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Memories 3 – Are you embedding the right memories into your horse’s brain?

Memories 3 – Are you embedding the right memories into your horse’s brain?

“Sometimes you will never know the value of something, until it becomes a memory.” –Dr.Seuss

Although Dr. Seuss would not have realised it, his words of wisdom (see quote above) apply profoundly to horses and their training. Anything we do with a horse can install long-term deep-seated memories, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

Just like in humans, the ‘good’ memories help to immunise a horse against later experiences which are not so good, while the ‘bad’ memories can affect it for life. For example, if you have jumped hundreds of jumps without having a getting hurt but then having a fall and break your arm it is unlikely to put you off jumping. This is shown time and time again by professional riders such as jump jockeys and eventers. However, if the first time you jumped you fell off and broke your arm, then it might put you off for life and you may never jump again, or you may jump but be very nervous about it.

We can, to a certain extent, use logic to overcome our fears. For example, if you broke your arm jumping 1m then you will tell yourself that nothing will happen if you are just doing trotting poles. A horse however cannot ‘reason’ in the same way that a human can. It is either anxious or not anxious. ‘Bad’ memories are part of its survival technique: it has evolved over millions of years to run away from danger, and to avoid anything that hurt it or frightened it in the past. So, that nasty fence that bits its leg, or that pain in the mouth from the bit when it spooked at something, or even that rustling in the hedge (which of course is made by a panther) can be something that is stored in the horse’s long term memory as dangerous. Avoid it or die!

As with human’s, the more that a horse is stimulated (its ‘arousal level’) the more likely it is to remember something. And it is the same whether the event was exciting/happy, or painful/distressing. You can remember that time when you got really excited about going on holiday (or something else) and you can remember that time you had to do an exam and didn’t feel you were ready.

Is my horse tense and does it matter?

  • If a horse is too relaxed then it won’t learn as well. It is hard to teach both humans and horses if they are sleepy, uninterested, or bored.
  • Horses learn best when they are moderately aroused, so at the level when they show interest and curiosity, without becoming too anxious.
  • The more ‘wound up’ the horse is, the less likely it is to learn the ‘good’ memories we want, and the more likely it is to remember the negative things; those it associates with survival.

Pain and stress use the same pathways in the brain, so if the horse associates pain with something (e.g. being hit by the whip when it spooks; or being jabbed in the mouth when it is tense) or if it is sore anyway (e.g. arthritis, poorly fitting saddle) then it is more likely to remember ‘bad’ memories, the ones associated with the fight/flight response. The pain makes the horse more sensitive to other bad experiences around it.

This means that some tension in the horse can help it learn what we want, so long as it doesn’t have any bad experiences while we are working it. But that too much tension or pain means it only learns that it should avoid those situations. Again, this is very similar to humans –

What should you do then (see also the previous article: Memories Part 2)?

  • Avoid situations where the horse becomes overly stressed. For example, if the horse is very anxious jumping high jumps then do lower ones. If it has never been to a show before then let it get used to all the horses and noise before asking it to work in a ring.
  • Immunise the horse against bad experiences by providing lots of good experiences, especially while it is young. It is easier to re-train a horse that had a ‘good start’ than one that was never trained properly in the first place.
  • Train the horse to cope with different situations by providing small challenges when things are going well. No challenges at all are just as bad for a horse (or human) as being overwhelmed. Adjust the challenges to suit the horse and don’t just assume that because one horse can cope with something straight away then the next horse will too; they are all different.
  • Reduce the pressure when things go wrong. If the horse isn’t coping mentally or physically with what you have asked, then make it simpler and/or easier. E.g. if it is not being bold cross country then doing an option or two could restore its confidence. Better a few time faults on one occasion than a horse that is put off jumping for life.
  • Form a partnership with your horse. Sharing good experiences will mean that your horse trusts you and listens to you when things go wrong. Beyond just being obedient, horses will go to extraordinary lengths to do things for people they trust, even if it is against their nature (as told in numerous stories about horses and ponies).
  • If you think the horse is just being naughty (and not misbehaving because it can’t cope physically or mentally) then make doubly sure that it is naughtiness before punishing.
    NB: punishment here means either positive or negative punishment, and can be as simple as not giving the horse a carrot (negative punishment), or making the horse work harder on a smaller circle (positive punishment). It does not imply anything that affects the horse’s welfare. For a full definition of ‘negative and positive punishment’ and ‘negative and positive reinforcement’ see the book Equine Behaviour Explained.
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Don’t add to a bad experience by causing pain.
Each jab of the mouth/spur or hit with the whip helps embed the memory as
a BAD experience, and one that the horse wants to avoid in future!

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