They say you can't teach an old horse new tricks? But why not?
If horses are anything like other animals, mice, for instance, you cannot only teach them new things, but you may also be able to increase their thinking ability.
Neuroscientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA, have found that providing mice with an enriched environment actually stimulates an increase in the number of their brain cells. Mice housed in a large cage containing tunnels, colorful toys, an exercise wheel and hidden treats performed significantly better on subsequent behavioral tests than mice living in smaller cages containing only food and water.
When the scientists looked inside the heads of these smarter mice they found an increase of 40,000 nerve cells in the hippocampus, a highly specialized brain region involved in learning and memory. This 15 percent gain in nerve cells is believed to result from an enriched environment fostering the survival of new brain cells. The mice that enjoyed a life with toys and exercise had a 60 percent higher survival rate of newborn cells.
These results are especially intriguing because the experiment used older animals rather than infant mice whose brains would still be developing. Therefore, at least with mice, mental stimulation during adulthood can still affect the brain's structure and most likely increase learning ability.
This is not only exciting for rodent lovers but also for those interested in other species. Cornell University researchers have found that the brains of different mammals are much more alike than was previously thought. Therefore, what holds true for mice may quite possibly hold true for other animals, say, horses.
The horse's brain is comparable in size to that of humans. It has an extraordinarily well-developed cerebral cortex consisting of many convolutions (folds that increase the surface area). The hippocampus is a composite convolution of the cortex, which is the thinking part of the brain responsible for intelligence and memory as well as other functions.
Horses are cognitive animals with great learning capabilities yet many are subjected to unnatural lives in dark stalls with nothing of interest happening daily except the delivery of hay. Some get an hour of turnout a day and perhaps a half-hour of mind-numbing lunging. Others are ridden over the same course with little or no variation. And yet people wonder why these horses seem dull compared to others that are played with regularly and have a variety of stimuli and interesting challenges in their surroundings.
Horses who live in enriched environments are generally well adjusted, more alert, and can handle new situations better. Whether this is due to an increase in brain cells is unknown but common sense tell us that any organism living in a stimulating habitat will be enriched by its experiences.
Even if your horse's previous care and management was not idea, this does not mean he will not be a good learner. The Salk study showed that brain enrichment may occur anytime, not just in the formative years. So, it's never too late to help your horse reach his maximum mental potential.
The more a horse's brain is stimulated, the quicker he learns new things. The best way to keep a horse's brain active is to provide him with variation in his environment and his activities.
The antithesis to the California mouse study is provided by a group of New York researchers. They found that stress can decrease neuronal cells in the hippocampus. Neurogenesis, or the birth of new brain cells, was completely halted when shrews were exposed to stressful episodes. These two studies show that this area of the brain is dynamic and it's quality can be pushed in either direction. The horse must be at the top of the list of animals confronted with daily stress due to improper management.
It is time that owners and trainers pay more attention to the natural ecology and behavior of this species in order to accommodate their horses' psychological needs.
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