Our memories of horses haunt us in all the best and worst ways. We remember childhood horses and horses we met in books or at the movies. We love our friend’s horses as we love our own, marking when they came and the day they died, so we can say their name to our friends on that sad anniversary. Most of us are lucky enough to know a fair number of horses in the course of our lives and we are better for the experience.
But enough about us. We rant and get weepy about horses we know, but often minimize the importance of memory when working with horses in real-time. Our understanding of equine memory is the most important aspect of training, riding, or even caring for horses.
Most of us have a working understanding of the equine brain. We know horses don’t have a frontal lobe that works like ours. They literally can’t ponder philosophical concepts like respect or revenge, testing or holding a grudge. Horses are incapable of deceit and that’s what we like about them.
Instead, horses have excellent long-term memory. We know horses recognize faces, and also emotions on faces. Memory informs that recognition. Feral horses grazing over large territories remember locations important to the herd, just as domesticated horses remember locations they frequent, even when trailered there. Horses become anxious in surroundings where they previously had a frightening experience; they remember the “scene of the crime.” Their memory is less romantic than ours and much more practical.
Foals begin learning from the herd on day one for their general safety. When they eventually begin training, those first experiences with humans set the tone for years to come. The method of training becomes practically tattooed on their nervous system. If a horse feels implied threat, dread, panic, or physical pain, he is not able to focus to learn. When a horse learns through intimidation, his foundation is riddled with fear-cracks. His memory of how he was trained will be impeccable. No matter how long ago, if the horse was ridden previously, he will know exactly what a saddle and bit are today.
How many times when you think your horse is ignoring you, is the horse reacting to the memory of a previous experience? Since memory and emotion are major factors in their mental process, can they tell the difference, for instance, between previous gastric pain and the anxiety felt about being in a similar situation in the present? Can you tell the difference? It might feel like you can’t trust a horse, but you can trust their behavior perfectly, whether you see a cause for it or not. They are incapable of making things up. Good training or bad, you can absolutely trust their memory.
Some horses go to rescue or wind up in sale ads because things just went a little sideways from poor training or impatience. The idea of training a horse seems easy enough but knowing what to do when things start to slide is the hard part. That’s when we over-cue or drill them; when we stop praising them and get harsher than we intend. We punish them, something they never forget, damaging whatever trust we have built.
We aren’t intentionally cruel; we work with outdated methods, we get confused, we try too hard. Once a horse sees us as erratic and undependable, they seem to mimic that behavior. They become unreliable.
It takes more time to retrain a horse than to do it right the first time because of their indelible memory. And our memory of past incidents gets in our way at the same time. The biggest and most frequent error we make when training is that we ask for too much, too soon. We don’t let mistakes go or recognize when we’re greedy. Regardless of our method of training, we don’t stop when we should. And the sum total of that stress is what horses (and humans) remember.
By midlife, most horses have had too many emotional memories. Some get jaded and some shut down. We buy them from longtime owners or move them from their herd to a new planet (home), and in the process, don’t recognize the horse we bought. Change tends to stress a horse enough that old traumas resurface.
The challenge comes when we want to progress over stumbling blocks in the horse’s past. It doesn’t matter how they got there, it matters what happens now. Sometimes we think horses need us to heal, but it isn’t our job to fix their memory. Our goal should be not just building trust, but more importantly, respecting what that means in our own behavior.
We must start by being trustworthy. In order to do that, we have to develop advance-hindsight. Think of it as being unstuck in time, we want to anticipate what the horse will remember. Lucky for us, it’s easier than it sounds. All we have to do is let the horse process what is going on. As if patience is easy for us.
Horses are sequential thinkers. They aren’t saying no; they are thinking about it. Take a breath. Horses give calming signals when two thoughts collide. It could be as simple as a horse being curious about going with us, but not happy to leave the herd. What we do in that moment is crucial. We either halter them and drag them away, swinging the rope to threaten them into leaving, or give them a moment to process. Important: don’t let your own brain invent drama here. Instead, let your horse have time for this moment to become a good memory.
How to plan ahead for your horse’s good memory:
- Your horse’s relaxed mental state during training is the top priority.
- Don’t interrupt your horse’s thought process by repeating cues or upping the ask.
- Invest in the time needed to let your horse process the past with the present.
- Reward your horse for thinking; it’s more important to engage his mind than get the immediate result.
- You aren’t breathing enough. Let him hear you exhale, the cue to stay relaxed for both of you.
- Learn your horse’s individual calming signals and acknowledge his intelligence.
- See things with horse logic; your human needs or schedule are not his problem.
- Learn to say yes in his language, so his own confidence makes him kind and reliable.
Most importantly, remind yourself that no matter the past, the moment of possibility is right now. You can create a good memory. It was never about training technique, always about the change that comes with the acceptance of your horse in this moment. The only behaviors set in stone are fear-based and it’s your goal to open your horse to partnership and possibility. You want your horse to offer you something better than you know to ask for. You want to be unstuck in the past and surprised anew by your horse’s goodwill.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.