Practical Horseman

EQUINE MEMORY

Life is all memory, except for the one present moment,” the playwright Tennessee Williams wrote. It’s true. Even when we’re not thinking about the past, we’re mining memory for information and guidance that will help us navigate life. What about your horse? What role does his memory play, and how does it affect your interactions with him? The Magic 8 Ball would have to say, “Reply hazy.” Memory just hasn’t been studied in horses as much as in people or other animals. But some research has been done and new information is emerging.

Equine behavior experts Sue McDonnell, PhD, founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, and Leanne Proops, PhD, a comparative psychologist and ethologist at the University of Portsmouth in England, shared their insights. Evolution shaped the way horses form, retain and use memories, they say, so equine memory differs from human memory in key ways. Understanding how it works can help you train and care for your horse.

Hold out a carrot to your horse and you trigger brain cells (neurons) dedicated to sight and smell. They fire, releasing chemical messengers across junctions between neurons. In a flash, the brain shoots back a call to action: Get the carrot. The messages form links

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