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Don Jessop

Yes, horses can have learning disabilities.

Brains, whether human or not, can be susceptible to trauma and injury which means a horse could suffer injury or traumatic experience and rewire how they see the world and how they remember things day to day. But before you determine if your horse has a learning disorder, you have to first know how horses learn under normal circumstances.

All learning is done in an upward pattern with skill developing gradually over time.

But if you zoom close to the daily experience of learning...

It looks more like this...

There are ups and downs. Lapses in growth so to speak. Recesses in progress. Rest and recovery. Lapses in concentration. Whatever you want to call it. It's not a perfect experience.

Einstein said, "leaning is remembering." It's the ability to capture information on a mind or body level and recall and repeat it. Remembering (learning) takes practice then, it's not always a one and done experience you can expect, except under extreme pressures and circumstances.

Knowing that allows for grace. It's not fair to expect to say something once and have your student remember it forever.

Interestingly, it's the number of repetitions that help determine if there is a learning disability or not. Under normal circumstances, horses need four to seven training sessions on any particular subject before they can manage or recall the information more automatically and with little to no drama. It doesn't mean they are perfect. It just shows they have a beginning of an understanding. It shows they are learning.

I've seen horses learn faster and slower but the average of four to seven sessions is fairly constant. Some factors that speed it up or slow it down is the quality or teaching and the adaptability of the trainer and the tests they give to see if the knowledge is growing. Now... just to be clear... after a horse learns something new, they still need to relearn that same new thing in new environments. They are extremely susceptible to any change in sight, smell, temperature, space, etc. that even small things can make you think they've forgotten their lessons. So once again, be patient and help them get better about what they learn. Don't look at knowledge as binary (either you have it or you don't), look at it as fluid and progressive instead.

To our original point. Some horses do struggle to remember things regardless of the quality of teaching. They do progress, but much slower and need more tender love and care along the way. I have had horses in training that were beaten in their early years for not remembering things. That trauma made learning later in life super hard. Those horses always need more than four to seven sessions to grasp basic concepts. Their ability to learn now is stunted. It's okay with me if they learn slower, I've got all the time in the world. I have to train the new owners to have time too. Time is the key to patience with a horse that's slower to pick things up.

In one extreme case, I worked with a mule named Dan who quite literally forgot the most basic lessons day, after day, after day. It was only months later that he showed signs of remembering his constant lessons. Animals like Dan have genuine learning disabilities. If the environment is safe, if the trainer is kind, effective, and rewarding, if the program is clear and rewards are predetermined at easy, achievable places on the path forward, and the animal still doesn't remember day by day, you have a horse or mule or dog or husband (just playing), with a learning disability.

It's OK! You can still grow with them. You can still help them. Just on a different timeline.

I feel like we are just scratching the surface about learning. They'll be more to come in later posts for sure. But for now, trust that yes, horses can have learning disabilities. Let that knowledge give you some grace if they aren't picking things up as fast as your last horse or your friends horse. Also... don't let that be the reason you stop playing and growing together. Don't let any excuse hold you from being a good leader and learner yourself. We've created resources to help you along the way if you have a horse like this. Tune in. Click the links below. I'll be here for you!

Blessings, see you on the path! Don

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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Don Jessop


Don opened up a community, full of people on the same journey you are!
To share LIVE Q&A's and help people and horses transform Confidence.

Don Jessop


Don shares his  passion for writing with his passion for helping horse owners see the horse and themselves for who they truly are.

Don Jessop


Don believes every horse owner should have access to the Principles of Horsemanship and he shares them freely here.

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