By any chance, is there something else you should be doing just now? I only ask because I should be writing a report on the meeting I had earlier, but instead, I’m writing my blog, because it’s far more interesting!

Another question: did you go for a run today? Did you walk anywhere? How fast did you go? Yes, I’m all about the difficult questions in this week’s blog! This week, I’d like to talk about laziness, because by coincidence, I’ve been in three discussions about it in the last few days. The most recent was this morning’s meeting, where I talked to a very interesting man about motivating a workforce. Although he’s now leading a large international engineering company, one of the first leadership jobs he had was with a well known ladies’ underwear manufacturer. It had recently been acquired by a new owner, and he’d been brought in to see how he could improve the performance of the lazy workforce. Apparently, they did everything with minimal effort, and the new owner was in despair. How was it possible that so many lazy people could be collected in one place?

There’s the first thing – they immediately assumed that laziness was a fixed part of these people’s personality. The man I interviewed decided to try a few new things, and hoped that by introducing a new way of working, he could improve both the quality and quantity of knickers produced (there may also have been bras and pantygirdles involved, I didn’t enquire too closely!). He chose a group of 10 of the women identified as the least productive, and brought them together to talk to them. He started off by asking them to say a bit about themselves, and he was astonished when each woman in the group described the creative and productive life they had outside of the factory. There were talented amateur artists, people taking part time degrees, musicians who travelled all over the country for gigs, mothers managing large families and a sportswoman on a national team. He realised he had to question his mental idea of these women as lazy, because what the management described as laziness was something that only happened when they came to work. He’d uncovered a massive lack of motivation and stimulation in their work lives. He allowed this group to choose their own hours, their own targets, their own working partners, and allowed them input into the manufacturing processes and new designs. A short time later, he was called to head office in Italy to explain discrepancies in his production figures: they refused to believe that the “lazy” women were now their most productive group.

Have you ever heard a horse described as lazy? Usually, lazy is used when a horse doesn’t move fast enough when we’re riding, or change gaits promptly enough when we ask. Sometimes, they just drag their hooves and look sleepy. Sometimes, they’re actually asleep when we go to collect them to ride, and we have to expend lots of effort persuading them to their feet, and dragging them in to be groomed and tacked up. Sometimes they trip and stumble, and their vets and farriers say it’s because they’re too lazy to pick up their feet. Sometimes, they’re lazy in the arena, but joggy when riding out, sometimes they crawl along like snails when out but are fine in a school.

Now here’s a cool psychology topics my students love: it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea itself is simple, and once you’ve heard it, you find yourself applying it to lots of things in life. Let’s suppose you are a student, sharing a flat with a few other students. You come in one afternoon, and one of your flat mates is slumped in front of the TV, but you notice they’ve cooked themselves a meal and left mess and dirty saucepans and dishes all over the kitchen. “Lazy lump”, you think to yourself. A few days later, you have had the day from hell, lectures and labs back to back from 8.30am til after 5pm, and you worked all the previous night finishing off an assignment. You come in, make the easiest possible dinner, and immediately sit down to eat it in front of the TV. And your flat mate comes in and sighs…

The Fundamental Attribution Error says that when we see another person doing something (especially something of which we disapprove), we tend to say they’re doing that because of their personality. When we do the same thing ourselves, we say it’s because of the situation we’re in. There’s definitely an element of this going on when we call our horse lazy!

I asked earlier if you’d been for a run today? and if so, how fast you ran? I run as exercise, but I am first to admit it can be a bit of a chore. I use lots of little tricks to keep myself running on days when it’s raining, or cold, or I’m a bit tired. When we pull our horse out of their field or stable, tack up and head off, we’re doing something we want to do, but are they? In reality, they may be a bit like the women in the knicker factory: they’re quite happy bimbling around their field, and they don’t show any signs of slacking in terms of grazing, socialising, snoozing, grooming themselves. They just suddenly become rather sluggish when we ask them to do something we want.

