Horse Memory: what have you (human) done for me lately?
What have you (human) done for me lately?
Memory is an important aspect of cognition. It is involved in the collection, retention and use of information about an animal’s environment (Shettleworth 1998). Although numerous studies have focused on the importance of memory accuracy in various species (see Squire 1992, Sherry 2006 for review), relatively few and also more recently have explicitly examined the longevity of such memories.
Poecile atricapillus while storing food
A recent research published in Animal Cognition, shows first evidence that a parid species (the black-capped chickadee, Poecile atricapillus) can remember the location of a single food item for at least 6 months (Roth, 2011).
As Frans De Waal writes in his book ”The Age of Empathy”, just like human, some non-human animals seem to store favours in long-term memory.
Another interesting aspect comes up when we look at the following example of long-term memory in relationship dynamics considering the re-integration of two elephants after 23 years.
Elephants long-term memory
“Elephants presumably remember their own kind even better. Carol Buckley recounts a case where two elephants, Shirley (~53) and Jenny (~30), were reunited at the Elephant Sanctuary after 23 years apart. The exuberant greeting the two elephants exhibited when they were reunited was the first indication that they had known one another before. Then Shirley began to display unusual mothering behavior: Whenever Jenny lay down Shirley would straddle her in a protective manner, shading her body from the sun and from harm, as if she were a calf. For the rest of Jenny’s life, their relationship was like one of mother-daughter. Carol learned that Jenny and Shirley had last been together in a circus when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was about 30 years old. Their relationship at the Elephant Sanctuary indicated that they clearly remembered one another and the special adult-calf relationship they had once shared.” http://www.elephantvoices.org
Equine cognitive science has began to investigate and show evidence of the presence of long-term memory also in horses (Hanggi, 2009).
Also many stories and experiences narrated by horse people, seem to confirm that horses can recover stored information over a long-term period of latency. The difficulty in the study towards horses, is the impact human have on the life-conditions of a horse. A horse which is trained to obey, will be less capable to access instruments useful for problem-solving (e.g. mental representations and memory capacities). We could imagine therefor that research for evidence regarding memory in horses is more complicated than for example in the Poecile atricapillus above.
In a natural context, cognition of equine species (and memory with it) is a tool born from the evolution process (exactly like a leg, a stomach or a heart).
Long-term memory is an interesting topic in the horse-human relationship as well.
José Schoorl, Topazio, Sparta and Falo’: walking together
As long as a horse has not become indifferent towards it’s surroundings (and unfortunately many horse do), the things that we do in the interaction with our horse are well remembered. This is something people should be more aware of, even in daily life routine. Horses can remember for a long time if their interaction with a person was based on a positive intention or not. Of course this doesn’t mean that we should expect sign of gratitude for every positive moment we share with a horse.
Francesco De Giorgio, Cimango (a problem-horse) and Taku the dog
sharing a positive experience together
The positive memory is not translated in obeying, but in trust for a horse that he is able to express himself in the relationship with you. It’s like a “mutual latent cooperation”. A kind of communication during horse-human interaction, that could be stored in a long-term memory way.
Applied Equine Zooanthropology translates this concept in a pratical way, to really give the possibility to the horse to experience us and remember us empathically:
- Giving the horse the possibility to live in a positive habitat, within a social context, in presence of familiar or familiar-like co-specifics;
- Giving the horse time necessary for him, to explore all daily tools (saddle, pad, reins, halter, rope, etc.), but also new objects;
- Giving the young horse the possibility to learn in a social context, without isolation from eachother during initial training;
- Creating a horse-human complicity system sharing experience, without pressing demands;
- Working in a calm way without expectations, with several pauses to elaborate experience and storage information;
- Working in a non-schematical way, giving to the horse the possibility to express spontaneus behaviours.
Preserving the cognitive abilities in horses and creating experiences shared with a positive intention, makes it also possibile to cope together with a horse more difficult experiences. Dealing with an injury for example. It is not the action itself but the intention making the memory a significant one.
José Schoorl and Fulmine Bike Experience
Owners, but first of all scientists, trainers and vets should start to consider the cognitive capacities in horses and work in order to preserve them.
Writers: Francesco De Giorgio, José Schoorl
Photo: José Schoorl, Francesco De Giorgio, internet
Francesco De Giorgio is an Italian ethologist and applied behaviour researcher, currently living in the Netherlands and working both in Italy as in the Netherlands. He is Guest Lecturer regarding Equine Cognition in several universities and member at Dutch Society for Behavioural Biology (NVG), at Italian Society for Veterinary Physiology (SoFiVet) and at International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE). His special field of research is applied social learning in horses. He is a scientist but also a practical man, having a band of eight horses together with his partner in life and work José Schoorl.
José Schoorl is a Dutch trainer in horse-human relationship, teaching and training people in the Netherlands, in Italy and in the UK, how to understand, how to live and how to improve the relationship with a horse from their own and from the horse’s point of view. For José understanding Equine Cognition is the first step in order to improve understanding of the horse’s behaviour and motivation.
Francesco and José work every day with passion and determination to give the horse a voice as sentient being.