Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Neurons Looking in Mirrors

Before I go any further, I wanted to say that from now on I'll be posting a link to a forum on my professional webpage if anyone wants to go there to discuss subjects that I talk about here.  You're also welcome to comment here and as for the forum you're welcome to start any topic you'd like regarding horses and the sport of riding (in whatever discipline).  Here is the link if you have something you'd like to weigh in on.  I think healthy debate and discussion is important to continuing to learn in life and I encourage anyone to share their thoughts.  I just ask that you be considerate and respectful and understand that just because you're sure you're right, doesn't mean that a person with a differing opinion isn't equally sure they're right.  But there is so much to learn when we're open to hearing from everyone - not just the folks we agree with.

That said, I had the coolest experience the other day at the pony school I've been working at for the last year.  I took one of my favorite school horses, Pal, out to the pasture to hang out with his friends after a lesson, and realizing I had about a half hour of free time, I decided to stay in the pasture and give him a massage.  Before he came to the school he'd apparently had an accident that crushed his sacrum so he's been very happy about having his back worked on and I have found some scar tissue in that area and some tight muscles from compensation.

Pal is so happy about massage I didn't bother to tie him up and just gave him a massage while he stood in the pasture.  It wasn't long before I noticed his three friends he lives in the pasture with had come to stand around us in a circle.  One of the them, Chip, has had a few massages from me, Charlie has had one and Blaze has never had any.  In fact, Blaze is fairly new and I really don't know him at all, I've never used him in a class or ridden him myself.  But all three of them stood around us in a circle, facing us, and soon they all started to have sleeping eyes.

After a few more minutes all three of their heads started to drop and they would sway a little back and forth as they were dozing off.  Then Blaze started yawning, this big huge yawns, then stretching his back and neck.  Pal seemed to be the one least enjoying his massage!  He would sigh and lick and chew and stretch, but Blaze was yawning and farting and stretching all over the place.

When I was done with Pal's massage I walked over to Blaze and he scooted toward me with his mid-section and began turning his head and tossing it in the direction of his shoulder.  So, I massaged his shoulders for a few minutes and he stretched and contorted so much that I had to push him over a little so he didn't accidentally fall over on top of me.  Then I went over to Chip to check his back, but before I could Charlie came up and bit him in the butt and chased him away and very boldly placed his neck in front of me.  I stood there for a minute just looking at him, wondering if I should reward such rude behavior on his part to Chip, so he turned his head to look at me, nickered and then shoved his neck up against me.  I rubbed his neck for a few minutes, then realized I needed to go get ready for my next student, so I said good-bye, walked past him to get to the gate and he trotted in a big circle so that he could come in just in front of me and stand between me and the gate and shove his neck toward me.  I told him no, moved him away and he looked very sad and wandered off.

It got me thinking about how empathetic horses are to what is going on with their friends.  It makes sense that they would be able to tell when a friend is happy, scared of in pain.   If there is a predator or a friend is sick they need to be on guard, or if a friend has found something good to eat, it is beneficial to the herd that they also are aware there is something good to eat within access to all of them.  But I didn't realize it would apply to something as man-made as massage where a horse is experiencing relaxation by something human (a predator) is doing to them.  That the other horses would also relax and that Blaze even released a lot of tension in his body just standing next to his friend getting a massage was pretty cool.  I can honestly say standing next to a person getting a massage doesn't seem like it would do much for me other than make me a little jealous I wasn't getting one myself.  But I've never had the experience of that helping release tension from my own body just by being next to someone who is relaxing.

I have not done much research on it, but apparently, horses have mirror neurons just like humans, although I imagine (and I will look this up eventually) that they have a whole bunch more than humans do.  Mirror neurons are what cause us to understand by subtle (often consciously unnoticed) body language and voice inflections how people are feeling and what they mean.  It is also referred to as Theory of Mind and it is a comparitively new area of study in neurology.  One noticeable symptom of autism is the lack of mirror neurons so that a person on the autism spectrum has difficulty being able to instinctually know what people are feeling or implying just by their expression or voice inflection.  That difficulty ranges from slight to severe depending on what scale of the spectrum the person is on.  Sheldon on The Big Bang theory is a good example of someone who struggles with Theory of Mind issues.

It wouldn't surprise me if horses do have a much larger supply of mirror neurons than humans and that would explain why they are such important creatures when it comes to therapies for folks struggling with a wide array of issues, from recovering from trauma, to learning disabilities, to mental disabilities.  I've seen how much horses can help a couple of my students who have special needs or severe learning disabilities and it's more amazing than I could express here.  The difference in the student's demeanor and their ability to learn difficult motor skills or concepts for them is far more improved when working with a horse than I would've originally thought.  Perhaps it's the mirror neurons that make horses so special as a species?  It's something I'll definitely do more research into.

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