that every horse is unique in noticing and reacting to their environment.
    I’m also curious to know if the author gives insight how to understand if a horse is genuinely relaxed or interested in the activities proposed by humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. N Avatar

    This is such a beautiful post. Love the different perspectives.
    BTW I have missed you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen Avatar

      Welcome back.


  7. dprastka Avatar

    This sounds like a great book! I’ll have to check it out for sure! I love all that you explained and find it so interesting how horses think and how we can try and understand them and more importantly communicate with them. This is such a big subject, but am intrigued with her book. Thanks for the review!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen Avatar

      It is a very interesting book. As I said in the review it got away from me in some of scientific stuff. But overall it was very informative.

      Liked by 1 person

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