Horses are very similar to humans in many different aspects of their brain and behaviour. We are both social species, we like to play and we both have excellent memories.

But in order to truly understand the horse, you must get to know the difference between a human’s and horse’s mental abilities.

The Evolutionary Perspective

When compared to other animals, humans aren’t very fast or strong, so we evolved to use tools and think out ways to solve our problems. We needed significant reasoning abilities to feed ourselves and avoid being eaten by other animals. So we evolved an enlarged area of the prefrontal cortex, and this is where our imagination lies. We can imagine different scenarios, we can reflect. We can think ahead and plan to do things in the future.

Horses, however, did not evolve in the same way as humans so we cannot expect them to have the same mental abilities. We cannot blame them for things that they have done in the past or expect them to plan for the future.

Memory and Learning in Horses

Studies of the horse’s brain tell us that his immediate short-term memory regarding choices that he has made to solve particular problems is accurate for about three seconds, then diminishes. This is the reason why all animals (and humans) require many repetitions in order to learn. It is also why positive punishment is rarely if ever effective, as it is usually applied too long after the behaviour has occurred (remember, positive means ‘adding’ something).

Optimism, Pessimism, and Learned Helplessness

Horses, like humans, can become optimistic or pessimistic as to the outcome of a certain event. When a horse is always successful (that is, the behaviour used to elicit behaviours goes away every time he performs the behaviour) because the training is clear and consistent, they become optimistic.

However, if the pressure doesn’t go away reliably or the training system relies heavily on punishment, they can become pessimistic. They learn not to try and solve problems any more and become apathetic or give up. If this apathy continues the horse can enter a state of learned helplessness. The horse stops trying to find ways to solve problems and can become dull and almost robotic. It is extremely important not to confuse this state of learned helplessness with being ‘quiet’ or ‘bombproof.’