How well a horse pays attention has a significant effect on his ability to learn. Now, French behavior scientists have developed a reliable attention test that will help buyers and breeders determine each horse’s unique attention ability.
The test, which is quick and easy to carry out, is an accurate predictor of a horse’s potential to learn and to perform well, said Céline Rochais, MSc, PhD, of the animal and human ethology department of the University of Rennes 1, in France. Rochais presented her work last year at the French Equine Research Day, in Paris.
“Our methodology enables us to identify attentional characteristics in horses in a simple, noninvasive way that can be used in different contexts, so as to characterize the attention of a large number of horses … and predict to a certain extent the attention and performance of those horses at work,” Rochais said. “The use of this tool will allow people to select the right horses for their needs, choose appropriate training strategies adapted to the horse’s attention span, and thereby improve the value of the animal.”
Rochais and her fellow researchers evaluated 12 broodmares’ attention levels through a simple laser-light test. For five minutes a day for two or three days, the horses were shown a laser light on their stall door that moved around in various designs. The researchers recorded numerous attention parameters, including how long it took for the horse to notice the light the first time, the number of times the horse paid attention, how long it paid attention each time, how concentrated its attention was, and the total time spent paying attention. The researchers judged a horse’s attention primarily based on its eye focus and ear movement toward the laser light.
They found different patterns of attention—“overall” attention, when the horse merely gazed at the stimulus, and “fixed” attention, characterized by how fixed the visual and auditory organs were toward the stimulus, or where the horse’s eyes and ears were directed. The scientists observed short attention sequences, noting consistent lengths of time, which suggests a “species-specific temporal pattern”—in other words, the specific time patterns of attention they saw could be unique to individual horses.
The attention characteristics differed between the first test day and the following days, Rochais said. “The first test day might measure another attentional individual characteristic (e.g., visual exploration) from the testing on the following days, which revealed a high intra-individual stability in attention structure (i.e., number of sequences),” she told The Horse.
Individual attention characteristics remained stable over the long term (after six months) and across situations (in another attention test), she added. They also appeared to be related to the horses’ learning abilities.
An experienced horse person taught the broodmares, for example, to longe on a longe line for the first time. Rochais said the more attention sequences a mare had, the more attentive she was during the longing task.
“All these results indicate that attention can be an interesting criteria in the selection of an animal and that attention level could be crucial for the performance of a horse at work,” Rochais said
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