Capture your horse’s attention

By understanding your mount’s capacity for vigilance and expanding your own awareness, you can improve your partnership—and your ability to learn together.

Sometimes, it seems, your horse never misses a thing. “Ooh, what’s that?” “Look! A trailer!” “What a pretty mare…” “Hey, the feeed truuuck…”

That’s natural, of course. Horses have survived 55 million years of evolution partly because they attend to their surroundings. The most sensitive herdmates listen, watch and sniff—scouting the environment for any changes. If Big Mama lifts her head and pricks her ears, the others check to see what’s going on. Some pasture buddies follow her gaze and check for themselves; others simply watch her response.

In horses and humans, “paying attention” involves many different cognitive skills and processes.

Brain scientists study attention in species from honeybees to humans. We find that similar processes play a role in the attentional functions of most mammalian brains. These parallels let us speculate regarding the horse, whose powers of attention are hard to test. Go ahead, try coaxing a horse into a pounding brain scanner without sedation. See what I mean?

In horses and humans, “attention” refers to many different skills. Equine brains are engineered for vigilance. They notice new sights and sounds, identify changes, switch focus from one item to another, and evaluate for danger—all at lightning speed. Human brains are much less vigilant, but they’re better at ignoring distractions and concentrating on lengthy tasks.

Because we excel at the types of attention that horses struggle with (and vice versa), the horse-human team has far greater powers of attention than either species has alone. If you understand your mount’s attentional strengths, sharpen your own, and foster mutual communication, the two of you can expand your awareness. And greater awareness toward each other leads to increased learning for both of you.

In this article, we consider how human and equine brains maintain vigilance, alert to warning signals and orient mental capacity toward potential dangers. We apply this knowledge to the task of capturing a horse’s attention so that she can learn with greater ease and mastery. In a second installment, we will examine the ability to ignore distractions, direct attention to safe entities, and concentrate on one task over time. We’ll apply these topics to the challenge of maintaining a horse’s attention once we have captured it.

Inattentional Blindness

Being egocentric creatures, people tend to assume their cognitive powers lie at the top of the heap. Are horses truly more vigilant than we are? Cognitive scientists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris created a short video in which two basketballs were passed among six players. Observers were asked to count the number of times the balls were passed among three of the rapidly moving players. While each observer was counting passes, someone dressed in a gorilla suit walked through the game, standing at the center of the action for five seconds.

A gorilla is impossible to miss, right? It’s novel, unexpected, large and covered in thick, dark fur for goodness’ sake! Yet almost half of the observers never saw it. Amazed, the researchers created a follow-up study in which the man in the gorilla suit pounded on his chest during his five seconds at center stage. Again, half of the observers missed the gorilla. Humans can focus so intently on one aspect of a task that we become blind to more obvious parts of it. Horses? No way.

Simons and another colleague, David Levin, also asked viewers to watch a short video in which two people are chatting over a meal. Details in the video change inexplicably: The scarf one person is wearing suddenly disappears then reappears. The plates on the table change color from red to white. 90 percent of viewers failed to notice these changes. A second set of viewers were warned that the video contained changes in “objects, body position or clothing.” Even with this heads-up, people missed more than 75 percent of the vanishing scarves and chameleon plates.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of inattentional blindness is that people remain confident despite their errors. When asked ahead of time whether they would notice scarves disappearing or plates changing color, 83 percent of people said yes. Yet only 11 percent of these confident viewers actually did.

So, you are likely to miss distractions that are not critical to performance on a focused task. But your horse is not going to miss a gorilla suit! She won’t ignore a sudden change in the color of a jump pole or a fence rail that morphs from white plastic to brown wood. Horses constantly notice small changes that people do not see or hear. And when they do, handlers often complain that the horses are shying “at nothing.”

Taking It In

Attention helps all species sort incoming data. Bombarded by our surroundings, we need to know which items are important and which items are not. A horse’s sensory organs take in copious data and his brain instantly sorts it for danger.

With her head still, each of a horse’s ears localizes sounds in a 180-degree range using 10 independent muscles for movement in every direction. By contrast, human ears have three feeble pulleys so that a few special folks can wiggle their ears as a party trick. Even the wigglers can’t turn an ear. Horses also have the largest eye of any land mammal, viewing a 350-degree range without moving their heads. Our paltry human eyes are eight times smaller, with a range of about 90 degrees. No wonder your horse shies!

As incoming data enters the brain, it is filtered by specialized neurons. Is it food, water, danger? Let it through. Otherwise, block it. Such decisions are unconscious, a function of normal attention rather than premeditated thought. The equine brain must be alert to a warning signal and flee the area tout suite. Mistakes are fine; it’s better to run from moving grasses that harbor no predators than to wait for more information while the lion launches his game of chase-and-pounce.

