Do older horses remember what they have been trained?
Gail M. Staines, Ph.D.
Founder, The Senior Horse
So, I continue on my journey with the 18-year old warmblood gelding Griffin. From what I understand, Griffin was trained up through 4th level dressage movements as a younger horse. He then had a series of owners and riders, most of whom were just learning dressage.
I, myself, am starting to learn the aids to these upper level movements on Griffin and am a little surprised that, when I do the aids properly, he responds! This is surprising to me since he has spent many years not doing these movements.
It then begged the question: Do older horses remember what they have been trained? The easy answer is ‘yes.’ The more difficult answer is – it’s complicated.
Horses have almost a photographic memory of their surroundings. This evolution was necessary for survival. Knowing where water and forage are located. Knowing where dangerous animals are located in the wild. Knowing places that are safe. As horses travel in the wild, they remember their surroundings. All of these memories are essential if a horse is to thrive and survive.
A horse learns and remembers what a human has taught them. The challenge is that the horse remembers both the good and the bad. One bad experience riding in a trailer and a horse may never want to enter a trailer again without having to be re-trained. This is done by providing the horse with a good experience and repeating that good experience again-and-again.
Unlike humans, the horse develops and retains its memories based solely on experience. As far as we understand, horses do not tell stories to other animals to obtain a context to go along with the experience. (Pascoe, 2019)
That Memory Sticks
It seems that once a horse has an experience – good or bad – they remember it! According to Waring (2002), a horse will best remember the last event they have experienced. This is because the horse is a sequential thinker. As a result, you always want to end an interaction with a horse on a positive note.
According to EquiSearch (2017), horses have incredible recall. A horse that has had a very good or terribly bad experience will remember it. This is why, when you horse shies at something or shows anxiety in certain situations, it is likely that they had a very similar experience in the past that they are remembering. Similarly, a horse that is trained along with being rewarded for the behavior we are seeking to train them will remember. (Henderson, 2021)
This is true when you ride. Asking a horse to go forward involves leg pressure. Once the horse is moving forward, the leg pressure is lessened – the reward. A correctly trained horse – one that understands and responds to the aids – will remember long after they were first trained.
Back to the Older Horse
Having read this information, I am beginning to understand why Griffin is able to respond to the aids when I give them correctly. Even though he has been ridden by a variety of people with various skill levels, when you give the aids as he was trained to respond to them, he does!
So, if I hang onto him through the bit and bridle too long, he will go on his happy way trotting (or walking or cantering) on the forehand. However, if I ask him to go forward with my legs, then do a half halt, he will soften is frame. As soon as he does that, I release the pressure by moving my hands forward slightly. It makes for a very pleasant ride!
Most horses have multiple owners and riders and live in many different environments throughout their lives. They have both good and bad experiences, and they remember the very good and the very bad.
As horse owners, we almost always do not know what our horses have experienced along the way. We are very fortunate, though, that horses are so incredibly tolerant and giving. Bad experiences can be overshadowed and sometimes extinguished through patient training. Good experiences can be enhanced by always ending a training session on a good note.
EquiSearch. (2017). Perfect Recall. EquiSearch. https://www.equisearch.com/discoverhorses/perfect-recall
Henderson A. (2021). Hey, I Remember You: The Extraordinary Equine Memory. Horse Sport. https://horsesport.com/magazine/behaviour/observing-pain-elite-event-horses-badminton-burghley/
Pascoe, E. (2019). Equine memory: Understanding how it works can help you train and care for your horse. Practical Horseman. https://practicalhorsemanmag.com/health-archive/equine-memory
Waring, G.H. (2002). Horse Behavior. 2nd ed. Maryland Heights, MO: William Andrew.