Horses Inside Out Conference & the golden nuggets of knowledge

My latest learning adventure took me to Loughborough University to the Horses inside Out Conference. My hope was to find out about any new ground breaking research being done and how that can help me with my own horses and how I can help you!

The subjects were varied and rather than go through all of them in-depth I think you would probably rather I gave you the golden nuggets from the most knowledgeable and interesting speakers.

Saturday morning was excellent. The first speaker was Dr Andrew Hemmings who is a Principal Lecturer in Equine Science and the head od department (Equine Management and Science) at the Royal Agricultural University. His main expertise and interest is in the brain function in relation to behaviour. I found his talk fascinating and some research/studies that I have not heard of that were brilliant.

He talked in-depth about the Equine central nervous system in relation to behavioural output. He spoke about 4 main areas of interest when looking at how the brain works:

1) Function differences in cribbing & weaving horses

2) Exploring Neurophysiology of normal non-stereotypy horses

3) Influencing brain function with feed supplements

4) Habit Formation

Dr Andrew Hemmings has been working with human brain specialists and they have found the similarities staggering. He said he sent images to a leading Brain Specialist who couldn't tell the difference between the horse and the human brain!

Dr A Hemmings explained in detail of the Brain regions - Striatum and the functions. I won't bore you with the in-depth detail of this but explain parts along the way so it all makes sense.

The Caudatus is the part of the brain which is an on-going monitor of success. The Putaman is habitual responding and the Nucleus Accumbens is the pleasure centre.

If you inactivate the Caudatus habit formation is quicker. The Caudatus is a part of the brain that if it degrades it affects movement control (Parksinsons).

Dr A Hemmings and his team tested horses to see which type of horse formed habits quicker and which horses learnt quicker. They had a square tall machine built with 3 screens on the front (the machine is called an I-Plod) and a little tray at the bottom of the machine which dropped a treat.

They worked with a large number of horse's teaching them that a buzzer would sound, then one of the screens lit up and if they pressed the lit screen correctly with there nose a reward would fall into the tray. What they found from all of the horses is that Crib biters learnt the quickest, but also found unlearning difficult. Crib Biters formed a habit after minimal repetition. Weavers are more resistant to habit formation.

Dr A Hemmings then went on to talk about Dopamine Receptors and the horses Spontaneous Blink Rate (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that is responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain.) (Blink Rate is counting the amount of blinks over a certain time period.) Dopamine agonists increases the Spontaneous Blink Rate and Antagonists decreases it.

High blinkers are more hyperactive - 500 blinks in a 30 minute period. Low Blink is 150-200 in 30 minutes.

Blink rate is quite a good way of analysing the horses behaviour/anxiety levels. As part of the study into anxiety they researched adding magnesium to the feed on the blink rate of the horse to see if this helped to calm the anxiety levels. There were some formulated supplements that made a significant difference. He was not allowed to release which ones were best - but was hoping that this would be possible in the near future. Was good to hear though that some of these supplements are actually working.

He concluded by saying from our findings -

* training schedules should be adapted to suit crib biting and weaving horses.

*Simple measurements such as Spontaneous Blink Rate could help in the training of the non-stereotypy horse.

Hopefully you have found something in this interesting. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions or findings of your own. I will try to answer! I have pages and pages of notes from the presentation so could literally bore you all to death. Now I expect you will want to get off and count those blinks. Thanks for reading x