Horse Psychology Tutorial: Part 5 – A Horse’s Memory

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Horse Psychology Tutorial - Part 5 A Horse's Memory

Photo – © Viktoria Makarova –

A Horse’s Memory
Part 2 of an 8-part series on horse psychology by trainer Gina Gaye Muzinich of the Morgan Horse Ranch

Horses have great memories. They never forget. Some say that horses’ memory and intelligence is second only to elephants, but that’s comparing apples to oranges. A horse’s mind was created specifically for him and his survival. Most intelligence tests are based on the animal’s ability to reason, but the natural horse reacts more than he reasons. I wouldn’t want my horse to stand there in the pasture and reason out whether or not that advancing bunch of animals is a pack of hungry dogs, wolves, or a flock of tame sheep. If so, I might have a big vet bill coming. In the wild state if an attack came at a certain place, the herd remembered to avoid that spot in the future.

If it were not for the horse’s good memory, he would be considered less useful to man. A well-trained young horse never forgets his training. He may at times act as if he has forgotten, but resumes a behavior that reflects his training if reminded appropriately. However, a poorly trained horse, or one that has been hurt or confused, also remembers. For this reason, bad habits or behavior should be recognized and corrected before they become hardened. You can modify a horse’s behavior, but you can’t remove memory. Horses can be trained to do anything they are physically able to do. This trait shouldn’t be confused with intelligence. It may seem that a horse standing near a gate biting the latch to open it is showing signs of brilliance. What may actually be happening is that the horse remembers having gone through that gate before (or one similar) and has observed the latch being ‘fiddled with’ prior to each time the gate was opened. When a horse gets the grain bin open, she remembers only the joy of eating and cannot associate overeating with her bellyache or her founder. Again, a horse usually doesn’t reason that way.

A horse can remember things that seem most subtle to us. He will remember the moment when you ceased your command right when he began to try to do what you asked. He will remember the comfort (release) he received for his try and will respond again in a favorable manner. He will remember the relief he found during a mouth-handling lesson when you immediately removed your rubbing hand from his gums as soon as he stopped resisting and brought his head and nose down.

If you don’t define intelligence as abstract reasoning, but view it as a survival tool, then the domestic horse that elects to remain motionless when tangled in a barbed wire fence until someone comes to rescue him may be rather bright. A wild horse choosing the same behavior would die of thirst because there would be no one to cut him loose. Not very bright! Like people, horses exhibit a wide range of intelligence.

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