Horses and Brain Chemistry- why I used to love the crazy ones…

I’m the type of person that loves a challenge. If you want me to do something, just tell me I can’t, or better yet, that I shouldn’t. I’m happiest when I have a project to work on- a horse that needs training, a horse trailer to fix up, or a trip to plan. The joy for me is in the process more than the result, and I’m drawn to difficult challenges that sometimes get me in over my head. It’s dangerous and nearly impossible? Great! Sign me up!

Heidi, everyone’s favorite psycho mare.

I recently read about the brain science that explains why I’m like that, and many other people are too. Brain chemistry is fascinating to me. Perhaps you’ve heard of dopamine, a chemical released in our brains that produces a feeling of being “high,” just like a drug. If your brain knows that a certain activity will produce a hit of dopamine, then it will compel you to get more of whatever thing resulted in the hit. Dopamine is what causes the feeling of being in love and explains why new couples can’t get enough of each other. Their brains are squirting dopamine left and right, and it’s addictive. Eventually it wears off though, just like a drug, and we go looking for a new high. That explains why people fall “out of love.” It has nothing to do with love. It’s chemistry.

Dopamine also explains why we are all so addicted to our smartphones. Every time you get a like or a comment on Facebook or a notification on any other app, your brain squirts a little dopamine. Your brain actually begins anticipating the hit, and compels you to check your phone over and over again, even if only one in 50 times do you have a notification.  This is called an “intermittent reward.” You have to keep checking because you never know when you’ll get a hit.

The intermittent reward also explains why I’m so willing to work with crazy horses. Sure they buck me off and take all the joy out of riding, but sometimes they’re sweet and, when they are, the flood of dopamine is like a rushing river. I get the biggest sense of accomplishment and a wonderful case of the warm fuzzies, even if overall the horse is still a nightmare.

Aaaaaah, dopamine!

In my old age and wisdom, and thanks to reading about how my brain works, I don’t have the same compulsion for a challenge that I used to. I would actually like to ride a sane horse for once, and lucky for me, I have two of them. (One’s a mule, but still.) Now I’m learning to enjoy a different kind of process, not the dopamine high, but the feeling of relaxation that I get when I know I’m not going to die today because my horse decided to rush into oncoming traffic or dump me in the woods.

Horse show ribbons- my favorite source of dopamine.

It’s new territory for me, because up until now most of the time I’ve been what horse people call “overmounted.” In other words, I was riding more horse than I could handle. I was a total beginner on a fresh off the track racehorse. Thank God he’s a saint and I didn’t get hurt, but I was always walking that edge of just barely being in control.

Baron, my ex-racehorse.

I learned a lot from some of those horses, and in some ways it made me a better rider, but my last horse, Heidi, also made me a more fearful rider, and I don’t like that. My skill level has finally caught up to the quality of horse that I own, and now I can enjoy a different sort of process, the one in which I learn to relax.

My mule, Ellie.

For once, I have two equines that are both sound and sane. In the past, I’ve usually only had one of those things at a time, and to do anything competitive or make any real progress as a rider, I need both. What the future has in store for me, I don’t know, but I bet it involves a dopamine hit or two!


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