For as many horse owners who swear a horse they owned years ago still remembers them, there are likely just as many experienced horse people who scoff at such a notion. It would be easier if you could just ask a horse if he remembers you, but in the absence of that ability, you can use research to make a more scientific argument to the naysayers.
Remembering Horses and Humans
A team of French researchers published findings in 2010 that backs up your claim of your former horse remembering you. They followed 23 horses through a training program with a trainer who rewarded the horses for performing simple tasks related to grooming and routine veterinary care. The horses and trainer were then separated for eight months; when reunited, the horses showed a preference for their former trainer. The researchers concluded that using positive reinforcement works with horses similarly to humans, and that horses value their human friends in the same way they value their equine friends.
Auditory Signals and Words
Your horse also remembers you by your voice. Researchers from the University of Sussex determined that horses use the same process of recognition that humans use: when they hear a voice, they unconsciously form a mental picture so they recognize them when they see them. Researchers broadcast horse owners’ voices over hidden loudspeakers, with both the owner and a stranger standing before that owner's horse. The horse responded by turning to his owner and looking at her longer than the stranger. Horses had no such reaction when they heard an unfamiliar voice over the loudspeaker.
When the French research team was testing horses’ memories, they also determined that horses understand words better than you may have thought. Horses have better hearing than dogs, and seem to learn and remember specific words quite easily.
If you’ve had days of riding when it seems that your horse doesn’t remember anything you’ve taught him, he’s probably having some fun at your expense, or perhaps there is a physical reason for his reluctance. Horses remember their training -- three horses used in long-term memory tests had no problems recognizing and selecting items 10 years after they were first trained to select them. Researchers used items the horses don’t typically see in their day-to-day living and competition environments -- dog toys, measuring scales and picture frames, for example. They were even able to pick out the items from photographs.
How Horses Remember
Your horse remembers things in several ways. Remembering you and your voice is one way, called latent learning. If you are trying to help your horse overcome a fear by repeatedly exposing him to it so he no longer acts afraid, you're using habituation. When you click your tongue to ask your horse to trot, he complies because he associates the tongue click with trotting. This is classical associated learning. Operant associated learning is when your horse makes the correct choice when responding to your command and is rewarded. Breeders use the imprinting method of learning to mark and desensitize a horse against several stimuli. Finally, if you and your horse share a strong bond so he feels emotionally rewarded when pleasing you, he learns through insight learning.
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