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.
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.
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.
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 play-ers. 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.
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
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.
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 rapidfire 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.
As these “squirrel neurons” boost their firing strength, they also inhibit the strength of irrelevant neurons nearby. The neurons for squirrel gray tell
With her head still, each of a horse’s ears localizes sounds in a 180degree range using 10 independent muscles for movement in every direction. Neurons in conceptual areas are hyped to convey the meaning of a chattering squirrel.