It’s probably discouraging to think that, in addition to the abovementioned issues, you also need to factor in your horse’s individual attention span. Because scientists have recently discovered that horses have an ideal period of attention during which you need to get your point across. “It seems that there might be an optimal ‘window of opportunity’ in a horse’s attention span towards humans to learn a task,” says Céline Rochais, MSc, PhD candidate in the equine behaviour department of the University of Rennes, in France.
Rochais and her team conducted studies on 15 horses aged one to two, to examine their response to various aspects of training. The team worked with Konik horses, a fairly primitive breed that has had minimal exposure to humans. The thinking behind this choice was that they would be less influenced by generations of domestication and would provide more purity in their responses.
Using positive reinforcement (a food reward or wither scratch), the horses were taught to respond to a voice command to stand still for about a minute. Over the course of five days, researchers monitored their ability to repeat the task successfully, along with each horse’s attention level to his trainer.
Attention indicators included how long the horses looked at the trainer, their ear direction, and any interactive or agitated behaviour, such as licking or sniffing the trainer, or moving towards or away from him.
Not surprisingly, the more attention the horse paid to the trainer, the faster and more successfully he learned the task. However, the researchers also discovered that too much attention was actually detrimental to training, as the horses appeared to become too dependent on trainers to get their reward. While Rochais believes that this hypothesis needs more research, there seems to be merit in the initial assumptions.
It also appeared that the horses hit their optimal levels of attention around day three, at which point it became clear which of them would do well and which wouldn’t. Rochais noted that food rewards drew better attention than wither-scratching, which probably comes as no surprise, yet even here, some horses showed varying levels of attention, depending on their motivation for food.
Duration of attention span has been another area of research. Using cues to teach horses to touch a specific object in exchange for a reward, scientists at Switzerland’s University of Neuchâtel determined that the average maximum continuous attention span of the horses in their study was 11.8 seconds. After this time, the horse lost focus on the trainer.
When researchers repeated the exercise two weeks later, half the youngsters had forgotten their cues, while most of the older horses retained the training. “With a young horse, we have to do short sessions of training,” notes Véronique Rapin, MSc, who formed part of the team. “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.”
Twelve seconds doesn’t give the rider much time to get the message across, and explains why a schooling session must be a constant balancing act of cues, responses and carefully timed rewards.
The thing to remember is that those bursts of attention are not isolated windows in which to communicate with your horse. Essentially, the idea is to keep the focus on you – if you draw attention and do nothing with it, your horse will focus on something else. Behaviours like spooking, napping and even bucking are often forms of evasion, which indicates attention problems.
Fortunately, attention spans can be developed, and this is where our skill as trainers must come in. If you find it hard to focus on a task yourself, the same will apply to your horse. A schooling session without a purpose is invariably unsuccessful – as a rider, it is necessary for you to have a goal and focus on it yourself. Then the trick is to maintain a steady stream of communication, response and reward that takes full advantage of those ‘attention windows’ and strings them together.
An understanding of your horse in terms of his nature, maturity, motivations, trainability and current level of attention, forms the foundation of your schooling. Ultimately, this knowledge will be developed from the ground and in your relationship with your horse, because every encounter we have with these amazing animals is essentially a schooling session.
Text: Brigitte Billings