Does a Horse's Attention Span Help or Hinder his Training?

Does a Horse's Attention Span Help or Hinder his Training?

For the most part, the more attention the horse paid to the trainer, the faster he learned the task and the more successfully he completed the tests.

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Do you ever feel like your horse has ADD (attention deficit disorder)? Or maybe “AED” (attention excess disorder)? Either way, he might not be learning optimally as a result of this lack of or excess attention to the task at hand: French scientists recently completed a study that showed that paying too little—or too much—attention to a trainer can cause a horse to be a poor learner.

“It seems that there might be an optimal ‘window of opportunity’ in a horse’s attention span towards humans in order to learn a task,” said Céline Rochais, MSc, PhD candidate in the equine behavior department of the University of Rennes, in France.

As part of an ongoing study on animal attention toward humans, Rochais and colleagues studied 15 Konik horses as they were taught a simple task using positive reinforcement (either a food reward or wither-scratching). Konik horses are primitive-type equids raised in Poland with little human contact; observing these horses allowed the researchers to reduce the influence of multiple-generations of domestication.

The research team taught the young Konik study horses (aged 1 to 2 years) to stand still by voice command for up to 60 seconds. The team recorded the horses’ learning progress over the five-day training program, as well as their ability to successfully repeat the task by the program's end. The team evaluated the horses' attention levels toward their trainers—how long they watched them, how long they gazed at them (fixed stare), how they directed their ears, and what kinds of interactive or agitated behaviors (such as licking or sniffing the trainer, or moving toward or away from the trainer) they showed.

The team found a distinct relationship between the type of reinforcement and the level of attention, Rochais said. But equally important, they found a relationship between attention level and training success: For the most part, the more attention the horse paid to the trainer, the faster he learned the task and the more successfully he completed the tests. Horses that were slow to learn or didn’t learn at all were usually the ones that didn’t pay much attention to the trainers.

However, their results also showed that poor performance could be related to excessive attention to the trainers, she added: When the horses showed too much attention, their performance levels dropped. In a previous study, Clemence Lesimple, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Rennes showed that these overly attentive horses might have become dependent upon humans to obtain resources and “passive” and, hence, poorer learners, but that hypothesis needs more research, Rochais said.

Furthermore, the researchers found that a horse's attention trend—not enough, too much, or just the right amount—was usually established by Day 3 of training, Rochais said. The first day of training was not very indicative of how things would turn out, but by Day 3 it became obvious which horses would do well and which would not, she said.

Generally speaking, the horses paid better attention to their trainers when rewarded with carrots than with wither-scratching, Rochais said. But even among these horses, the attention level varied slightly—possibly because of the horses’ motivation for food.

The study, "Visual attention, an indicator of human-animal relationships? A study of domestic horses (Equus caballus)," was published in Frontiers in Psychology

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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