The extent to which a horse can keep its attention at work has an important effect on its learning ability. French behavioral researchers have now developed a reliable attention test that helps buyers and breeders determine a horse’s ability to hold its attention.
The test is quick and easy to perform. It can accurately predict how much a horse has potential to learn and perform well, said Céline Rochais, MSc, PhD, of the department of animal and human ethology at the University of Rennes, France. Rochais presented her work last year during the French Horse Research Day in Paris.
“Our method enables us to determine traits in horses in a simple, non-invasive way. It can be used in a variety of contexts, such as determining the level of attention in horses and then predicting to what extent these horses can keep their attention on the job and how well they will perform, ”said Rochais. “By using this tool, people can find a suitable horse for their purpose and choose suitable training methods that suit the horse’s attention span, thus increasing the animal’s well-being.
Rochais and her colleagues calculated the attention levels of 12 broodmares with a simple laser light test. The horses saw a laser light in their stable for 5 minutes every day for two or three days. The light moved in different patterns. The researchers recorded a number of attention parameters including: how long it took the horse to see the light the first time, how often the horse paid attention to it, how long it kept the attention, how concentrated the attention was and the total time it spent kept attention. The researchers assessed the horse’s attention by the focus of the eyes and movement of the ears towards the laser light.
They found different patterns in attention: “general” attention (when the horse only stares at the stimulus) and “fixed” attention (to what extent the eyes and ears were fixed on the stimulus, or where they pointed to). The researchers saw short series of attention with the same length of time, which suggests that there is a “temporary species-specific pattern”. In other words: the specific series of attention they saw can be unique for each individual horse.
Individual attention characteristics remained stable in the longer term (after six months) and in different situations (different attention tests). It also seemed to be related to the horse’s learning ability. For example, an experienced horse trainer taught the broodmares to lung on a lunge line for the first time. Rochais said that the more attention series a mare had (as the test showed), the more attentive she was during lung training.
“All of these results indicate that attention can be an interesting criterion in selecting an animal and that the level of attention can be crucial to a horse’s performance during work,” said Rochais.
In a previous study, Rochais and colleagues found that poor welfare animals, such as horses with chronic back pain, have a different attention span or are in a depression-like state. The team also learned that horses displaying stereotyped behaviors have poorer learning ability, which for some researchers could be linked to a possible decrease in attention. The horses can be so focused on performing their stereotypical behavior in the stable that they do not respond to environmental stimuli or are tired, so that they are unable to keep their attention at work. The researchers concluded that there is a need to develop a rapid, standardized test to better investigate these aspects.