The horse is born much more “ready for life “ than humans.  If the horse is going to survive, nature must equip it with the ability to stand up quickly and move. It is the process of myelination that contributes to this rapid brain growth and maturation.

Myelin is a fatty substance that works like an insulator covering nerve fibers which transmit information. These fibers are laid down in extensive pathways throughout the brain.

These pathways are like millions of small wires carrying electrochemical messages. These tracks are insulated by the fatty myelin that gives them a white appearance. The heavily myelinated areas are often referred to as white matter.

To learn a motor skill is to acquire a procedure for operating in the world. The hippocampus, what we humans typically consider a memory and learning center is not required in remembering information gradually acquired through repetition.

Horses learn by habit. They gradually discriminate – to scratch against the best tree, to roll on the best surface, to drink from the best water spot. Learning proceeds gradually as the horse learns the relevant dimensions of the problem. They sense any changes in conditions and surroundings.

They can learn gradually without depending on the hippocampus because they are not memorizing but slowly mastering the problem as we would a skill like hitting a ball with a bat.

The ability to predict positive feedback, i.e., dopamine release, is central to the learning process. The caudate nucleus contains a high percentage of neurons that use dopamine as a neurotransmitter. Dopamine neurons in the neostriatum (including the caudate and putamen) are likely to be an important internal mechanism for reward-driven and feedback-driven learning.

The caudate and putamen receive overlapping inputs from the sensory cortex and motor cortex. This double set of inputs could form a basis for associating stimuli and responses. One possibility is that habit learning occurs when dopamine release produces synaptic changes in cortical nerves that are active just before the reward was presented.

We would like to think that dopamine is only released when the horse learns something positive, but it isn’t necessarily so. Consider potentially stressful situations such as trailer loading:

The horse may load into a trailer and find a release of pressure as the trailer is closed up and he finds hay to eat. There may be a dopamine release and learning moment here.

Alternatively, the horse may pull back, get away from its owner, find relief of pressure, and get a dopamine release. The learned lesson might be even more reinforcing if he gets to graze.

In other words, horses don’t discriminate between good learning and bad. They will search for the dopamine release regardless of how humans interpret their actions.

2017

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