By nature horses love long-term relationships and are strongly attached to their herd, with whom they maintain special relationships, that may last a lifetime. Even after years of separation, they are able to immediately identify old friends. Observations suggest that, regarding their social relationships, horses have an excellent long-term memory. According to a recent study by the french ethologist Carol Sankey, equines would also be able to remember their human friends. There’s one condition to conquer your horses, though: they want to be treated well.
The initial experiment, tested 23 horses divided into two groups: positive reinforcement and no reinforcement (control). The horses were taught to stand still following a vocal command (“Stay”) while an experimenter performed various handling tasks with them. The positive reinforcement group consistently learned faster and showed more docile behavior towards the experimenter. Eight months later, the horses in the positive reinforcement stood still nearly 50% longer during the handling tasks than the control group. To test their comfort level with humans, Sanky stood quietly in an open paddock with the horses. Sixty percent of the positively reinforced horses spontaneously chose to remain within a half a yard of her, whereas only 15% of the control horses came this close.
The result of the study wants to prove that, just like humans, horses learn and memorize things better with positive reinforcement.
In daily communication with our horse things are slightly different. Horses are in fact trained to respond both to positive and negative reinforcement, two key concepts of behavioral psychological analysis. The knowledge of their learning behavior simplifies the daily relationship whilst strengthening the established partnership.
If you are interested to figure out in which way our horses respond to positive and negative reinforcement, read more here.