Your Horse Isn’t Distracted


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. 

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.





32 responses to “Your Horse Isn’t Distracted”

  1. Thank you for sharing your knowledge , it really has over the past few years helped me communicate with my pony. I am so grateful to you for helping me have the relationship with my boy , that I have today. We both continue to learn

    1. Hi Penny – thank you. I’m happy to hear that this is helpful. 😊

  2. What a wonderful & clear summary. Thank you for putting this together & sharing it.

    1. Thank you Natalie! It took me a couple of weeks to integrate all the new information before I could write about it. 😊 I’m glad it was clear!

  3. Love you input
    Thank you

    1. Thanks, Agnes!

  4. What a wonderful post and how very helpful! The perceptions that horses have amaze me. Respecting those perceptions and feeling with the horse would seem to help bring safety to the relationship and therefore better it. I was sorry I couldn’t get to that event but your entry here is very helpful!

    1. Hi Nancy -those are great insights. 🙂 I appreciate your sharing with me how this landed for you. FYI: there will be a DVD coming out of the whole horse brain seminar. Should be sometime this Fall.

      1. Thank you! I really look forward to that DVD! Wonderful news.

  5. The first time I felt connected to my was 2 years after I had him. I had just got off and was walking him around to ease my aching joints. Then one of the horses knocked something down. It was a loud bang. At that moment with eye like saucers, he looked into mine. Up to this point he would have bolted, He did not. He stared at me asking the question. Are we safe? I smiled and gave him more slack on the lead. It was his choice, go or stay. He stayed. We became my best friend until I lost him to colic. He was 29.

  6. I’m a little confused by the para that states:
    ‘“Milli” means one thousand. Horses are, quite literally, thousands of times faster than we are when responding to their environment.’

    Prior to that it said that ‘the average reaction time for a visual stimulus in humans is 0.25 seconds and a horses visual reaction time is 180-200 milliseconds.

    Isn’t .25 of a second 250 milliseconds? Have I missed something? Would appreciate some clarity around this

    1. Hi Kim – that could very well be! 😉 Math isn’t my strong point. I labored over those two paragraphs because I couldn’t understand those numbers. I’ll ask someone who is proficient in mathmatics to clarify. What I do know, however, is that horses do react more quickly than humans. I got the numbers from two (one human, three equine) different sources but will go back and make sure I’m correct. Thank you for asking!

    2. Hi Kim – I’ve ruminated some more over this. And gone to a couple of seconds to milliseconds websites. Here’s my math reasoning: 250 milliseconds (human) is greater than 180 milliseconds (horse). Or, .25 seconds (human) is longer than .14 seconds (horse). But I’ve also asked my math whiz brother. I’ll let you know if my reasoning isn’t quite right!

      1. Yes 250 mS is quarter of a second. Which ever way you look at it the horse is already there before the rider. A great post, learnt a lot. Ive got lots of time to read about horses at the moment as I had a fall last week from one! For me the key message is: 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. So true!

        1. Thanks Robin! I need all the help I can get when it comes to math. 😉 I hope your fall wasn’t a bad one and you’re riding again soon.

  7. Thank you for sharing I have had some truly wonderful horses that I have really connected with. A horse came into my life and he was going to be my last I thought this time I would pay and have him trained by a natural horseman who had been highly recommended..I went to watch most days liked some of what I saw but some not so happy .when he came home I felt as though I had lost our connection he seemed cross and unsettled. I had my first fall my fault on a hack not paying attention and something spooked him in the undergrowth he came back and licked my arm .then another couple of falls again my fault not listening .I have since found out he has been hand reared will this make a difference he is very loving but when things upset him it’s a split second and he can bolt so now my confidence with him is zero .

    1. Thanks for sharing this Michele – it sounds like a challenging time for both you and your horse. I hope you haven’t been seriously injured. It might be useful to seek someone out to help you. And going more slowly (meaning in your horse’s training) is always a good thing too. Best wishes to you and your horse!

  8. great article, but the difference between horses’ and humans’ response isn’t “thousands of times”: if for humans it’s 0,25 seconds (which means 250 milliseconds) and for horses it’s 200 milliseconds, then the difference is actually very small.

    1. Hi Zezere – thank you for the clarification. I ran the math past my brother (a computer and math guy) and was relieved to find out that the math worked as I thought – horse’s reaction time is indeed faster – but I’ll admit also that math gives me fits! I’m going back in to make an adjustment to my word choice (and words are where my comfort level is).

  9. […] I read an article by Crissi McDonald called Your Horse Isn’t Distracted.  Here are some key […]

  10. Such great insight! I felt such identification with your words.

    1. Hi Peggy 😃 Thank you!

  11. Thanks for sharing Crissi – I have read the book and also have the DVD. I enjoyed both when I first purchased them – now you have sparked my interest a little more, so I guess I’ll have to revisit both. Looking forward to your DVD.


    1. Hi Barbara – our dvd will have the most current info. We are having another horse brain seminar with Dr. Steve Peters next year as well. It’s truly exciting to learn about who the horse is and how their brain works.

  12. I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Dr. Steve Peters this past weekend and coincidently stumbbled on this post this morning. Humbled and embarrassed from a recent fall from my mare because I didn’t let her feel safe when she was clearly telling me she was concerned; his words resonated with me too. The other part I took away from his lecture was the need to WAIT. Trying hard to get my ego out of the equation and really think about what my horse needs.

    1. Good for you Jeanette. Some horse lessons are hard learned, but I’m glad to hear you’re alright and integrating what happened. My husband and I are big fans of Dr. Peters too.

  13. With all due respect, I have a very curious horse and admittedly, I’ve encouraged that rather than hyper focus. We were in a workshop last weekend and he spottted a few minis that were roaming the property. He did not seem afraid, nor like he needed to flee. He just really wanted to see those minis. Once he did, he was back on focus. I’m curious if the better strategy would have been to make him stay on our task? In your opinion. Thanks!

    1. Hi Marlaina -it sounds like you know your horse well, which is truly most of what horsemanship is about; our ability to listen and hear who our horse is. Without having seen the situation, I would say that you handled it perfectly, because this is what your horse told you. He went back to work and wasn’t troubled. Good job!

  14. I do enjoy the manner in which you have framed this particular matter plus it really does supply me personally a lot of fodder for thought. Nevertheless, from just what I have observed, I only trust when the feed-back pack on that individuals stay on point and don’t get started upon a tirade associated with some other news du jour. All the same, thank you for this exceptional point and although I can not necessarily go along with this in totality, I value your point of view.

    1. I appreciate your respectful point of view. 🙂

  15. Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for rookie blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

    1. Hi Adeline. Thank you for writing and letting me know you enjoy the blog. As far as tips, I would find some popular blogs and study what you like about their style. Keep in mind that a blog is usually between 800-1200 words, and you need to nab the reader within the first sentence. Find something you enjoy exploring, and write about it. Most of all, have fun. 🙂

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