do horses have muscle memory

Q.I’m pursuing a series of questions that were sparked by a quote: “Musicians must practice until muscle memory sets in, until the brain is free to forget, but the body still clearly remembers.” What does this have to do with horses, you ask?

Do horses have muscle memory? Could they have faster and better muscle memory than humans? Would this help explain why constant repetition can actually reverse progress? Would it be advantageous to a prey animal to have the faster memory? And does it help the human to remember this when working with horses? I have found articles and opinions of muscle memory in the rider but nothing of note for the horse.

—Via e-mail

A.The term “muscle memory” popularly refers to the near automatic and fluid sequence of actions that serve a purpose, such as playing an instrument or executing a complex athletic maneuver. But the term is misleading because muscles don’t have memories and the brain hasn’t forgotten. These fast and efficient movement resulting from practice are procedural memories stored in areas of the brain that operate outside of conscious awareness.

What is the Effect of Practice?

When a new motor skill or sequence is first attempted, it requires conscious attention and sensory-motor feedback about the movements that lead to a desired result. When the behavior is repeated, the sequence of actions becomes unconscious and automatic, freeing up attention to learn something else while flawlessly performing the action.

We can’t know an animal’s state of conscious awareness, but we can monitor their attention and reaction time. Your question is about horses and their progress during training, but the same principles apply in other animals and situations. For example, lab rats learn to complete a maze through trial and error, finally reaching the goal box with food. At first the rat is slow and makes many errors—an effortful process that requires explicit learning. After practicing the sequence of right and left turns several times, the rat learns to run the maze quickly, effortlessly, automatically, and seemingly unconsciously. At this point implicit (procedural) memory is at work. While this process is often advantageous in training, once it begins the behavior sequence can be hard to interrupt or change.

The term “habit learning” is another way practice can affect some of the behaviors to which your question refers. The habit is a reflexive behavior elicited by antecedent stimuli rather than controlled by consequences. Habits are learned through repeated experiences and can become fixed and inflexible. Reaction time includes the time it takes to both initiate a response and complete a behavior sequence. In many cases of sequence learning, the animal becomes slower to initiate the action but faster at completing the sequence, and this pattern is characteristic of habit learning.

Are Horses or Humans Faster?

Species and individuals differ in their genetic potential for quick and coordinated movement, how strong and flexible their muscles are, and their capacity to learn certain things. Horses might very well be faster than humans in typical training situations.

First, horses are generally stronger and faster than people. Second, if the horse’s escape is both effective and practiced, the action sequence could become very fast; the horse would learn to anticipate the threat and the response would become unconscious and automatic. Third, people usually approach horses and, depending on the person and situation, might be perceived as a potential threat, which could trigger an escape action sequence. In contrast, the trainer does not typically perceive the horse as a threat.

Horses might also be primed to pay attention to potential threats and to take quick defensive action. Some prey animals appear to be particularly sensitive to “looming” (approaching) objects that are perceived as danger. Humans also show a perceptual bias for threats; people are quicker to detect and pay attention to images of snakes than of other critters that pose no danger, such as birds, cats, and fish.

Procedural learning and memory of motor sequences has been studied by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. I’m not aware of any published studies on this topic in horses, but it would be an interesting research topic!