Why Horses Don’t Multi-task

Imagine what it means to have senses as keen as a prey animal. Feel the roar of nature even on a still morning. The scent in the air during the spring mating and birthing season for all mammals. The blustering storms stirring up musty leaves and revealing death and new growth. The jangle and hum of the environment that goes on below human radar are critical events, yet when a horse is standing quietly, we assume he is dozing off or spacing out. 

Perhaps you’re multitasking while you think the horse is doing nothing. You might be grooming his tail and adjusting your boots and looking around for your hoof pick and saying hello to someone passing and thinking about errands that need to be done and what you might cook for dinner. Add to that the usual stray mixed emotions attached to each passing thought. Then include that strange combination of love and fear we feel about horses if we’re honest.

How often we think the horse is distracted when in fact, the horse is focused on our mixed body language? We talk about flooding horses with aggressive training approaches but is it possible to flood a horse into shutting down with something less than a whip?

Start at a simple thing like a hug. Humans are capable of simultaneously giving and receiving a hug. It’s done effortlessly as a shared experience without a question. Horses are not capable of the same multi-tasking. Horses can consciously receive input or give a response to input, but they cannot do both simultaneously. They focus on one thing at a time.

Say you walk up to a horse and he reaches his muzzle out to sniff you. He can’t see his muzzle because of the position of his eyes but his whiskers transmit messages to his brain with such clarity that they are nearly visual, so he sniffs to “see” you. It’s curiosity. He isn’t trying to bond, he isn’t forging a partnership. Those are complex cognitive functions. He’s just sniffing but if we reach out and pet his nose in response, he will stop investigating. Did we mean to hush him?

What does this inability to give and receive input at the same time mean when building a partnership with a horse? We might give a horse a cue and if we don’t get an answer immediately, we cue again. We want to help so we interrupt the horse with another cue before he can answer the last, each time the cue a bit louder. It isn’t mean or abusive, it’s impatience. We chatter on, so busy asking for what we want but not waiting for an answer. Soon we’ve flooded the horse with cues and contradictions.

Say you cue a trot. Now it’s the horse’s turn to give a response so he checks his balance to prepare for the transition but before he can go, he’s gotten a second kick in the ribs. He’s been interrupted mid-effort, corrected for trying, and now a third cue louder yet. He’s lost confidence, is too anxious to try, and braces his ribs instead. Some horses will shut down and we think he’s dead to the aids when he has been overwhelmed by them. Others will get tense and spooky, overwhelmed to a boil. It’s easy to flood a horse by just not giving him time to answer. The more we push and cue and repeat, even kindly, the more confused the horse becomes. It’s too much input.

Now, filled with anxiety, the horse tries to communicate his anxiety. He starts with small calming signals, but if the rider’s in a rant of cueing, she can’t listen. His anxiety creates tension in his poll, so the rider pulls the inside rein. Then his flight response gets triggered and maybe he braces in a stronger counter bend, so the rider pulls harder. It started out as a simple trot cue, but it’s degenerated into a bar fight about something else. The rider gave a flurry of contradictory cues, her legs say go and her hands say stop. The rider is rapid-fire multi-tasking, she’s lost focus on the original trot cue and the horse literally can’t get a response in edgewise. He can’t breathe, he can’t soothe himself, he’s being pushed forward and pulled back simultaneously. His calming signals escalate as the rider’s cues escalate.  

The rider is fighting for control and as always, horses ask just one question. “Am I safe?” 

The rider, frustrated that her horse won’t listen, has a dream in her mind of how this is supposed to look. A dream of a horse and rider moving as one, the horse light and the rider effortless as they transition through the gaits in intricate patterns. A light breeze plays with the horse’s tail and the rider doesn’t have a drop of sweat. To make it all the more beautiful, and worse, the dream-rider is using a neck ring instead of a bridle and her horse has perfect bend. 

SNAP OUT OF IT.

When you see a horse and rider with that kind of sweet dance, know it wasn’t their first ride. A partnership cannot be forced but must be coaxed, one affirmation at a time. Allowing the horse to be curious engages the horse’s mind. Work looks effortless when the horse is given time to respond without interruption or nagging. Knowing that the horse’s confidence was more important than his speed in responding, the rider spends time building the horse up. Corrections destroy trust, so the rider rewarded what she liked, as she looked for another way to ask with peaceful persistence.

In time, we can layer cues successfully, asking for a forward trot first and then adding lateral steps for a fluid leg yield. Or asking for a change of lead at the canter that’s smooth and willing, with no poison ears or loss of rhythm. Horses only dance when they feel safe.

By asking for one simple response at a time, not allowing herself to be distracted or impatient, the rider held herself to the temperament that she wanted her horse to have. She took the time needed because she understood that the horse processes information differently than we do. The horse reads that simple clarity as kindness. Once that foundation is laid, speed and seamless response are effortless. All the “go slow” and “less is more” adages make sense.

Slow can become quick but forced can never become relaxed. For the rider, it was a choice to not be adversarial. For the horse, it was simply his nature to cooperate.

