If your horse doesn’t seem to be catching on when you’re training or teaching him, it could be due to stress. Conversely, if he’s passing with flying colors, it could be caused by exercise!

Both stress and exercise can have an impact on his learning ability due to the release of a variety of neurotransmitters.

A recent study* that explored this phenomenon involved 41 horses that were divided into groups and either assigned to a calm, ridden exercise session, exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable stress, or given a period of inactivity. They were then evaluated on their ability to master a learning task that involved being tapped with a training whip on the hindquarters until they responded by moving sideways.

The researchers expected the exercised horses to demonstrate more learning ability than the others, and this is what occurred. The exercised horses achieved the task in the fewest number of trials as compared to the stressed and inactive horses, whose performances did not differ. The study found that concentrations of cortisol (associated with stress) in the exercised horses’ saliva decreased during learning, whereas the cortisol concentrations of the other groups increased.

The horses with the highest cortisol required the most trials to meet the criterion of the learning task.

In short, exercise prior to learning may enhance a horse’s learning ability, while activities that expose him to uncontrollable stressors causing strong cortisol release may impair learning. The study suggests that these effects may be due to the influence of neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and noradrenaline, on regions of the brain that are responsible for learning.

Next time you want to teach your horse something, a short, stress-free ride before the training session might ensure more success!


*Henshall, C., Randle, H., Francis, N. et al. The effect of stress and exercise on the learning performance of horses. Sci Rep 12, 1918 (2022). s41598-021-03582-4.