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

French scientists recently completed a study that showed that paying too little–or too much–attention to a trainer can hinder a horse’s learning ability.
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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

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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