I’ve owned my horse, 23-year-old Merlot, for 16 years. We’ve spent the last 10 in the same boarding facility. During that time, he has demonstrated that he really dislikes one of the two grooming stalls. Interestingly, the stall he doesn’t like is closed in on three sides and the one he is much more comfortable in has a door in the back of it. The door isn’t often used, but when people do come through it and Merlot is there, he is totally fine with it. It seems to go against instinct for him to be happier with someone coming up from behind as opposed to being in what I think of as a “safe” enclosed area. Similarly, he also has never really liked the closed-in wash stall. A Thoroughbred, Merlot raced until he was 7 years old, and I’ve often wondered if his anxiety of being in a closed-in area has something to do with a starting gate.
Merlot’s behavior came to mind as I read this month’s story about understanding how horses’ memories work (p. 46). There isn’t a huge amount of research on the topic, but studies indicate that, not surprisingly, there are differences in how horses’ and humans’ memories work, and understanding a horse’s can help in training. For instance, Dr. Sue McDonnell says that horses have “almost photographic memory of the circumstances surrounding negative experiences,” which was key to helping them survive in the wild as they evolved. So one bad experience can stay with them for a long time, even forever. To overcome what might have been a negative association with closed-in places with Merlot, I used a lot of treats and it seems to have worked. He now tolerates being in those closed-in areas, making it easier for me to care for him.
While understanding how your horse’s memory works affects how you care for him, as in my situation with Merlot, it also can affect how you train him in the saddle. In this issue, the top three finishers in the 2018 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Championship discuss how to expose your horse to the different questions that are typically asked in derbies (p. 28). If you practice the various derby elements at home, they all say, and build good memories there for your horse, you’ll have a better chance that he’ll confidently jump them in the competition arena.
The take-home message for me: The next time I’m training my horse, I need to remember that I’m creating memories—good or bad—and that striving for the good is a crucial element to being an effective horseperson.