Ethologists – who study animal behaviour – measure what an animal does during a typical day. They call this a time budget. The time budget reflects the effort an animal needs to put into getting enough food to have energy to get through the day, plus doing all the other things that are essential to life: walking to the water, grooming to remove parasites, relieve itchiness and maintain their skin and coat. Exploring: finding new and better sources of different kinds of forage and minerals. Interacting with other horses, in order to maintain social links. Finally, they spend time resting, either asleep or “loafing”: standing in little social groups swishing flies off or sniffing each other. You might be surprised to hear that there’s a very delicate balance between taking in energy by eating vs the energy we expend in getting the food. So to make sure this balance is achieved, we (and horses) factor in some “doing nothing” time, when we expend minimal energy. Resting is part of the time and energy budget (humans tend to do things like read blogs and watch TV). Some things horses don’t do much of at all is trotting, cantering, jumping things and galloping. Especially in circles…

What we ask of them are sustained periods of trotting, cantering, jumping things and galloping. Plus going backwards and sideways, and around in circles. They put all that effort into structuring their day so they have the right balance of energy vs resting and socialising time, and we come along and ask them to expend lots of energy, plus we ask them to do a whole range of things they wouldn’t choose to do for as long, as well as things they would generally avoid doing completely. Do they sound a little like the women in the underwear factory? If they don’t drag their feet because they have lazy dispositions (and we know they mostly don’t as they spend up to 18 hours a day walking around, rather more than we do!), there must be another reason. It could be we haven’t given them any reason to act differently, or it could be that something is preventing them from acting differently. The days I’m most likely to skip my regular run are the days after I’ve done a very long run and my muscles are sore: I will look quite normal to you if you see me walking around, but if I start to run, I am sure I will get an ears back grumpy expression!

The managing director of the underwear factory gave his workers a reason to be more productive. He gave them things they valued, that made coming to work something they enjoyed. He could have tried motivating them by penalising them, but he was wise enough to know that this approach results in either avoidance or evasion: they would either leave, to be replaced by someone else who started off well but gradually became “lazy”, or they would find creative ways around his penalties – because all animals, including humans, suddenly become much less lazy when they’re motivated to find a way to avoid a penalty or a punishment. Many people who say their horse is lazy will also say they can motivate them really well by carrying a whip – but that they have to carry it all the time to make sure the horse continues to work, plus they find it’s getting less and less effective and now they’ve had to start using spurs…

Start by working out what your horse wants and values: the list is already there in their time budget. They want food. They want companions. They want security so that they can rest and feel refreshed. They often want to explore. When they’re working for us, they want breaks – as they get fitter, the breaks can be further apart. They want to be motivated not by threats, but by rewards. They want us to recognize that they’re horses: their time budgets and priorities might be different from ours. In fact, they want pretty much exactly what we want when we take on a new job, they want to have a reason to come to work. I’ll just go off and write my report now…


Lazy? Or just being helpful – I can groom parts I can’t otherwise reach when 17hh Jackson is lying sunbathing!


7 thoughts on “Lazybones

  1. Interesting, thanks Dorothy. I think of my horse as lazy, despite him actually being quite responsive and forward going (motivated!), just because his type is always going to go for the low energy option – he will rarely instigate galloping around the field, for example, and instead follows the others with a ‘what on earth is the point in that’ expression on his face. He is never going to be as sharp or as reactive as a ‘hot blooded’ horse. He is programmed to conserve energy. Isn’t that what lazy really means?

    • Wouldn’t you say, though, that energy conservation was a very sensible thing to do, whereas lazy implies that there is a better option you should be pursuing? Mostly, when we say a horse is lazy, we’re reflecting on the fact that they’re not doing what we think they should be doing (and indeed, they’re choosing not to do what we think they should). When we say they’re conserving energy, we’re recognising that they’re taking a sensible approach and not doing unnecessary stuff, a far more positive appraisal!

  2. Lazing in the sunshine…it isn’t necessarily a negative thing! I think that it is still a useful means of describing different horse personalities – basically the opposite of ‘sharp’. I suspect that selective breeding has lead to certain types displaying ‘lazy’ characteristics – living in places with few predators or dangers, but little food, whereas the ‘sharp’ personalities would do better somewhere with predators and dangers, but might use more energy in running away from things! Not saying either is better or worse, it’s just a description. (Actually, ‘lazy’ might be more my cup of tea these days!).

  3. Great Blog! In relation to the Fundamental Attribution Error – I think there’s a general tendency to explain animal behaviour in terms of temperament rather than situation, but that also might depend on the motives of the person doing the explaining. My kitten is rather boisterous and playful, and tends to ‘go for’ stray ankles he might come across on his travels. I was upset when my Dad described him as a ‘bad cat’. But changing the situation can result in changes in behaviour. So if I cover up my ankles, I don’t get bitten! I definitely think one of the dangers of anthropomorphising is in inferring human morality in animal behaviours, and ‘lazy’ is a good example of this.

  4. All I have to say is “wonderful post!” I’d say more, but now you’ve made stop reading/writing about horses and go do other things that are on my have to do list…

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