No One-Track Minds: Study Suggests Horses Can Divide Their Attention

In a recent study, researchers showed that horses appear fully capable of dividing their attention, and we can see that in the way they use their ears.
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horses can divide their attention
Baragali found that horses try to get humans’ attention by keeping their primary focus and one ear towards an object—an apple or carrot, for example—while movin the other ear towards the person. | Photo: iStock
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

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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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