This bias for mistakes allows equine neurons to be tuned toward very tiny changes in the external world. The equine brain considers every distraction potentially important, while the human brain can afford to miss a few distractions in favor of stronger tuning for concentration.

Neural Tuning

Attention depends on neural tuning, a process that can occur most anywhere in the brain with the help of natural chemicals cooked up using recipes written in our genes. Various aspects of attention are mediated by dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, cortisol and nicotine. Yes, you read that right—your brain and your horse’s brain make nicotine, just like the kind found in tobacco. They use it to mediate vigilance.

Suppose you and Star are out on a mountain trail. It’s narrow, wooded and rocky, flanked by a vertical fall on one side and an inclining cliff on the other. You are both vigilant, paying close attention to the trail. Natural nicotine is coursing through your brain, and—because she’s a horse and has greater vigilance—even more so through hers. This nicotine turbocharges the firing potential of neurons that represent items of danger.

Suddenly in the tense silence, a gray squirrel chatters. Dopamine floods several areas of Star’s brain and your own, flipping switches that alert you to peril. Neurons that are sensitive to dopamine boost their firing rate. Shots of norepinephrine and cortisol prepare your bodies to run. Acetylcholine orients your brains to switch focus to a particular location, but here the reactions diverge: Star shies away from that location because her brain has a direct connection to cells that cause rapid movement, but your brain has to slog through a bunch of cognitive quicksand before action is initiated.

In this moment, neurons in areas devoted to perceptual information tune themselves for precision. Those that represent gray restrict their vigil to the shade seen in most gray squirrels. Brain cells sensitive to other colors remain snoring on the couch. Brain cells for shape limit their firing patterns to curved tails and bulging eyes. Auditory cells are primed for the rapid-fire sound of squirrel chatter. Neurons in conceptual areas are hyped to convey the meaning of a chattering squirrel. All of these highly specialized networks become excited, seeking very precise information and firing much harder and faster than normal when they find it.

The equine brain is wired to notice minutia of change, while ours is wired to notice similarities and patterns.

As these “squirrel neurons” boost their firing strength, they also inhibit the strength of irrelevant neurons nearby. The neurons for squirrel gray tell the neurons for battleship gray to mind their own business. Those for a fluffy tail tell the cells for a short-haired tail to stand down. Imagine a group of 20 co-workers being silenced by an over-excited bully: “You all be quiet because I have something important to say!” If the message is likely to prevent death, in a real or evolutionary sense, everyone will listen.

From the instant of squirrel chatter to the instant of squirrel recognition, Star’s nicotined brain and your own have been dopamined for an alert, norepinephrined and cortisoled for action, acetylcholined for the location of danger, neurally tuned to precision levels, and suppressed for irrelevant noise. All of that happens in one to two seconds.

Now, if you and Star haven’t fallen down the cliff, your prefrontal cortex will begin to quell your fears: “Oh, it was only a squirrel. I’m OK, Star’s fine, let’s go on.” (Alternatively, your brain—if it’s like mine—might say, “Holy crap, let’s go home!” Either way, it is allowing you to make an informed decision.)

Star’s brain has no prefrontal cortex; it’s made for action, not thought. She needs to borrow your prefrontal cortex for a minute, soaking up composure through your ability to make a decision, steady your mind and relax your muscles.

The upside of equine attention is that horses notice most things that are different, unusual or unfamiliar. Their brains are designed to pick up the minutiae of change. Ours are designed to categorize objects by similarity instead of difference. The downside is that the horse’s attention is easily diverted and anatomically joined to an instant reflex. Training a distracted horse whose fear is linked to thoughtless action is almost impossible. So, to teach our horses how we want them to behave, our first goal is to capture their attention.

The Busybody

Equine attention varies from one horse to the next. The Busybody is usually nervous, looking in all directions except the path ahead. Her eyes and ears are in perpetual motion, her head raises suddenly and turns often, her muscles stiffen and her pace changes frequently. Like a texting teenager walking into a light post, she’s likely to stumble because she is so distracted. Watch for these signs, noticing where the horse’s focus is located, so you can distinguish equine attention from distraction.

Our goal with the Busybody is to reduce her vigilance. We also want to redirect her alerting and orienting reactions from the external world to the handler—that’s you! Because these equine reactions are innate, the Busybody demands time, effort and patience. Work slowly and calmly, making progress in small steps. Her brain needs a lot of practice to alter its distribution of natural chemicals, especially the stress hormones norepinephrine and cortisol.

