horses can divide their attention
We know our horses ask for our help—research groups in Japan and Italy have both confirmed it. But another Italian research team is studying how horses “talk” to us or try to get our attention, and they say it’s all revealed in a simple flick of the ear.

“Horses are fully capable of dividing their attention, and we see that in the way they use their ears, which shows their focus,” said Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher in the University of Pisa Department of Veterinary Sciences.

“They have a wide lateral visual field and ears that are able to move more than 180 degrees around,” he said. “So they can maintain their focus on the relevant stimulus (like a bucket of food) and at the same time move their ears, alternating from food to human, probably if they’re hoping to get that human’s assistance.”

In other words, horses can, figuratively, “keep one eye on the apple and one eye on us”—and that divided attention is clear in the way they turn their ears in different directions.

“Horses don’t need to move their entire head toward us to try to get our attention, as previous research has suggested,” Baragli said. “And they don’t necessarily just focus on one thing at a time.”

Baragli and colleagues put 30 horses from three separate riding schools in three simple tests. They placed a table in front of a stall door with a stall guard and asked two people to stand on each side of it—sort of like the two humans and the horse were gathered at the table. For each horse, one human was familiar to him and the other wasn’t.

In each test, the humans stood still at the table, staring at each other and completely ignoring the horse. A third person would place an apple or carrot on the table and moved out of the horse’s sight as quickly as possible after dropping off the food. The researchers videoed and evaluated the horses’ reactions to:

  • Test 1: Nothing on the table.
  • Test 2: An apple or carrot on the table within the horses’ reach.
  • Test 3: An apple or carrot on the table out of the horse’s reach.

In the third case, Baragali said the horse would “try to get the humans’ attention” by flicking an ear towards one or the other, without taking his primary focus off the food. His head would stay positioned towards the food with one ear directed towards it, but he would move a second ear towards one or the other standing human.

To be sure that the horse wasn’t flicking their ears for another reason—out of frustration of not getting the carrot, for example—the researchers ran the tests again with another group of 18 horses, but with no humans at the table. In those tests, the horses didn’t turn their ears towards the sides, and they didn’t show signs of dividing their attention, the researchers said.

Some researchers in the past have suggested that horses can only focus their attention on one thing at a time—essentially that they’re incapable of multitasking. But Baragli disagrees with those suggestions and believes his study supports his opinion.

“Divided attention is a widely study topic, in both humans and animals,” said Baragli. “We know that many species are capable of divided attention. So why should horses be any different?”

In horses, specifically, their evolutionary development and their facial features make them particularly capable—and dependent upon—divided attention. “If horses are not capable of focusing their attention on different cues from the environment, why do they have such wide visual field?” he continued. “My opinion is that as prey animals, they need to focus simultaneously on what they’re eating and on other cues around them. Multitasking is essential to their survival.”

The study, “Could the Visual Differential Attention Be a Referential Gesture? A Study on Horses (Equus caballus) on the Impossible Task Paradigm,” was published in Animals.