Do Horses Remember You?
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Jan 25, 2023
The majestic horse runs across the field to the long-lost owner—[End Scene].
We've all seen a movie showcasing the bond between a reunited horse and rider in an emotional scene filled with beautiful music, lighting, and equine elegance. But, do horses remember you, even after time apart?
Many studies suggest that horses do remember their owners similarly to the way they remember other horses. Past experiences, memories, and sounds remind horses of people, other animals, and situations—understanding how your horse's memory and emotions work will strengthen your relationship and your time together.
How Do Horses Remember Their Owners?
We know horses remember people. Horses have excellent memories and can remember certain people after long periods. A recent study completed in 2021 proved horses could recognize and understand human facial expressions and emotional responses.
Extensive research has shown horses can maintain memories of humans when they have positive interactions. Once a strong bond and emotional connection have been created, it is almost unbreakable.
There are a few different ways horses can remember their human friends other than through emotional connections. Horses have very strong hearing and can recognize voices and associate them with physical appearances. You've probably experienced this when walking into a barn and being greeted before your horse can see you. Horses will also associate specific body language and energy with particular people.
Finally, horses remember things by learning to recognize patterns. This ability to learn through training and interaction is instinctive. Wild horses use this skill to identify a potential threat. Horse owners use this instinct during training with patterns, positive reinforcement and conditioning.
With time and training, many horses have excellent memories and a strong bond with their human friends. This means they will remember you even when you've been apart for a long time. Horses can also hold negative memories of a person when they've experienced abuse or trauma. These experiences can be very challenging to overcome.
If Horses Can Remember Their Owners, Do They Miss Them?
We've already established that horses love routines. If your routine or training program includes visiting the barn, playing, and feeding them, your horse will notice when you don't show up. If this goes on for a long period of time, you may notice a change in behavior, unwillingness to eat, and lack of engagement with other people. But, as soon as they see familiar faces, they should return to normal.
Knowing this, it can be very sad when you have to sell your horse or leave for long periods of time. Many horses will go to a new home and, after a period, develop positive memories and a strong bond with their new owner. This doesn't mean a horse forgot their owner when they had a strong connection.
Does a Horse Recognize their Name?
There is an ongoing debate among horse owners and renaming horses. When discussing long-term memory, you may wonder if your horse remembers an old name.
Many people believe horses respond to your voice, tone, and body language rather than a specific name. But many others think horses do remember and respond to their names. If a stranger walked out into the field and called your horse by their name, would they respond? It is hard to know and say which group is accurate. However, it seems that horses who hear their names regularly respond, while those who don't are unlikely to recognize their names.
Do Horses Who Remember Their Owners Show Affection?
Aside from the extensive studies, horse owners have a lot of stories to support horse memories. Horses display affection to show their unique relationship with their owners. In some ways, human emotions may be very similar to horse emotions. There are a few ways horses show affection, though some are not very direct line.
How does your horse behave as you walk into the field or the barn? Do they turn, acknowledge you, and approach you? Or, do they move away? Greeting you is one sign of the strong bond you've created. Horses are social animals and want to be with their "herd." Through time and patience, you've become part of their world. They associate you with positive emotions and want to spend time with you.
Following your asks during a training session doesn't seem like a sign of affection, but it is. Horses are herd animals and follow established leaders. They will follow your lead when you've bonded and become the partner they need. This respect will make them willing to work with you and follow your commands.
Relaxing Around You
As prey animals, wild horses need to be alert to stay alive. This instinct is deeply ingrained in domestic horses, too. When a horse is visibly relaxed around you, it is because they feel safe in your presence. Some horses will relax by dropping their heads, cocking a leg, or lying down.
You've probably seen videos or photos of people lying down with their horses in the field or the stall. This is a big sign that these specific individuals have a strong bond built on trust and respect.
Why is this important in horse training?
So, why do horse memory and horse behavior impact training? We've used Horseanality to learn our horse's personality and training preferences, but how does a good memory make a difference? Knowing that your horse develops memories based on positive and negative experiences helps you guide your daily interactions with them. You need to work to foster those positive experiences and reduce the negative experiences. This doesn't mean always retreating, but it could mean spending more time working through past experiences with patience.
Knowing how easily horses read and understand body language and communication styles is also helpful. Being a horse owner and building a strong bond with your horse takes time and patience. The unique relationship you build is truly one that will last for a lifetime.