Horses’ Long-Term Memory Put to the Test

Researchers confirmed that horses retain what they learned a long time ago–for better or for worse.

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It seems that elephants aren’t the only large animals out there with an impressive memory: French researchers have confirmed that horses are also able to retain what they learned a long time ago—for better or for worse.

“Once they’ve learned something, they’re not going to forget it easily!” said Lea Lansade, PhD, researcher in the behavior science department of the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Tours, France. “And they’re not just going to forget it over time. For riders, that has both pros and cons. If you teach your horse something, he’s going to remember it for years and years, even if you haven’t practiced it in the meantime.

“But the downside is that if he has had a bad experience, he won’t forget that either, and he can pull out his defensive mechanisms against that bad experience many years later,” she said. “He won’t have forgotten it.”

Along with Mathilde Valenchon, MS, PhD candidate in INRA’s behavior science department, Lansade tested 26 horses’ long-term memories. These horses had been used by the same research group in studies related to positive and negative reinforcement two years prior. In one task, the horses had learned to back up when told, “Back!” by the handler and received a food reward. In the second, the horses had to cross an obstacle after hearing a bell ring, to prevent being subjected to a puff of air. In the current study, Lansade and Valenchon tested the horses’ ability to perform the same tasks after two years without practice

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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