Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Horse Never Forgets

Photographer: Nick Stenning (via Wikimedia Commons)
The saying may be "an elephant never forgets," but recent studies have shown that perhaps horses should have that distinction. They remember humans, experiences and even words for several months or years.

In a recent study led by Carol Sankey of the University of Rennes, 23 horses were put through a training program consisting of 41 steps. The horses showed affection to the experimenters and learned better when food rewards were involved. When there was no such positive reinforcement, the horses were more likely to bite or kick. Once they finished the program, the horses and humans didn't see each other for eight months. When they were reunited, the horses stayed close to the people who rewarded them during training. The researchers also said the horses can form lifelong social relationships, can learn human words, and can remember how to solve problems for at least ten years.

The downside to the horse's long memory is that they remember the bad as well as the good. Horses have an easier time remembering things if there's an emotional component, positive or negative. If you do anything to scare your horse, even unintentionally, he will commit that to memory. When it comes to the fight or flight response, horses will always choose flight. This, in combination with the bad memory, might make it difficult to regain his trust. It's doable, it just takes work and lots of patience. Always show him what's in your hands as you approach him, speak to him in a soft voice, and spend as much time with him as possible. Even if horses don't forget, they do forgive.

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