Scientists in Switzerland recently conducted a study hoping to quantify the equine attention span. They taught the horses in the study to touch an object after specific cues were sounded, and the animals were given a reward for a positive response. If the horse touched the object before the cue was given, they did not receive a reward, meaning they had to wait. The time between the cues was extended during the experiment phase to measure how long the horses retained their focus.
Researchers found that the average maximum attention span of horses is 11.8 seconds. The study also found a significant difference in the ability of young horses (3 to 7) and older horses (8 to 14) to hold their attention and retain information. An 11.8 second attention span is extremely short. To put this into perspective, the average amount of time that a two year old human child is able to concentrate on a particular task is about 6 minutes.
To the untrained eye watching a finished horse it may appear that the handler has continuous attention. In a sense this is true but not in the way you might think. He appears focused on the person directing, never drifting or wandering. This level of concentration comes from the trainer or rider directing every stride. Constantly giving the horse something to do. Lack of attention is especially common in younger horses. It is virtually impossible to expect to complete an entire training session with a two year old without having his mind wander at least once.
So what can we do? How do we fix the problem of a horse that seems to take interest in everything but us. Well, there is some good news. Horses are not just easily distracted they are also easily fascinated.
When teaching a new horse to heed, I pay very close attention to the body language of the horse. When turning him out in a round pen I follow behind from a distance. At this point the horse is free to do as he chooses to an extent. He can run and play he can roll on the ground kick invisible monsters... whatever he wants. At some point he will either stop and look at me or walk over to say hello if for no other reason than to see why I keep following him around. Now I have his attention, but this is just the beginning. Getting a horse to acknowledge you is easy, keeping a horse waiting for your request is a bit more difficult.
Horses only pay attention to one thing at a time so if his ears perk forward to see a dog rustling the bushes you've already lost him. If he bends down to smell a pile of manure... guess what? That pile is more interesting than you are. The trick is to keep your horse attentive with constant redirection. I don't mean frantic chasing him with a whip or changing direction every lap around the pen. Depending on the level of sensitivity it can be as subtle as tapping the palm of your hand on your thigh or making a little shh shh sound. The sound or movement is not as important as learning how much pressure is enough to get them back without loosing the relaxation. His inside ear should be either flicking toward you and then forward or staying on you, if it isn't then hes already somewhere else. Whether your training your horse or riding him you have to have a plan. I don't mean you have to plan each ride or session in advance (although many trainers do) I simply mean as your riding or working a horse on the ground be planning the next step as your going along.
When things start to go wrong in a training session, it's usually because the trainer had a lapse of attention. They took their attention off the horse so the horse's attention wandered, too. Or the handler was not clear enough about the shape he wanted the horse to take. If you leave a horse to decide where he wants to go and what he wants to do, chances are its not going to be what you would have chosen for him.
If you expect attention from your horse you need to learn to be in the Now. Horses are here right now, they are not worried about how they did yesterday or if they will be ready for the show tomorrow. The "now" is only today, only this second, this movement, this breath, now,now,and now. Are you with your horse? Does your mind drift while you work him? Are you thinking about an argument that you had earlier or whats for dinner later. It makes more difference than you might think.
I have seen the following scenario many times. Jane takes Trigger out of his stall and begins to tack him up. Susie stops with her horse and begins talking to Jill. Entrenched in conversation they fail to notice the body language of the horse growing increasingly impatient awaiting his next command. He begins to shuffle his feet, bob his head. Then he begins moving off to the side and still no direction. Then all the sudden they are taken by surprise when Trigger reaches over and takes a big bite out of Jill's shoulder. Then comes the shank "What's wrong with you?!" You know better than that! Is that a laps of obedience? Yes, but it's a lapse of obedience because the trainer let the horse's attention wander. Now you storm of the round pen to get this horse to work, you've lost the relaxation and your temper and have probably convinced yourself that your horse is in a foul mood.
Fixing problems before they start only happens when the handler is aware of the horses attempt to communicate. Nothing happens out of the blue. Horses don't just decide to misbehave without warning. If your paying attention you will feel the tension before the spook, you will see the change before the action. The second your focus fades so will theirs. It is hard work to stretch that 11.8 seconds into a productive 30 minute work session. There is no such thing as a disobedience if you're not telling the horse what he should do.
With horses you get what you give. Quiet concentration and relaxed focus are the first steps to producing great work. When you watch great horse and rider partnerships everything appears seamless. There is no visible cue, no tension and no resistance. There is only silent anticipation. If you ask your horse to focus on you every time you handle him, and you always give him the reward he is due, he will find pleasure in being with you and will want to be attentive to you.
The next time you go out to work your horse give this a try. Leave your troubles at the barn door and talk to Susie before you greet your horse. Dedicate one session to your horse alone. No distractions, no cell phones, no ipod, no thinking about work. Just you and your horse. Pay attention to his reactions, to his sounds, to his body language. Pay attention to him in the way you desire his attention. I guarantee you will notice a difference. I promise you will learn something new. With horses you get what you give. Are you giving enough?