Over the years many horse owners have said to me ‘why does my horse seem to learn things over night and perform better the next day?’ Well that’s because your horse really does learn over night through a process called latent learning. Latent learning is really interesting! It is a psychological phenomena whereby information is better recalled 12 – 24 hours later than at the time of learning without further reinforcement. So if your horse, or indeed you, learn a new piece of information, over night your brain will consolidated the short term memories into long term ones and you will better be able to recall this information. Memory consolidation is also thought to be a key function of sleep, sleep thus aids learning, which is why it is not a good idea to stay up the night before an exam cramming information. The recall of this information will not be as good as if it had been learnt a night or so before. With regards to latent learning mammal brains behave in very similar ways, so you and your horse will have this learning process in common.
The science bit. Neurologically latent learning is thought to occur because neurons in the brain require time in order to create connections, or strengthen present ones, which encode the new information. The creation of connections in the brain is how we learn new information. For information to be transferred to long term memory from the short term memory engaged at the time of learning, something called Long Term Potentiation (LTP) needs to occur within Hebbian learning. Bare with me! Hebbian learning can be simply defined as the formation of new neural connections in response to new information to encode memory. These new connections require LTP to form a strong connections between neurons at the cellular level. LTP is how the neuron cells in the brain stregthen their connections.
The brain comunicates messages from cell to cell through the use of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. LTP is the formation of new neurotransmitter receptors which responds to the neurotransmitters release by connecting cells. The more receptors there are at the connection the stronger the response of the neuron cell will be. Stronger connections mean more effective consolidation of memories from short term to long term memory and thus better learning. For the protein necessary for LTP to be synthesised takes up to 24 hours and is aided by sleep. After 24 hours your horse will have a consolidated long term memory of their training.
(Interestingly, it is also theorised that the forgetting of information is caused by the weakening of neuron connections, known as long term depression.)
At the level of training this means that after you have achieved a reasonably high correct response rate in your horse, even if this has taken only a short amount of time, there is no point in continuing to drill the horse as LTP will still require time to convert the information into long term memories. Letting the horse ‘sleep on it’ is really the best thing you can do, because until the horse has had time to form the new neural connections and possibly strengthen old ones the horse can not perform at a higher level, even if the trainer drills them. In fact, if the trainer continues to drill the horse the horse may become bored or tired which would have the opposite of the desired effect. Not only will the horse be unable to produce a better response but, in addition, the horse may become bored or tired and thus have negative memories of the training. However, if the horse is allow to rest after the trainer has acheived a desirable correct response rate, the horse will be better able to perform the trained behaviour after this time as the new information will be encoded through enhanced connections in brain. Allowing time for latent learning to occur will mean that the horse will be more able to provide the correct response reliably during subsequent training sessions.
For example – You are training a new behaviour, say training your horse to perform a basic turn-on-the-forehand. After 15-20 min your horse is producing turn on the forehand steps on cue 8 or 9 times out of ten. Rather than continuing to drill the horse in turn on the forehand for an hour and maybe getting a 9 out of 10 correct response ratio, not to mention a very fed up horse, it would be best to reward the horse greatly for their correct response and end the session or move on to a different activity. The next day the horse will have consolidated the turn-on-the-forehand cue to long term memory and will be better able to respond correctly and the trainer able to continue refining the movement with out drilling the poor horse. This is the brilliance of the latent learning phenomena!
If you have any questions on anything included in this article feel free to leave a comment and I will get back to you.
Thanks you for reading.