Start by placing the Busybody in a location that creates only a small amount of distraction. Ask for brief moments of attention during groundwork with just a halter and lead. Is she pivoting around like a cha-cha dancer? Lead her at a walk rather than trying to make her stand still. When her attention moves to an external event or object, bump the halter back toward you and keep walking. This touch is a brief reminder, not a pull or a punishment. Tap repeatedly if necessary. When the horse turns her attention to you, reward her with a stroke.

As the Busybody becomes less distracted at a walk, ask her to stand for a few seconds, stroking her while she remains attentive to you. Over time, teach her to walk forward or backward, halt, turn right or left, with just a light touch-and-release on the lead. Move up to busier locations that offer more distraction. Devote no more than 15 minutes a day to attentional exercise until your horse redirects her mind to you when you ask. We’re not asking for sustained attention yet; just brief redirections.

Under saddle, the Busybody’s eyes, ears and head will be oriented to all sorts of external events. Pay no attention to them. Take one rein lightly in each hand at a walk. When your horse’s engagement flits away, redirect it by touching the rein opposite the direction of her interest. If the horse ignores you, bump again—a little stronger—and release, like you did with the halter. No luck? Turn her head away from temptation and circle. The distracted horse will bumble around the circle without balance, stumbling over her feet, eventually agreeing with you that she needs to pay better attention. As she improves, practice at different gaits.

If your horse is not responding, try these tips. First, in any training program, you can always return to the previous step: groundwork, a slower gait, a quieter location. Second, use a round pen to limit distractions. Round pens with high, solid sides reduce a horse’s view, but even an open fence has some psychological effect. Keep your horse calm; the object is not to run him in scary circles with sliding stops and half spins. Third, speak a word or two to the distracted horse while bumping the halter or rein. Voice is especially effective if you don’t often speak to your horse under saddle—the surprise will likely divert her attention. Reward when you get her attention.

Caution: Busybodies can be very nervous, with instant reactions and agile bodies. When a leaf rustles in the wrong place, they can jump in your lap. Such horses often need professional training and advanced riders, at least for the first few years of their education. With any horse, you might need qualified help. Hire a reputable trainer, if only for short-term work on specific topics. Lessons are cheaper than hospital bills and a lot more fun than bed rest.

The Daydreamer

The Daydreamer plods along devoting little awareness to the outer world. She is especially disinterested in your riding aids—legs, hands, seat, weight distribution—and would prefer a long snooze. She takes a passive approach when something captures her interest, bending toward the arena gate, slowing as she passes her barn, leaning toward a bite of grass.

For a horse who “daydreams” and tunes out aids, the goal is to capture his attention without causing fear.

With this type of horse, our goal is to stimulate attention without causing fear. One way to attract her attention is to ask her to move forward rapidly. If this expectation surprises her, so much the better.

Begin off lead in a round pen, or lead the horse in hand. Ask her to walk. Praise immediately if she steps out like she’s headed to the treat aisle at the tack store. But if she lags, tap her hindquarters with a longe whip. Teach her that “walk” means WALK: a fast four-beat gait with shoulders and hips reaching forward, head bobbing in time. The Grandma Walk is not acceptable. Practice rapid walking, trotting, turning, stopping and backing in the round pen and in hand. Encourage the horse to realize that something new is happening—we are no longer lounging in the recliner.

Under saddle, the Daydreamer usually needs more activity from the legs than the hands. So instead of touching a rein to redirect her outward attention, bump or tap her forward with your legs. Provide clear clues and insist that she obey them right away. Follow up with a touch from the spur or crop if needed. Whenever you get her momentary attention, reward the horse with a kind word, a stroke on the neck or a brief rest.

Another technique for pulling attention from a Daydreamer is to place her in a busy setting. When nearby events attract her attention, use the techniques described for the Busybody, gently bumping the rein opposite her attraction. Often it’s easier to redirect a horse’s attention from an external attraction than to dig it out from within her internal world.

Caution: In the early stages of capturing a Daydreamer’s attention, artificial aids (crops, whips or spurs) must sometimes be used. These aids require skill and should be used as humane extensions of your hands and legs, not as tools of punishment. Avoid the horse’s desensitization to these aids by using them firmly but not often.

As you teach moments of attention, your Busybody will become less distracted and your Daydreamer will wake up. They are learning that when the two of you work together, you devote your attention to each other. This discovery will be the foundation for teaching your horse to focus on you at greater length. So, head out to the barn and practice capturing your horse’s interest! Coming next: We’ll tune her neurons for concentration and lengthen her attention span. 

This article was originally published in EQUUS 491

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