If you feel sorry for the horse’s simple mind and inability to multi-task, researchers now say that multitasking drops human productivity by 40%, and can make tuning out distractions harder, and for some, can actually impair cognitive ability. Does that mean multi-tasking makes humans less trainable?

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

45 thoughts on “Why Horses Don’t Multi-task”

  1. This was one of the most helpful pieces I have ever read about the horse’s perspective. Humans can be arrogant, thinking everyone speaks the same language we do. We even expect them too. Thank you for this insight into the language of another. It will shift my perception and hopefully open more pathways to better communication between and horses and myself.

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  2. Great post as always, Anna, beautifully written. For some time now, I feel like my horse is teaching me more than I am teaching him. Human minds are so busy. Horses model quiet presence, situational awareness, and the gift of immediacy. I’m enjoying my horse more all the time, and riding has actually become secondary these days.

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    • Gotta love the journey that listening to horses takes us on. I’m with you, blissful to chat and muck. Thanks, Kaylene

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    • I must echo this – my horse teaching me than than the other way round…how to be slower, how to be clear, how to ask for one thing at a time. Steep learning curve!

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  3. Yippee… this is precisely what I wanted to read about this morning. Thank you so much, Anna. It appears there is just no end to the ways we can be rude to our horses ! We are so fidgety, restless, nagging, impatient and so on. But isn’t it wonderful that we have large companions who help us learn to be better communicators, if we are willing to learn & change ?

    I still recall an experience many years ago, at the parking-unloading area for horse trailers, going into a state park. I watched a woman unload, tack up her horse, and ride off. There was no tension in the horse, no worry, just peace between the horse and his person. I was thinking, damn, wish I had bought THAT horse instead of the almost unmanageable one I had. Wondering just what kind of horse was that anyway cause I needed one of those. Now these many years later I know how much work she surely had put into that relationship for it to be so harmonious !

    If clarity is kindness, I think you for your kindness is writing in such a clear way that we can understand exactly what you are saying and what we need to do.

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    • Thanks Sarah. I remember so many times of wanting anyone else’s horse but mine. Glad we both got past that time! Thanks, Sarah. Great idea for an essay.

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  4. Great piece! I get so angry when I see people screaming their aids over and over and seeing the panic start to form on the horse, very sad and frustrating..

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  5. Oh, I get it. It’s a lot like the airplane pilot and the air traffic controller. The controller has to wait until the pilot finishes communicating what her plane’s coordinates are (“copy that?”) before speaking; the pilot has to wait until the controller finishes his instructions (“over!”) before responding (“out!”) in order to have a smooth landing.
    I’ve noticed my multi-tasking days are pretty much over, but I’ve gotten PD good at tuning out distractions.
    Horses say Hay, Anna!

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  6. How to think, and then react (or not) correctly and with empathy, to another species, but not just on a superficial level, but on a level much, much deeper, is one of your best ever. Another piece to print, frame, and hang in the tack room for all to read. You are helping the horse world, Anna, one reader at a time and I am so grateful to be included. Some day when I have the money I am going to fly you to VA and hold a clinic and invite all the horse people here. Ok, well I can dream! In the meantime, you have certainly changed my little corner of the world. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

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      • Excellent. I will work to arrange it. Will be in touch about number of folks you like to see at your clinics, facilities needed, etc. As a dressage trainer (“our age”) said to me recently, VA needs a shot in the arm! You’re it! Ha, ha!

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    • I’m all for having a clinic here in Virginia! Let me know if you move forward, I’d love to help. Located in NW VA.

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      • Great! Anna mentioned the Spring, which gives us plenty of time to prepare. I am thinking about holding it at my place in Charlottesville, which is pretty centrally located, but I am open to ideas! Thanks. I would definately appreciate your help.

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  7. Less correction, more direction… just say no to “forcemanship” ;D

    One of the unanticipated benefits of Covid was taking up meditation (in a desperate attempt to keep track of all my marbles.) Biggest lesson (so far) is that multi-tasking is generally the opposite of what I need to be doing lol. And lest I forget, my oh-so-wise horse happily reminds me – by picking my pocket of the cell phone and dropping it on the ground, or pulling headphones out of my ears. He rarely fails to comment on my rudeness lol.

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  8. Thanks so much, so much insight into why my trainer has brought my young talented jumper and me along slowly. My horse usually tells me what he wants and of course what I’m not doing right. I’m pretty good at reading his body language, luckily he’s quite expressive so I generally get the gist of what he wants or needs.

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  9. Hi. I love this article and your continual reminder to slooooww down to get in sync. You mentioned in this article that correction breaks trust. Is that true of all correction ? What about nipping. How do we appropriately communicate a boundary for this kindly to our horse.

