Ability of horses to focus linked to their occupation, study finds

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Eventing horses share an interesting trait with elite soccer players, researchers find.
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The pursuits in which horses are engaged appear closely linked to their ability to focus, researchers in France have found.

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

Céline Rochais and her fellow researchers, reporting in the journal PLOS ONE, noted that attention towards humans varies in dogs used for different types of work.

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

Rochais joined with other researchers from the universities of Rennes and Caen-Normandie to investigate 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, sex and breed, had an influence.

For their study, they enrolled 62 horses from four sites. One site was a riding school that was home to 27 horses, another was a sport horse hub with 17 horses (10 showjumpers and 7 eventers), the third was a base for six recreational horses, and the fourth was a farm with 12 broodmares.

Horses were housed in individual boxes at the first two sites, while horses at the second two sites spent most of their time in groups in pastures. They were only occasionally kept in stalls for work, care or giving birth.

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

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

Riding school horses showed longer sequences and less fragmented attention than all the other horses, including sport horses living in the same conditions.

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

This attention characteristic was linked, in particular, to the better-performing eventing horses. It is a trait that has also been identified in elite soccer players.

“Eventing horses, for example, have to face, at high speed, many environmental stimuli during the cross-country event (different jumps, approaches, distances) and would be more required to switch their attention and thus to quickly change focus of attention,” the researchers said.

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

“The observed individual differences in attention according to the type of work revealed in the present study were remarkable as they were tested in a non-work-related context,” the study team said.

In view of the results, the study team put forward three hypotheses to explain the attentional difference:

  • A possible selection of animals showing suitable attention characteristics for the type of work for which they are engaged;
  • A direct impact of training and working on the development of attentional characteristics;
  • An indirect impact of work on attentional characteristics through its influence on horses’ welfare state.

They said although it is impossible at this stage to eliminate the hypothesis of riders selecting animals with the attention characteristics suited to particular disciplines, it seems more likely that the individual differences observed may result from external factors.

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

The authors said they did not have measures of the welfare state of the study horses, nor the state of their backs, but the fact that the riding school horses clearly differed from all the other tested populations was interesting.

They showed longer sequences of attention, longer total duration of attention and hence less fragmentation.

This could, they said, reflect a higher prevalence of depressive-like horses in this population, as such horses show longer gazing bouts. The visual stimulus could therefore be a source of prolonged interest. “However, 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 school horses and sport horses, with less fragmentation of attention than the latter but more than the riding school horses.”

The study team said their results open new lines of thought on the determinants of animal cognition and its plasticity.

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

Further studies integrating other aspects such as back health, welfare indicators and looking at training methods should help boost our understanding of the interrelationship between working conditions and cognition, they said.

The study team comprised 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) Horses’ attentional characteristics 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 License, can be read here

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