At Times Horses Simply Can�t Remember

New understanding of what horses can remember offers insights for training horses.

Tests indicate that horses may not have the type of memory that allows them to remember to do something they once intended to do.

In other words, equines may lack a prospective memory that enables them to remember to remember.

A study in Australia set up a situation to test this type of recall in a dozen horses. A horse was restrained while he watched and listened to feed being delivered into one of two possible locations in an arena. Researchers then released the horse into the arena and observed as he sought out the food.

welsh cob pony

After ten seconds, horses forget what it was they wanted to do.

It took only ten seconds to make a difference in how easily the horses located their reward. When a horse was let loose immediately after the feed was delivered, it quickly chose the food's correct location. But during another trial, the same horse could not directly remember the food's location because his release was delayed for just ten seconds after the food arrived.

The test demonstrates that, unlike people, horses can't remember to do something they previously wanted to do. The study's author, Andrew McLean, notes that these findings on the limits to horses' recall abilities have implications for their training. The results, for instance, highlight the importance of timing when delivering reinforcement.


Andrew N. McLean. 2004. Short-term spatial memory in the domestic horse. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 85(1-2): 93-105.

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