Monday, 27 July 2015

How good are horses' memories?

If you asked me this question my initial answer would be that they have good memories.  If I think about this further it is more complex.  Domesticated horses are expected to perform many different tasks, from lifting their feet to have them picked out to performing dressage movements!  On a day to day basis we expect them to remember how to be led, how to stand tied up, what a wheelbarrow is etc.....

These memories are based on types of learning.  Other types of memories such as those learnt from cruel treatment can be remembered and affect a horse for many years, even after the treatment has stopped.  Tommy has learnt to be frightened of people because they cause him pain, slowly he is learning that people can be kind and allowing them near does have rewards.  

This can carry over to learning about cars, vans, lorries, motorbikes etcetera on the road.  Basil obviously learnt early in his life that they are not scary, nothing has happened to teach him otherwise and so he remembers that they are fine and is really good on the road.

To train a horse we practice and repeat the lesson until the horse remembers, this can be done in a variety of different ways.  We are still relying on the horse to remember!  Chesney has had his feet picked out in the same order and in the same way for most of his life.  This means that if I go into his stable with the skip he has his first foot in the air before I place the skip on the floor!

Nowadays we work towards developing good memories for the horse - so using positive reinforcement to help them learn, rather than using punishment (negative reinforcement) if they don't do as we ask.  Building pleasant associations eg: if you let me catch you then will you get a carrot, generally work more effectively than building unpleasant associations eg: if you don't go forward I will beat you!

It is also now more widely accepted that it is better to work with a horse's natural behavioural traits and that each horse is an individual.  They will all have different abilities for learning - just as humans do.  So to help a horse learn properly and to retain the information he needs motivating ie: rewarding.  For many horses this motivation can be food, some enjoy a neck scratch and others a kind word.

Chesney is actually motivated by the voice more than anything else, he knows if your tone is cross or if it is soothing or if you are praising him.  Basil is more difficult to work out but I think he likes to have time to eat in peace.  So after I ride he either goes back in the field or has a nice haynet!    Tommy likes food (which is often true of rescue cases) but also seems to really enjoy a neck rub as a reward.  I am also finding that he is very aware of your tone of voice - like Chesney!
Horses, like humans also learn more easily at a younger age.  Early learning will affect their future training and highly emotional horses can be more difficult to train. 

Have you seen last weeks' video 'What I'm Feeding and Horsey Clips'    
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Until next time!

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