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We don't know who we are until we see what we can do.
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Martha Grimes


Noticing our surroundings


When walking with their donkeys or riding their horses and the animal baulks, people say they spooked for no apparent reason or when the horse stops and is watching something they are labelled as just being naughty or deliberately pretending to be distracted to avoid something else.


It is common now that most horse people catch themselves before the words “for no reason” fall from their lips. It has become vogue, whether we believe it or not, to acknowledge there is probably a reason for the unexplained behaviour, but we just can’t see anything big enough or scary enough to justify their extreme reactions. 


Well it occurred to me while sitting in the soft light and gentle warmth of late autumn, taking in the stunning view of a Derbyshire hillside, that the human brain filters out a huge proportion of the information that our eyes and ears actually feed it. In a split second our brain tells us what’s relevant to our survival and what we need to be alert to and what we can safely ignore.


If we humans took in and paid attention to every single stimulus in our environment, we would suffer from a brain overload very quickly. However, if you are a flight animal and you rely on running away to survive there is a need to pay much more attention to the stimuli around you. 


So here is an exercise that I am playing around in my head, if you sit on what appears to be a quiet hillside/road/anywhere where there is a view and then begin to just sit and listen and watch the number of things that catch your attention over a three or four minute period. Don’t generalise to birds, animals or traffic as the human brain is apt to do, individually label everything you see and hear.  I saw, a couple of swallows moving and my attention was brought to a cow moving in a distant field and a lorry moving along a road in the distance and then there are 7 blackbirds landing in the field in front of me, the twinkling of a piece of mirror or glass or a bale in a field reflecting in the sun, sounds of a bird in the distance, sound of a car, the sound and movement of a bee close to me, sounds of the movement of the grass in the wind, a tractor driving across a field, a crow landing in a field, another car, an irritating fly, the distant movement of a car on a road with the sunlight catching the windows, another swallow flying past, two more swallows catching insects, cows trotting across the field to meet the tractor, two or three more insects, a bumble bee, the noise of the tractor in the distance, a lorry on the road, motorbike overtaking the lorry. 


By doing this exercise what suddenly becomes evident is there is a huge amount of stimuli which we filter out and that any equine would be taking in and experiencing.  While we generalise and our brains filter out and very quickly make sense of most of what we see, for the donkey or horse perhaps only seeing things for the first time or experiencing things as distant movement they need to observe in order to make sense of and classify. This explains why equines sometimes need more time to look at things than we do and certainly why they need more exposure to their general environment than perhaps we humans do, even on what appears to be a perfectly still, calm, windless, sunny morning there are literally hundreds of movements and sounds occurring all around us, any one of which could be the catalyst for the “he spooked for no reason” moment.


There is one more fact that affects our ability to see and hear, and that is the noise in our heads that constantly demands our attention or the sound of our own voices which drowns out some much of the world around us. When we humans slow down to the pace of equines, become quiet and open our eyes and ears to perceive their world, we suddenly understand more about their world. Try it and see how easy it is to be distracted.


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