Do Some Horses Learn Quicker Than Others?


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.

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Comment by Margaret Porkolab on December 16, 2012 at 3:00pm
I do they do. My 4 year has 20 hrs in total. This is what we have done. Road down the road to the lake. Went in the lake. Through water ditches muddy sections knee deep (didnot plan it) and over bridges at the dundas fund raising event in September. 2012. She has meant up with some nasty dogs friendly deer and some nasty cyclist. We don't get out much but she is very respectful and willing to learn and please. She is my trusting mount and i believe she would protect my from any harm.
Comment by Marlene Thoms on December 12, 2012 at 6:37pm

I boarded a very smart horse as a barnmate for my gelding the last few summers. She's 29, been there, done that and very smart. She was smart enough to choose a very kind owner, wouldn't let anyone rider her much, but turned out lovely foals. She's  had a pretty good life.

Comment by wildehex on December 11, 2012 at 9:15am

Imho it all has to do with the balance of the horse coming from the balance/timing of the rider.  I find very little difference in schooling different types of horses/sexes.  Their 'baggage' (previous training) might create situations which need solutions.  But the important thing is to school/train in such a matter that the horse makes the correct choice/improves balance rather than creating resistances to requests.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on December 11, 2012 at 8:57am

Very good.  Thank you.

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