Horses’ Amazing Memories

Studies show that horses are able to retain concepts years after their initial training.

If you teach your horse to do a turn on the forehand, how long will he remember what he’s learned? Longer than you may think, a new study suggests.

A team of behavioral researchers at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, led by Lea Lansade, PhD, tested long-term recall in a group of 26 horses. The team has been working with these horses for several years, exploring the influence of temperament on learning. As part of that work, the horses were taught two tasks—to walk backward on command to get a food reward and to cross an obstacle when a bell rang to avoid a puff of air.

After almost two years without practice, the horses all performed both tasks perfectly, showing excellent recall. Individual temperament made no difference. When the researchers stopped providing the food reward or air puff, though, performance grew spotty. 

The results confirm that horses can pick up where they left off in training after months or years without drill. They also help explain why bad habits can resurface years after you thought they were corrected.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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