By Temple Grandin, Ph.D.From International Camelid Quarterly Volume 5, Number 4, December 2006
Unique insights from a person with a singular understanding.
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 caused 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 movie 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 everybody thought this way until I started talking to people on how they thought. 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 futures markets 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 of a generic "generalized" 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" the 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 trading stocks or in sales, often have difficulty understanding 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 essential to horse training, but often the visual thinkers do not have the ability to verbalize and explain to other people what they "see."
A horse trainer once said to me, "Animals don't think, they just make associations." I responded to that by saying "If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think." People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These associations are like snapshots of events and tend to be very specific. For example, a horse might fear bearded men when it sees one in the barn, but bearded men might be tolerated in a riding arena. In this situation, the horse may only fear bearded men in the barn because he may have had a bad past experience in the barn with a bearded man.
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 animal's first association with something new is a good 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 first 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.
Fear Is the Main Emotion
Fear is the main emotion in autism, and it is also the main emotion in prey animals such as horses and cattle. Things that scare horses and cattle also scare children with autism. Any little thing that looks out of place, such as a piece of paper blowing in the wind, may cause fear. Objects that make sudden movements are the most fear provoking. In the wild, sudden movement is feared because predators make sudden movements.
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. Neuroscientists have mapped the fear circuits in an animal’s brain. 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 that 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 the cortical over-ride, which is a signal that will block the fear memory, 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 fight. 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 much more likely to be scared. Therefore, it is important for the trainer 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 handling or riding is much more likely to be fear-based.
Effects of Genetics
In all animals, both genetic factors and experience determine how an individual will behave in a fear-provoking situation. Fearfulness is a stable characteristic of personality and temperament in animals. Animals with high-strung, nervous temperament are generally more fearful and form stronger fear memories than animals with calm, placid temperament. For example, research on pigs conducted by Ted Friend and his students at Texas A&M University showed that some pigs will habituate to a forced non-painful procedure and others will become more and more fearful.
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 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, non-reactive nervous system will probably habituate to a series of non-painful forced training procedures, whereas a flighty, high-strung, nervous animal may never habituate. Horses who are constantly swishing their 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.
Effects of Novelty
As a creature of flight, how a horse reacts to novel or unusual situations or new places can be used to access his true temperament. French scientist Robert Dantzer found that sudden novelty shoved into an animal's face can be very stressful. A horse with a high-strung, fearful nature may be calm and well mannered when ridden at home. However, his true temperament has been masked because he feels relaxed and safe in a familiar environment. When he is confronted with the new sights and sounds at a horse show, he may blow up.
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 address systems, which 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.
The Relationship Between Training Methods and Temperament
Animals with a nervous, excitable temperament are more fearful than animals with a calm, placid temperament. Flighty, excitable, sensitive animals such as antelopes or Arabian horses are more fearful of new experiences than calm, placid animals such as Hereford cattle or Suffolk sheep. If an excitable animal is frightened during training, it is more likely to develop a fear memory, which can interfere with future training. An animal may become so afraid of something such as a trailer or a squeeze chute that it may be extremely difficult to train the animal to enter it willingly.
It is extremely important that an animal's first experience with something new, such as a horse trailer or a squeeze chute, be as pleasant as possible. A pleasant first experience will help prevent the formation of a fear memory. This is especially important with nervous, excitable animals.
Animals with a calm, placid temperament will habituate if they are repeatedly made to enter a NON-PAINFUL restraint device. Their cortisol (stress hormone) levels will decline after repeated trials of non-painful restraint.
However, the flighty, excitable animal may never habituate. It may become increasingly fearful and more stressed with successive trials. Fear is a very strong stressor.
Horses with a calm, placid temperament can be broken to ride by somewhat forceful methods where they are tied up and have rags and other objects placed on them. The calm, placid animal will habituate as long as no part of the procedure is painful. Animals with a calm temperament learn that what they are being asked to do does not hurt, and gradually get over their initial fear. Animals DO NOT habituate to painful procedures.
The same training method may ruin a sensitive, high-strung animal by causing permanent fear memories. Instead of habituating, the animal becomes increasingly more fearful. The situation becomes so scary for the animal, it can not overcome its fear.
In flighty, excitable animals, many problems that occur during training are due to fear. In calm, placid animals, fear can also interfere with training, but it is less likely to be the sole cause of a training problem.
All animals are fearful of novel situations. Recognizing fear, working calmly and persistently, and never allowing an animal to become so scared that it panics and hurts itself and/or others is the responsibility of everyone who trains animals on any level.
About the Author
Temple Grandin is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is the author of the books Thinking in Pictures and Animals in Translation. 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. Dr. Grandin does not accept e-mail correspondence but may be contacted via: CherylMiller@ColoState.edu.