Ability of horses to concentrate linked to their occupation, according to a study

picture by Serita Vossen

The activities in which horses are engaged seem closely linked to their ability to concentrate, French researchers have found.

Attention is a central process of cognition and affects the performance of daily tasks. In humans, different types of work require different attentional skills, including in a sports context.

Céline Rochais and her fellow researchers, report in the journal PLOS ONEnoted that attention to humans varies in dogs used for different types of work.

“Whether this variation is due to recruitment of individuals suited to specific types of work or job characteristics remains unclear,” they said.

Rochais teamed up with other researchers from the universities of Rennes and Caen-Normandy to determine whether domestic horses trained for different types of work would also show different attentional characteristics. They also looked at whether other possible factors, such as age, gender and race, had an influence.

For their study, they recruited 62 horses from four sites. One site was a riding school which housed 27 horses, another was a sport horse center with 17 horses (10 show jumping horses and 7 eventing horses), the third was a base for six recreational horses and the fourth was a farm with 12 broodmares.

Horses were housed in individual stalls at the first two sites, while horses at the other two sites spent most of their time in groups on pasture. They were only occasionally kept in stalls for labour, care or delivery.

All horses underwent a visual attention test, performed in their home environment. The five-minute test, conducted in all cases by the same person, assessed each horse’s ability to focus on a 1cm-wide green dot from a laser pointer moved in a circular motion across its gate of stable.

The authors found that individual attentional characteristics in the test were not significantly affected by age, gender, race, or housing conditions. However, they were strongly related to the type of work.

The riding horses showed longer streaks and less fragmented attention than all other horses, including sport horses living in the same conditions.

Interestingly, horses living in the same conditions but trained for either show jumping or eventing showed marked differences in attentional characteristics. Eventing horses were characterized by greater fragmentation of attention compared to show jumping horses.

This attention characteristic was particularly linked to the best performing show jumping horses. It is a trait that has also been identified in elite soccer players.

“Eventing horses, for example, have to deal, at high speed, with many environmental stimuli during the cross-country event (different jumps, approaches, distances) and would be more likely to change their attention and therefore change quickly from the center of attention,” the researchers said.

Both hobby and breeding horses showed what the researchers described as an intermediate attentional profile.

“The observed differences in individual attention by job type revealed in the present study were remarkable because they were tested in a non-work context,” the study team said.

Based on the results, the study team put forward three hypotheses to explain the attentional difference:

  • A possible selection of animals with attention characteristics adapted to the type of work for which they are engaged;
  • A direct impact of training and work on the development of attentional characteristics;
  • An indirect impact of work on attentional characteristics through its influence on the state of well-being of horses.

According to them, although it is impossible at this stage to rule out the hypothesis that riders select animals with the attentional characteristics adapted to particular disciplines, it seems more likely that the observed individual differences may result from factors external.

One explanation is that the different cognitive demands between disciplines were behind the differences seen in horses – as has also been seen in humans and other animals.

The authors specify that they do not have measurements of the state of well-being of the horses in the study, nor of the state of their backs, but the fact that the carousel horses are clearly distinguished from all the other populations tested is interesting.

They showed longer attention spans, longer total attention span, and therefore less fragmentation.

This could, they argue, reflect a higher prevalence of depressive-type horses in this population, as these horses show longer gaze bouts. The visual stimulus could therefore be a source of prolonged interest. “However, show jumping horses, also housed indoors and ridden in dedicated arenas, showed a very different pattern of attention.”

Only further studies could provide the answer, they said.

“Interestingly, here the unridden horses appeared intermediate between these riding horses and the sport horses, with less fragmentation of attention than the latter but more than the riding horses.”

The study team said their results open up new avenues for thinking about the determinants of animal cognition and its plasticity.

The results clearly indicate differences in individual attentional characteristics between populations of horses used for different types of work.

Further studies integrating other aspects such as back health, indicators of well-being and examination of training methods should help improve our understanding of the interrelationship between working conditions and cognition. they stated.

The study team was composed of Rochais, Mathilde Stomp, Mélissa Sébilleau, Mathilde Houdebine, Séverine Henry and Martine Hausberger.

Rochais C, Stomp M, Sébilleau M, Houdebine M, Henry S, Hausberger M (2022) The attentional characteristics of horses differ according to the type of work. PLoS ONE 17(7): e0269974. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0269974

The study, published under a Creative Commons Licensecan be read here.

Michael A. Bynum