Written By: Nicole Pellerin
Horses have a fantastic memory of their physical world, and their responses to it. Their responses will be automatic based on their memories. In fact, one nasty moment of fright and the horse will commit the fright, the place and the circumstances to memory for years. This is why it is so important for a trainer to avoid frightening a horse. This is also why it is so difficult to retrain a horse that has been traumatized. On the other hand, a horse will also commit good experiences to memory. Reinforcing good behavior in a positive way will be remembered and the horse will continue to exhibit these good behaviors.
It has been shown that horses are able to remember many situations in a single trial especially if there is an emotional component. They are able to learn more complex behavior with a small number of trials, compared to other domestic animals. When training a horse, repetitions must be done immediately and consistently. A young horse will never forget its training, whether it is good or bad. Undesirable behaviors must be corrected as soon as possible. Desirable behaviors must be positively reinforced as soon as possible.
When danger is present, there is the fight or flight response. Horses will always choose the flight response. That is why it is so important to avoid instilling fear in your horse, whether it is on purpose or by accident. Some trainers feel that instilling fear is a way of disciplining their horse. Most experts say that this is definitely the wrong way to achieve the desired result. Positive reinforcement such as loosening the rein, a good scratch or simply getting off the animal is a great reinforcement and will allow the horse to collect good memories.
Horses have been shown to learn in five different ways which are all based on memory.
1. Habituation This is when a horse is repeatedly exposed to a certain stimulus. Eventually the horse will stop responding to the stimulation. An example of this is exposing a horse to traffic so the horse will no longer be frightened of cars. This can sometimes be a temporary form of learning because the animal’s more primitive instincts may emerge causing fear to emerge if the animal is stressed.
2. Associated Learning There are two types of associated learning. The first is the classical type which was first documented by Pavlov in the early 1900′s. Dealing with horses, a trainer could click his tongue when the horse was about to break into a canter and give positive reinforcement when the horse complies. The clicking of a rider’s tongue will now be the signal for a canter. The operant type is when a reward is associated with its own behavior. A trainer will present a horse with a choice, go right or left when pressure is applied to the left. When the horse chooses correctly, he is rewarded. The wrong choice means no reward. The horse will remember the right choice earns the reward.
3. Latent Learning This is the ability of the memory to store an experience unconsciously. This type of learning does not require any training. This type of learning is evident when horses automatically remember places, routes, and locations.
4. Imprinting This is when early perceptual experiences are marked into the horse’s brain. Trainers often take advantage of this type of learning with young foals, as young as 1 hour old. They will try to desensitize the animals to alarming sensations, sights and sounds.
5. Insight Learning This is when the horse is taught how to learn. It is based on the premise of stimulus-response-reinforcement. This is similar to the operant type of associated learning but the insight learning focuses more on emotional reinforcement. This type of learning will require a strong relationship between horse and trainer.
The most important thing to remember about a horse’s memory is that they retain
the bad as well as the good. It is critical that the trainer corrects bad behaviors as soon as possible. It is also imperative that you avoid the fear response in your horse. Fear will lead to undesirable behaviors as well as a horse that can easily be spooked.