top of page
  • crissimcdonald

Your Horse Isn’t Distracted

jI7mn5O6RKa9YLI5nH8IDQ_thumb_4403



After learning about the horse’s brain at a recent seminar and getting to hold a horse brain, I felt a thrill much like roller coasters must be thrilling for some people.  



The seminar, given by Dr. Steve Peters (author of “Evidence-Based Horsemanship”), covered a lot of ground. Here’s what I’m chewing on this month:

Your horse isn’t distracted and your horse doesn’t have ADD.

What your horse does have is a highly responsive and very fast system of answering his constant question, “Am I safe?”  You might say that horses have a built-in radar system that makes ours look like holding a wet finger up to the wind to hear if there’s a bear snoring in their sleep in a cave over on the next mountain range. 

When horses detect something that they think might endanger their lives, the response takes what is called the low road. For example, the sight of a wildly flapping flag goes from the environment through the eyes, to the thalamus in the brain and directly into the amygdala (the center for fight or flight). This process takes milliseconds. As horse people, we know a lot can happen in those milliseconds.

To put that in perspective, the average reaction time for a visual stimulus in humans is 250 milliseconds and 170 milliseconds for an auditory stimulus. Horse’s auditory reaction time is 140-160 milliseconds, and their visual reaction time is 180-200 milliseconds.

Whether you look at the numbers in seconds or thousands of seconds, horses respond more quickly to their environment than us.

Building an understanding with the horse then becomes a process of encouraging their curiosity instead of fear. Curiosity allows and fosters learning. Any time a horse fears for his life he not learning. Until their question of safety is answered our horse will continue to use every sense he has to figure out whether to stay or leave. Whether to relax or flee.

If we keep things relatively quiet and provide clear guidance about what we’re looking for, the horse will come back. When we do our best to answer the horse’s primary question, “Am I safe,” it leaves them able to switch over to their natural curiosity and learn more, and more efficiently. 


IMG_6661

Rocky and Crissi, 2008


Horses constantly monitor everything that is going on around them. They can’t turn it off and on like we do with our selective seeing. (Click here for a demo of inattentional blindness)

It has occurred to me that the only time they are fully “paying attention” is when they are on the verge of fleeing. We’ve all seen our horse zero in on something before deciding to quickly leave.  What we call “paying attention” may, in fact, be completely different (and troublesome) for our horses.

To me, so much of horse training appears narcissistic: we want both their eyes, we want their head turned in our direction, we want all of their attention, we want all of their bodies to be at our beck and call.

I’m discovering that being with horses gets a lot easier if we share, instead of hijacking and demanding. I also realize that I’ve never been comfortable insisting on all of a horse’s attention.

So when a horse looks off into the distance, or can’t seem to “focus,” it’s never bothered me. I never really understood what the ruckus of “having their attention” was about. Until I learned about their internal radar recently, I probably wasn’t bothered because I did the same thing myself: when overwhelmed and unable to escape, I looked away and went somewhere else.

Many of us who have been preyed upon by other humans have a particular set of experiences and ways of viewing the world that allow us to viscerally understand the horse’s primal need for safety. I’ve spent my life evaluating every situation I find myself in, where the exits are, who is around me, and how I would escape. Or fight. All of this is almost subconscious.

“Horses need safety to learn. We want our horses in a state of relaxed alertness.” Dr. Stephen Peters

For me, accepting the horse for who they are means we continue to learn about them instead of relying on hearsay. Accepting our horse, and his finely tuned sensory movement talented brain means we find ways of working with him that encourage that feeling of safety. 

This doesn’t mean we do nothing when we are with our horse, but what it does mean is that education/training with a horse goes a lot more smoothly if we are educated too. If we understand the basic mechanics of what makes a horse tick, we are far less likely to get frustrated or take it out on our horse.

Instead of saying our horse is “distracted” we could see what horses do as gathering information. Or seeking comfort. Or both. The best-case scenario is that our horse transfers that feeling of safety to include us and that the relationship we have with them meets their need for safety, most of the time. 

Because if we can help the horse feel safe, that means that we are all safer. If our horses feel safe with us the chances of accidents, misunderstandings and miscommunication get lower.

Beyond all this science though, I also think it feels pretty great to help a worried horse transform into a relaxed horse.

IMG_7612

Comments (111)

Misafir
18 Ağu 2023

Thank you! I found this with my little mare. As I can´t ride anymore and she isn´t a horse happy to just stand around, she is ridden by others. Now I hear she is good in avoiding to work. When I say, no, she isn´t, probably they just didn´t give the right cues, all I get is blank stare, Seems that the idea, that a horse is always following the cues of the rider is not widley known....

Ursula,

Like

Cynthia McCormack
Cynthia McCormack
14 Tem 2023

So very beautifully said!! 💜

Like

Misafir
10 Tem 2023

So true!

Like

sandy
09 Tem 2023

I am reading Untethered Soul by Michael Singer for the second time. ( I considered it to be “ my bible” ten years ago after making a major life change). your beautiful poem is like having dessert after I just finished the last chapter! Crissi you are so beautiful from the inside out. 🙏💖

Like

Misafir
06 Tem 2023

I love this! I would also love to know more about Top. We have a 16 year old QH, whose previous job was a ranch horse, dragging calves, etc. We tease that his first answer is always a definitive "NO". He's coming closer to yes being his answer of choice for most things, but it's taken a long dang time.

Like

Misafir
03 Tem 2023

Such beautiful and thoughtful words. I shared with friends and they were equally taken with your poetry.

Like

Misafir
03 Tem 2023

Love Love Love this..... Thank you!

Like

Misafir
01 Tem 2023

So beautiful, so true . A perfect poem and a,great way of thinking about things. Thank you so much for sharing Crissi.

Like
crissimcdonald
Admin
02 Tem 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Thank you very much!

Like

Misafir
01 Tem 2023

Sweet and poignant. Thank you, Crissi.

Like
crissimcdonald
Admin
02 Tem 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

You're welcome. Thanks for taking the time to watch it. :)

Like

Misafir
01 Tem 2023

Well said! Thank you for sharing in the moment.

Like
crissimcdonald
Admin
02 Tem 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Thank you!

Like
bottom of page