Smart. Clever. Dull. Clueless. We all have stories of horses that connect the dots and others that …don’t. So, really, are some horses sharper than others?
As a trainer, I’ll swear to the value of having a well-defined, systematic approach to training. I’ve also learned (sometimes the hard way) that the cookie cutter has to be adapted somewhat for individual horses.
Here’s what the research indicates as factors affecting equine learning ability.
Emotional state. When a horse is fearful, excited or angry it’s tough to learn anything. A crowded riding ring fosters fear of oncoming horses or anger at the invasion of personal space. And bringing a fresh horse into the mix doesn’t make for a classroom environment
Genetics: Some horses are bred for athletic ability, flashy conformation or brilliant movement – not learning ability.
Sex: Despite the unfortunate tendency to paint all manner of behaviour issues with the “She’s such a mare!” brush, there is truth that hormones can be a source of distraction or discomfort.
Age: Although older horses have ingrained habits (neural pathways) which can take many repetitions to alter, they’ve also learned to generalize: transfer learned skills to other situations. In other words they have “learned to learn”.
While the average attention span of a horse is around 11 seconds, it’s lower for younger horses.
Environment: Distraction lowers learning ability. Have your lessons well ingrained before heading to the horse show. Don’t ask your 12 yr old son to sit on a bench and do math homework at the amusement park!
Physical condition. High starch diets, limited turnout, limited social interaction. Studies show these all decrease learning ability.
Motivation. The desire to gain something or avoid something inspires horses to learn. Food or pain /entrapment avoidance can override the motivation of simple pressure and release. Some horses require higher amounts of pressure while others are more sensitive.