Your barnmate’s horse is a straight-A student, paying full attention to his rider as he moves around the ring or down a trail. Yours? Well, he pays attention … until he doesn’t. A tree blowing in the breeze, a phone buzzing, or a faint whinny a half a mile away are all much more interesting than you are.

Don’t worry, yours isn’t the only one: Researchers has revealed that horses can, in fact, have varying degrees of “distractibility.” In other words, some horses get more easily distracted than others. This can significantly affect their attention capacities and, hence, their efficiency in learning.

“Some horses will remain concentrated on the task that they’re supposed to be doing, while others get distracted by some noise in their environment,” said Céline Rochais, MSc, PhD, of the animal and human ethology department of the University of Rennes 1, in France.

Rochais and her fellow researchers developed and validated a test to determine how easily individual horses become distracted.

“Our simple experimental and noninvasive test lets us better choose our animals depending on what we want to do with them,” she said. “Obviously a sport horse needs to be attentive to us and his work rather than his environment,” and less-experienced riders could be matched with less-distractible horses for their safety.

Knowing distractibility levels can also allow us to manage it. “Easily distracted horses pay less attention to us,” she said. “But we can make them more attentive, such as by using positive reinforcement (e.g., offering treats as rewards).”

In their study, Rochais and colleagues worked with 12 Anglo-Arabian and French Saddlebred breeding mares, ages 5 to 17. The horses had been raised in identical conditions in a French equine research center.

The team put the mares through four tests in which they evaluated the animals’:

  • Reactions to two brief auditory recordings (a whale call and a whinny from an unfamiliar horse) while in a stall;
  • Reactions to a green laser pointer light projected on the stall wall for five minutes;
  • Ability to learn how to open one of five boxes with a light projected onto it to obtain the food inside; and
  • Attention and learning success in a basic longeing exercise, in which the horses were taught to respond to vocal cues.

They found that the horses’ distractibility in the stall was in line with their distractibility during the two learning tasks, Rochais said. The longer they reacted to the distraction in the stall and the longer they took to go back to what they were doing before it (mainly chewing hay or straw), the less attention they paid in the training sessions.

Age played a significant factor, she said: Younger mares were more easily distracted than older mares.

The distractibility test not only has practical advantages such as choosing the right horse for the right job, Rochais said. It can also be used in further experiments to better understand distractibility differences among horses of different breeds, sexes, ages, disciplines, management conditions, welfare statuses, and more.

The study, “Spontaneous attention-capture by auditory distractors as predictor of distractibility: a study of domestic horses (Equus caballus),” was published in Scientific Reports.