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Spotlight: Of Mice and Horses

University Record
Vol 60, no 19   February 7, 2005
By Kate Tomkie

Their tiny haunches may not fit into an English saddle, but Janet Hoff has found a way to train lab mice as effectively as she does her horses.

Hoff, a lifelong horse lover, teaches mice to perform simple tasks—such as walking across mouse-sized balance beams—as part of her job as research associate and coordinator for the Center for Integrative Genomics.

Hoff says training mice is easy as long as one plays by their rules.

"The biggest thing is your attitude," Hoff says. "If you're rushed or stressed or trying to force them, it's going to be more difficult. You have to let them make the decision for themselves."

Her expertise comes from 25 years of working with animals. Before coming to U-M, Hoff managed a thoroughbred racehorse farm and worked for 10 years as a licensed veterinary technician. Hoff has owned, trained and ridden horses since she was a child.

"It's been a love since as long as I can remember," Hoff says of her equine associates. "The funny thing is, my parents weren't into horses. They didn't even have pets. I guess I was just born loving them.''

Hoff with one of her horses, Lord I'm Impressed 
(Photo by Bethany Hoff)

Last year, Hoff re-ignited her passion for professional horse training when she opened the Equine Charm School in Grass Lake, Mich., where she trains horses and coaches riders on her 10-acre farm in Waterloo State Park.

The secret to her method, Hoff says, is a practice known as horse whispering. The method mimics the behavior of wild horses whose lead mare forces a belligerent member out of the herd. The horse is allowed to return only when it has bowed its head and behaved humbly. Hoff says once a horse comes back to its herd (or to its trainer, in the case of a horse whisperer), the animal's devotion is lifelong.

"It's much more humane," she says. "It's much easier than the old Western way of hobbling, sacking and beating them. It works beautifully.''

In the lab, Hoff uses a similar method— "approach and retreat"—where she helps the mouse decide to move in the right direction. She says it works just as well on mice as it does on horses.

"Mice react the same way when handled by a calm confident handler," she says. "They are less stressed and less likely to bite or try to get away.''

In her spare time, Hoff works with her two horses, named Lord I'm Impressed (also known as Ginger) and Flick. Her goal? Make them tame enough for her 10-year-old daughter, Bethany, to ride. The catch? Bethany is terrified of the animals.

"When I train them to where she can handle them, then I know I've done a good job," Hoff says.