On Horses and Autism
Temple Grandin, Ph.D., uses her autism to gain insights into equine behavior.
By Christine Hamilton for The American Quarter Horse Journal | March 21, 2011
Thinking Like Animals
“Animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things; they see the actual things themselves,” writes Dr. Temple Grandin in her book, “Animals in Translation.” Temple is an associate professor in livestock behavior and handling at Colorado State University.
“The brain of the horse is very specific,” she says. “If a horse gets a fear memory, it’s stored as a picture, a sound or a feel. It could be smell, but usually not. A real common thing is feeling: like bucking when you change gaits. A saddle feels different at each gait and creates a different feeling picture in the brain.
“Use a computer metaphor,” she continues. “The way the brain works is that fear memories can never be erased. You can train the horse to close the file on the fear memory, but you cannot delete it off the horse’s hard drive.
“You have some of the same problems with autistic children, especially if they’re nonverbal,” Temple says. “Let’s say a fire alarm went off and hurt the child’s ears. Now you can’t get him into a room where he sees a fire alarm; he sees the little red box and starts screaming.
“A high-functioning autistic can learn to deal with it, but a low-functioning autistic sees the red box and just panics.” Like a horse responding to its own fear memory.
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Training in Pictures
“One thing I’ve found with a lot of good (horse) trainers is they have a hard time explaining what they do,” Temple says. She likens it to an inability to express the details of the idea they have in their heads.
“We see details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into a general concept of the world.”
According to Temple, behavior problems with horses typically begin with the development of a fear memory.
“They get an emotional feeling that a horse might overreact or blow up, but they don’t tell you the specifics of what that looks like,” she says. “They might not tell you to watch for tail switching or sweating.
“As an autistic person, I had to learn how to pick social cues up by consciously thinking things like, ‘Well, this person has his arms crossed (over his chest). OK, he’s not very happy with something I’m doing.’ And then I had to picture what was causing that reaction.
“Everybody I think about has to be compared to pictures. If somebody said, ‘Wait to halter break a foal until it is ready,’ I get a picture in my head of Ever-Ready batteries or something like that.
“But if you say, ‘Wait until you can go out in the corral and he comes up to you and you scratch his withers.’ Now I can see a picture of a colt doing that.”
Behavior Problems in Horses
“I think the biggest thing we’ve got to do with horses is to prevent behavior problems,” Temple says. Preventing behavior problems is an easy way to prevent some horses from becoming unwanted.
In Temple’s experience with horse processing plants, it’s not unusual to find horses with severe behavioral problems there; often, they’re the prettiest animals in a load.
Here are some key areas to focus on:
Temple advocates gentler, slower training methods. Take, for example, a horse who’s afraid of black hats, because he remembers being beaten once by someone wearing a black hat.
“Some people would say, tie the horse up and throw it at him,” Temple says. “It’s called ‘flooding.’
“If you do that with a high-strung, slender kind of horse, you’re going to ruin the horse. It stays panicked and never habituates,” she continues.
“But you have to look at all the data. Unfortunately, rough training methods can work on calm genetics. I don’t like it, but you might get away with it on a calm, heavier-boned horse.
“But I don’t think it’s a smart thing to do with horses. As a species, they’re too high-strung.”
“The first 30-60 days of a colt’s life working with him creates so much of the horse in the future… Whether or not it be a world champion could be in the first ride,” Curt says. The “Low Stress Colt Starting With Curt Pate” DVD will put you on the right track with your young horse.
“One of the problems with horses today is that they’re leading such sheltered lives,” Temple says. It leads to lack of socialization.
“When I bought a piece of land, it came complete with a horse on it,” she continues. “But it tried to kill any horse you put on that pasture; it tried to kick them to death and wouldn’t stop. That horse had lived alone its entire life. It hadn’t learned social rules.”
She also pointed out similar problems with stallion aggression.
“If you take a young stud colt and lock him up in a ‘super max’ (prison), you’re going to make him crazy. He’s going to fight every other horse because he doesn’t know any social rules.
“I’ve seen 50 stallions from the Bureau of Land Management in a pen together, and they were not fighting.”
Temple also pointed out the link between genetics and behavior. She encourages horse people to continually work on an eye for what is good and bad in an animal, both in conformation and attitude, and to prevent “bad from becoming normal.”
“If you think about animal breeding, the old-timers didn’t know anything about genetics. But they looked at an animal and said, ‘That’s a good animal.’ They were using them, and animals had to be functional, physically and mentally.”
To develop an eye, Temple suggests getting out in the field, away from your own place and discipline, and see horses from different bloodlines, looking at how they act and perform along with their conformation.
Temple Grandin’s books, “Animals in Translation” and “Thinking in Pictures,” offer more insights into how horses and other animals think. Understanding the horse’s psyche can improve the way you train and ride.