Brain cells, brain molecules, neurotransmitters and synapses are almost identical in ALL animals. At this level, animals are made from the same essential building blocks.

When discussing brain function, it’s helpful to first consider the human brain, the most developed of all animals.

We can think of it as having three progressive layers or even three brains. The layers have distinct functions but their interactions are essential and considerable.

The reptilian brain (consisting of the brain stem and cerebellum) is concerned with survival and body maintenance. Digestion, reproduction, circulation, breathing and the ‘flight or fight’ response are all reptilian brain functions.

The second layer is the limbic system. It includes the amygdala and hippocampus and involves emotion and memory. The limbic system concerns itself with primitive activities related to food, sex, and bonding.  It is responsible for memories of behaviors connected to agreeable and disagreeable experiences. In humans, we call them emotions.

The third layer is the neocortex or cerebral cortex. It makes up most of the human brain (5/6th of it).  Language, speech, and writing are all possible because of this layer.

We can think of the horse brain as having stopped its development just short of this massive thinking lobe. Nonetheless, horses and humans have the two first brain layers in common. So we can compare research and data of horse and human brain functioning at this level. But the higher functioning areas of the brain do not exist in horses and it would be wrong to compare brains at this level.

When the horse brain develops and begins to mature, brainstem pathways come first. They involve many automatic behaviors. Motor patterns of this immature brain are mostly under the brainstem’s control.

At this point, no real thinking is involved. The development to the more advanced brain center connections have not yet been developed.

The next key area to mature and develop connections is to the cerebellum (one of the most important structures of the horse’s brain). The nerve development of this pathway allows for the coordination and smoothing out of the horse’s movement.  The reason for such herky-jerky movement in foals is because the cerebellum and its connection are not fully developed.

The cerebellum will also play a role in controlling balance, head, and eye movements. For the rest of the horse’s life, the cerebellum will act as a library for storing all learning regarding physical movement.

The thalamus is an egg-shaped structure located deep in the center of the brain. It is like a major airport through which flights are routed and sent to destinations. Brain message traffic is routed through the thalamus. It is situated at the top of the brainstem so that it can process information coming up through the spine and brainstem and send this information to its proper location in the brain. A part of the thalamus called the reticular activating system detects brainstem messages and plays a key role in providing arousal and initiating attention.

The hypothalamus sits below the thalamus. Its most important function is acting like a thermostat to create a set point or homeostasis. It maintains the horse’s physiological and emotional equilibrium and brings the Autonomic Nervous System under its control.

The Autonomic Nervous System controls such functions as heart rate, breathing, digestion, sweating, and chemical secretions. The horse’s fear, aggression, memory, sense of smell, and motor functions all have connections that run through the hypothalamus. It is a key structure in activating the flight or fight response.


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