Calculating the Equine Attention Span

Using operant conditioning, scientists have quantified horses' attention spans, and they have drawn some conclusions that could help horse trainers and owners better understand their charges and how they learn.

The researchers at Switzerland's Université de Neuchâtel, with collaborators at Swizerland's Haras National d'Avenches and at France's Université de Rennes, taught the horses in the study to touch an object after specific cues were sounded, and the animals were given a reward for a positive response. If the horse touched the object before the cue was given, they did not receive a reward, meaning they had to wait. The time between the audible cues was extended during the experiment phase to measure how long the horses retained their focus.

Researchers found that the average maximum continuous attention span of the horses in the study was 11.8 seconds.

Through statistical analysis, the researchers found that the horses' age groups had the greatest impact on the duration of their attention spans. Breed, gender, and family links had no discernible influence.

The young (3- to 7-years old), intermediate (8- to 14-years-old), and old (15- to 23-years-old) horses showed significant differences when asked to repeat the tests three weeks later.

"Comparing the two tests, none of the young horses improved its performance while more than half of them decreased their performance," said Véronique Rapin, MS. "Most of the old horses showed no difference, although some individuals tended to increase slightly."

Rapin said the results of this study can provide useful guidelines for training and repetition, particularly for young horses.

"With a young horse we have to do short sessions of training," Rapin noted. "It's the same as with young children--it is better, for example, to spend five minutes with a new learning task, take a short break or do a known exercise, and then do the new exercise again."

Rapin said immediate positive reinforcement for desired behavior is also important.

"You have to recompense a lot immediately at the first good new response." Rapin said. "The recompense can simply be a short break or a word. It's better to do two good minutes of an exercise, and that the horse associates this. We also have to remember that the attention span is very individual to each horse."

This study was published in the February 2007 issue of Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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