The way we teach horses determines how well they learn.
That sounds obvious, but it’s worth studying what’s known about training to improving long-term retention.
One of the newest areas of study, spurred on by interest in understanding Alzheimer’s and drug addiction, is Long-Term Potentiation.
In the brains of all mammals, there are three memory stages: sensory, short-term, and long-term. Information processing begins in sensory memory, moves to short-term memory, and eventually moves into long-term memory.
The scientific term for one of the process that creates long-term memory is Long-Term Potentiation (LTP). LTP is a persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent patterns of activity. These specific synapses between neurons have been proven to create behavioral memory. Potentiation means a flood of nerve impulses instead of the little trickle of nerve impulses triggered by mundane experiences of shallow, short-term memory.
In other words, LTP is what goes on in the horse’s brain when a brief experience creates a life-long lesson.
LTP has been studied in the hippocampus, the section of the brain involved with spatial memory, and in the amygdala, the fear center. The reason why experiments with LTP are so important is LTP lasts a longer time than other processes between the synapses.
According to experiments on LTP, in order to trigger long-term learning, horse trainers will want to:
-Keep lessons short, positive, and exciting, especially when introducing novel tasks.
-Avoid over-repetition. Don’t drill tedious patterns.
-Make time for breaks. If you alternate engaging periods with restful periods during the lesson, the horse will retain learning better and longer.
-Do not push the horse to a state of panic, fight, flight, or freeze. Horses do not learn new tasks when highly agitated. Punishment confuses them because punishment only teaches what NOT to do and does not reinforce preferred behaviors.
Interestingly, LTP is state-dependent.
State-Dependent Learning (SDL) means if the brief experience occurs when a horse is excited, the memories of that experience are strongest when the horse is excited again. If the experience occurs when the horse is relaxed, the horse recalls the learning better when it’s relaxed.
The take-away here is that if you want the horse to perform a task when it is stressed (example: spooking at a flapping plastic bag), then you need to also be able to teach the task when the horse is stressed.
Conversely, if you want the horse to recall a behavior when the horse is relaxed (example: ground tying), then it’s best if you teach the horse when it’s relaxed.
Switching the two around: the horse isn’t going to successfully remember how to stand still to be ground tied if the horse has been stressed when you’ve tried to teach the lesson. And desensitizing a horse to a flapping plastic bag is not going to be as successful if the only time you’ve taught it is when the horse is relaxed.
LTP isn’t the only learning process in the brain. Other processes use dopamine or serotonin to reinforce the synapses. These processes allow motivation, rewards, and emotions to influence learning.
On the flip side, Long-Term Depression (LTD) is when the neural synapses are silenced. This happens when the neural networks which are involved in the wrong movement or reaction are inhibited. LTD is the “eraser” of synapses necessary because LTP can’t keep strengthening all the synapses indefinitely. LTD allows the horse to “forget” tasks which are not reinforced and to correct mistakes when learning how to perform a task.
LTD seems to be improved during periods of low-input stimulation.
In other words, allowing a horse to take time and “think about it” seems to aid LTD in erasing learning. which is not reinforced. Behaviorists refer to this as extinction.
Extinction is the weakening of a conditioned behavior which gradually decreases and eventually stops.
An example of extinction would be ignoring a horse’s pawing behavior when it is tied. If the behavior is not reinforced by either untying or by attention (human yelling or slapping the horse), eventually, the pawing behavior will decrease and stop.
The problem trainers and riders often have with extinction is that they are looking for instant results from something they DO. They don’t understand that in the long-term, LTD creates a more enduring response if they simply DO NOTHING — no stimulus input.