Western Horseman, Nov. 1997, pp.140-145
Temple Grandin is an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is the author of the book Thinking in Pictures. Television appearances include 20/20, CBS This Morning, and 48 Hours. Dr. Grandin has autism, and her experiences have helped her to understand animal behavior. She teaches a course in livestock handling at the university and consults on the design of livestock handling facilities.
As a person with autism, it is easy for me to understand how animals think because my thinking processes are like an animal's. Autism is a neurological disorder that some people are born with. Scientists who study autism believe that the disorder is cause d by immature development of certain brain circuits, and over development of other brain circuits. Autism is a complex disorder that ranges in severity from a mild form (such as mine), to a very serious handicap where the child never learns to talk. The m ovie Rain Man depicts a man with a fairly severe form of the disorder.
I have no language-based thoughts at all. My thoughts are in pictures, like videotapes in my mind. When I recall something from my memory, I see only pictures. I used to think that everybody thought this way until I started talking to people on how they t hought. I learned that there is a whole continuum of thinking styles, from totally visual thinkers like me, to the totally verbal thinkers. Artists, engineers, and good animal trainers are often highly visual thinkers, and accountants, bankers, and people who trade in the futures market tend to be highly verbal thinkers with few pictures in their minds.
Most people use a combination of both verbal and visual skills. Several years ago I devised a little test to find out what style of thinking people use: Access your memory on church steeples. Most people will see a picture in their mind of a generic "gene ralized" steeple. I only see specific steeples; there is no generalized one. Images of steeples flash through my mind like clicking quickly through a series of slides or pictures on a computer screen. On the other hand, highly verbal thinkers may "see" th e words "church steeple," or will "see" just a simple stick-figure steeple.
A radio station person I talked to once said that she had no pictures at all in her mind. She thought in emotions and words. I have observed that highly verbal people in abstract professions, such as in trading stocks or in sales, often have difficulty un derstanding animals. Since they only think in words, it is difficult for them to imagine that an animal can think. I have found that really good animal trainers will see more detailed steeple pictures. It is clear to me that visual thinking skills are ess ential to horse training, but often the visual thinkers do not have the ability to verbalize and explain to other people what it is they "see."
Animals also tend to make place-specific associations. This means that if a horse has bad prior experiences in a barn with skylights, he may fear all barns with skylights but will be fine in barns with solid roofs. This is why it is so important that an a nimal's first association with something new is a good first experience.
Years ago a scientist named N. Miller found that if a rat was shocked the first time it entered a new passageway in a maze, it would never enter that passageway again. The same may be true for horses. For example, if a horse falls down in a trailer the fi rst time he loads, he may fear all trailers. However, if he falls down in a two-horse, side-by-side trailer the 25th time he is loaded, he may make a more specific association. Instead of associating all trailers with a painful or frightening experience, he is more likely to fear side-by-side trailers, or fear a certain person associated with the "bad" trailer. He has learned from previous experience that trailers are safe, so he is unlikely to form a generalized trailer fear.
Both animals and people with autism are also fearful of high-pitched noises. I still have problems with high-pitched noise. A back-up alarm on a garbage truck will cause my heart to race if it awakens me at night. The rumble of thunder has little effect. Prey species animals, such as cattle and horses, have sensitive ears, and loud noise may hurt their ears. When I was a child the sound of the school bell ringing was like a dentist drill in my ear. A loudspeaker system at a horse show may possibly have a similar effect on horses.
People with autism have emotions, but they are simpler and more like the emotions of a vigilant prey species animal. Fear is the main emotion in a prey species animal because it motivates the animal to flee from predators. The fear circuits in an animal's brain have been mapped by neuroscientists. When an animal forms a fear memory, it is located in the amygdala, which is in the lower, primitive part of the brain. J.E. LeDoux and M. Davis have discovered that fear memories cannot be erased from the brain. This is why it is so important to prevent the formation of fear memories associated with riding, trailering, etc.
For a horse who has previously been fearful of trailers to overcome his fear, the higher brain centers in the cortex have to send a fear suppression signal to the amygdala. This is called a cortical over-ride, which is a signal that will block the fear me mory but does not delete it. If the animal becomes anxious, the old fear memory may pop back up because the cortex stops sending the fear suppression signal.
Fear-based behaviors are complex. Fear can cause a horse to flee or fight. For example, many times when a horse kicks or bites, it is due to fear instead of aggression. In a fear-provoking situation where a horse is prevented from flight, he learns to fig ht. Dog trainers have learned that punishing a fear-based behavior makes it worse. When a horse rears, kicks, or misbehaves during training, it may make the trainer feel angry. The trainer may mistakenly think that the horse is angry. But the horse is muc h more likely to be scared. Therefore it is important for trainers to be calm. An angry trainer would be scary to the horse. There are some situations where a horse may be truly aggressive towards people, but rearing, kicking, running off, etc., during ha ndling or riding is much more likely to be fear based.
Pigs were put in a tank where they had to swim for a short time. This task was initially frightening to all of the pigs and caused their adrenaline level to go up. Adrenaline is secreted in both people and animals when they are scared.
Over a series of swimming trials, some pigs habituated and were no longer scared, but others remained fearful throughout the trials. In the pigs that did not habituate adrenaline stayed elevated, which showed that the pigs were still afraid.
It is likely that horses would respond to different training methods in a similar manner. Horses with calm placid dispositions are more likely to habituate to rough methods of handling and training compared to flighty, excitable animals. The high-strung, spirited horse may be ruined by rough training methods because he becomes so fearful that he fails to learn, or habituate.
On the other hand, an animal with a calm, nonreactive nervous system will probably habituate to a series of nonpainful forced training procedures, whereas a flighty, high- strung nervous animal may never habituate. Horses who are constantly swishing thei r tails when there are no flies present and have their heads up are usually fearful horses. In the wild, horses put their heads up to look for danger.
It is the more high-strung and fearful horses who-have the most difficulty in novel situations. At the show there are many unusual sights and sounds, such as balloons and loud public address systems, that are never seen or heard at home. An animal with a nervous temperament is calm when in a familiar environment -- he has learned it is safe -- but is more likely to panic when suddenly confronted with new things.
The paradoxical thing about novelty is that it can be extremely attractive to an animal when he can voluntarily approach it. A piece of paper lying in the pasture may be approached by a curious horse, but that same piece of paper lying on the riding trail may make the horse shy. People working with horses and other animals need to think more about how the animals' perceive the situations we put them in.
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