Attention Conflict

Emotive word conflict! And usually we are at pains to avoid it. One of the most frequent conflicts I encounter with horses is loss of attention.

I see this regularly and I see how frustrating it is for horses and humans when communication breaks down.

The same frustration is found in dog trainers when the amazing behaviour in the classroom is unachievable in the field. I see irritation sinking to anger when a dog refuses to obey the whistle or recall. Is it why dog trainers might resort to the electric training collar or horse trainers a whip?

Is attention conflict in animal training a bad thing? Is it really bad?

Honestly I don’t think it is. It is a simple feedback that tells me I am working with a real individual. Not a shutdown introvert afraid to make a choice.

Do I want all the attention on me? Well of course I do. My self-worth relies on it. But let’s get real – attention towards me is earned.

Why shouldn’t we feel deflated by an attention conflict? Any animal allowed to express emotions is doing what comes naturally; being an animal. It comes down to the simple question:

Do you want an insentient horse or an animated horse? Do you want to be with a horse that behaves in a dull, turned off way; everything learned by rote? Or do you want to hang out with a horse that is cheerfully involved with you?

My guess is the latter. If that’s the case you are going to encounter attention conflict. Maybe not every session, maybe not in every context but sometimes, and in some places, you will compete for interest. And on dark days every place and every context in everything you try to work on!
What makes the biggest difference is the way you train through attention conflict. The electric collar, the kick in the ribs for the dogs that, like my Cosette, have a great interest (inherent) in finding pheasants in the woods will lead to a shutdown, withdrawn dog. Horses that are slapped with a whip to get past something scary (or insert any other ‘won’t do’ behaviour known to irritate humans) may comply in the moment but will either shut down or become spookier over time.


Jaak Panksepp’s work on animal emotions (other works on emotions are available and some in direct opposition to Panksepp) describes basic emotions using the following terms, in capitals, that he believes all emerge from our deep seated ancient brain structures (the hard wired stuff of evolution). These are the emotions that we may be in conflict or concord with during our training. I will give some ideas of what these might mean to our animals but these are by no means exhaustive.

These emotion centres can help or hinder our holding of attention. Can we compete with FEAR? This innate (hardwired) emotion is strong; it has helped horses survive as a species for a very long time. LUST is an overwhelmingly strong emotion to counter. SEEKING can literally put the cat amongst the pigeons or, in Cosette’s case, the Cocker amongst the pheasants. Our horses may be more interested in something that activates the SEEKING emotion better than our dull old trotting round in a circle.
But we can influence attention on us by making our own training rewards at least as salient or appealing, if not more so, than the counter emotion. We can add PLAY and SEEKING to our toolkit to make ourselves more attractive to be with. We can avoid adding PANIC, RAGE or FEAR and develop coping strategies for these powerfully negative emotions. We can add CARE in the guise of stroking and scratching; good for our well-being too.

In the case of some emotions, think of SEEKING, it can work for or against us. Offer the chance of SEEKING within your training and you can gain attention and hold it. Offer insignificant rewards in training and you risk losing out to more salient offers (grass, sand to roll in). If you want to make yourself and your training attractive enough to be sought out then you have to work at it.

Emotions such as FEAR or PANIC can flatten progress in a split second but deal with them satisfactorily by working on more positive emotions like CARE, PLAY and SEEKING and they will be triggered less and less. Even setting aside the current scientific debate on what emotions are we can use the basic Panksepp ideas to build better training practices.

How can I hold attention?

I can force it, insist on it, and deliver punishment if I don’t have it. Or I can encourage and nurture it by triggering the best emotional responses.

It comes down to the simple question: do you want an insentient horse or an animated horse?
I suggested that we all wanted the latter but do we? Students often ask me why it was so much easier in the ‘old’ days before they even embarked on the road of awareness in terms of behaviour and ethology. We all want that perfect go anywhere, do anything horse of our dreams. Beach gallops, hunting cross country, winning ribbons. The calm horse that stands still, never moans, never refuses the ill-fitting saddle. Sadly, knowing that it has no voice to be heard; the insentient horse.

And that’s why I don’t see attention conflict as such a bad thing.

Laughing horse

Lead a horse to water

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