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    • Susan, this isn’t an easy question. I don’t know enough and if you want to talk, we can. But no, I will never correct a horse for nipping. Biting is not common behavior; horses don’t normally behave that way. The majority of biters I meet are in pain. It means there have been smaller calming signals missed, or something has happened. Generally, muzzle anxiety can have to do with gastric discomfort, but if it’s around saddling or the mounting block it might be saddle fit. If I am certain he isn’t in pain, then I will ask how he is handled. Do humans crowd him? My rule is that other than haltering/bridling, I don’t stand close enough to be nipped. I consider it his space. I don’t stand in front of his face but rather back by his shoulder. I don’t feed hand treats ever. Again, there are 40 million nerve endings in his muzzle, such a sensitive spot. I know this isn’t how you or I probably started with horses, but I know more now. My guess is that he is trying to tell you something. If you are gently popping him in that area, sorry, chances are it will escalate and neither of you wants that. Again, without seeing him, I am just speaking in general terms. But there is a reason he”s unhappy and I’d rather resolve that than ask him to hide the symptom. Thanks, Susan.

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      • I can’t recall where I came across this, but rubbing a horses muzzle will generally get him to stop being mouthy with you. My mustang Tempe was always doing that, and really, their muzzle is in someway like our hands. It’s how they touch you. Rubbing Tempe’s muzzle does get him to reduce his nibbling so worth a try.

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        • Respectfully, I disagree. I’ve known some hypersensitive horses to respond to a TTouch technique in certain circumstances but it comes from a place of anxiety. I am always looking to release anxiety and that muzzle ask that you talk about, I would compare to humans being tickled. None of us like it, but we laugh, a calming signal… Again, sorry. In my work, I won’t recommend it. His nibbling is a message. I’d rather deal with what he is trying to tell me.

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    • Hi Susan, just to say that I saw a relatively young horse turn and give a very non-aggressive “nip” to the “trainer” who was walking him with a rider up (he nipped her on her sleeve, catching a bit of cloth). She turned, and with an open hand, slapped the side of his muzzle. Hard. I couldn’t believe it. She said to me (I suppose because seeing the look of shock on my face) that he was hungry and just being nasty. His routine was that he came in from the field in the morning and got breakfast before being ridden. I suppose he was letting her know that his routine was interrupted and he was not happy. Instead of slapping him and (in my opinion) doing harm (horses never forget!) perhaps she should have verbally corrected him, and try in future to arrange her schedule so that he could eat before being ridden. That would make for a happier more content horse and therefore a safer and happier one for the rider. Although nipping is never a good thing, sometimes I feel it is the only way a horse can show his negative feelings. My horse did it once (I actually think it was in a playful way with no ill intent on her part) but I gave her a stern NO (in my stern voice!) and it has not happened since. However, I had been feeding her the occasional carrot until I read Anna’s blog about it so I don’t do that anymore! Anyway, just wanted to share that experience.

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      • Horses create two liters of Hydrochloric acid per hour in their stomach. He wasn’t being nasty, he was in pain. His stomach hurts when acid splashes,and many muzzle signals are gastric. I have been nipped that way often. I take it to mean I’m not listening closely enough.

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        • She (a trainer with years of experience) thought he was being just nasty; I thought he was frustrated taken off his feed schedule, and now I know why (physical pain), thank you for that. I hope you talk about some of these basics in your clinics. We should start a list of the most misunderstood behaviors (why they occur and what to do when they do). Nipping would surely be high on it!

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  10. What an excellent post from the horses point of view. Have been binging a few of your posts this evening and they are excellent !

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  11. When you come to Virginia, or Pennsylvania would be even better, please let me know. I would love to come to your clinic. I have a horse who needs you. Actually, I have more than one horse who needs you. In the meantime, I will continue to try to keep learning, and stay patient and kind.

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    • Hi Beth, thanks for following me. Sorry to say I don’t keep a list. I would need to have an infinite grasp of horse facilities and geography and I don’t! I depend on people who are willing to organize to set it up… it isn’t up to me so much as I get invited. I do post my schedule on the website and I put a link on the footer of my blog. I’d love to come to that area, though. Here’s hoping. Thanks for your kind words.

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  12. There’s a kind of magic to your timing with this post for me. Yesterday, in a ‘liberty clinic’ I had a profound experience with April, my Morgan mare. In an exercise called “Find the Herd” April was, supported by the group and its leader, approaching me very very slowly, releasing and trying her best to communicate with me something important. That much was obvious. I waited, simply let myself be present and listen as best I could. My heart heard something very like what you are describing, and it brought me to tears. What I would term a gestalt. There is a lot of grief in letting this information in for someone like me who has a lot of years of this conditioning to shed. I have no idea how long we were there supported by our herd, in silence as she approached inch by inch. This morning I am deeply touched and amazed by the efforts they will go to, to help us understand who they are. And grateful to those of you who are able to help us understand in human language.

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    • Thanks for sharing this Deb. I agree, they try so hard to tell us and we are often just sideways. We want what we want instead. Sometimes I think the most important thing is to be present and acknowledge that we hear. Meaning we shut up, hear, and don’t answer.

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  13. There is so much in this that I need to remind myself of regularly! I think I need it on a t shirt – in fact – that’s an idea. Merchandising Anna?

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