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Keeping my horse focused

Dear Franklin,

My horse is continuously looking for little things that distract him, then he spooks. His previous owners stopped riding him when he began doing this, so now it has become a way of getting out of work for him. I've had him checked for everything for illnesses to tack fitting properly. Everything has come back normal. So I am beginning to wonder if it is just a matter of keeping his attention on me. This would mean always doing something even when he is getting a break at a walk. Do you know of any exercises that would keep his mind always having to listen for his next cue?

Thank you for all the help you can give us, I realize it is hard because you don't know the horse or exactly how he has been acting. :)

Sincerely, Meghan

Hello Meghan,

Thank you for your question as it gives me an opportunity to speak about a topic that is coming up more and more, especially with competitive riders. It is Equine Competitive Sports Psychology, ECSP for short. I developed this for situations exactly like yours and other problems that can occur in arena and show environments. These same problems can occur when out on the trails as well as you have found out. I have attached an essay I recently wrote on ECSP that I hope you enjoy. Some of what I will mention in this email is in that essay.

First thing to consider is how much of a ‘relationship’ do you have with your horse? Do you only ride the horse or do you play on the ground with it as well? If you only ride, you do not have much of a relationship going at all. Any good bond with a horse is formed first and foremost on the ground playing and dancing with the human as the great dance partner/leader. One sure way to begin to keep a horses attention on you is to show up as his great leader for all action and movement. This means directing all movement consciously and skillfully when on the ground. Movement as simple as leading forward, stopping, backing, changing directions, moving around you, etc., when directed skillfully by a human, will quickly set you up as the good leader for the horse and keep his attention on you. He will constantly follow you with his eyes and head and look for you. So, your good, confident, consistent, conscious and skillful leadership on the ground is the first thing to establish. You will be totally surprised at how much attention the horse will actually put on you when you begin to become the good leader. There is so much more to a horse’s world than the human riding it. Most humans don’t even consider this and totally forget about any relationship with their horse. Thus, they miss a great opportunity to have a strong bond based upon trust and respect. This bond alone will prompt a horse to keep its attention on the human. The human becomes like the herd leader who assists the members of the herd in feeling they will survive, feeling they are safe because of that good leader. Consider the wonderful possibilities for the human and their horse once that leadership is established. They can become like terrific ballroom dancers.

This on-the-ground action can be in a round pen, an arena on a line or in a field, also on a line. A round pen is a great tool, but not essential to have success with these methods. What the essential elements are, are patience, skill, compassion and kindness. Confidence and good timing with rewarding the horse is absolutely necessary as well. Every effort by the horse to comply with a request should be rewarded with an immediate release of all pressure (a few moments of peace and absolute calm), accompanied by a “Good boy” and that’s it. Nothing more is required for the horse to know he has given good effort and is being rewarded for that effort. This ‘winning cycle’ of request, attempts at compliance and immediate reward for the horse is the basis for all good training. It also helps create the habitual behavior of the horse keeping its attention on the human. You want the horse to have this habit of keeping its attention on you. You horse does not have this habit at all. In fact, its habitual behavior is exactly the opposite of what you want. I have no doubt that you are reinforcing this unwanted habit by how you are riding the horse and the fact that you do not have much of a relationship going, if any. Please do not take anything I say as a personal affront. You are not alone. The majorities of humans who have horses only ride them and know little of the mind or psychology of their horse and have no relationship with the animal at all. They ride through ‘making’ the horse do something. They think the horse should always do as they want, like a slave or servant. They cannot understand the concept of dancing with the animal under saddle, much less so on the ground.

You do not have to keep needling the horse to keep its attention on you when you are riding. To allow the transformation of your leadership on the ground to become your leadership when riding requires a few fundamental things. Remember, what is going on for you internally (respiration, adrenalin level, overall calm or level of agitation, tension and stress levels, developed inner peace and calm, abilities to focus in the present moment and attitude) is totally related to what happens outwardly, i.e. your success or failure to achieve your goals with your horse. Getting frustrated and angry will always work against any success with a horse. Getting smart, staying calm and becoming the good leader will always assist in a good outcome.

Having the attitude and desire to always be a good teacher for the horse will help tremendously. Wanting to help the horse to trust it is safe should be your bottom line agenda always. This paradigm is also part of a wonderful attitude. Letting go of your personal agenda and having the well-being of the horse become paramount, helps everything a lot. A good teacher will provide a consequence for unwanted behavior rather than punishment. Punishment creates resentment and anger. The ‘student’ can learn to take responsibility for his actions by the teacher/leader providing an appropriate consequence which helps to create a learning situation. For a horse, a great consequence is movement. All movement is work for a horse. Thus, asking for leg yields, circles, tight bends, etc. is a great way to provide a consequence should a horse’s attention wander. These movements should be schooled and trained into a horse so they become like breathing for horse and rider. Most riders and horses are not proficient at simple leg yields, figure-eight moments, bending movement and the like. These moves need to be practiced over and over in a small area or round pen before they are actually needed in a show or trail environment. Asking for them and receiving compliance from the horse need to be as easy as breathing. Then when needed in a serious circumstance, they can easily be brought forth.

Another aspect of keeping a horses attention on the leader, whether on the ground or in the saddle, is vision. Being able to visualize exactly what you want to happen is very important. Horses think in pictures and not words. Each picture has an emotional content as well. Sort of like a computer file attached to am email. So, if a rider can visualize a calm, focused horse, the chances of that becoming a reality are greatly enhanced. For competitive riders, visualizing a perfectly completed round of jumping will greatly increase the chances of that happening as well. If you keep a vision of a calm, focused horse in your mind, your chances of having that are increased. However, all the other things I am speaking of need to be in place too. It is not one thing that creates success with horses. It is a combination of wonderful attributes that help create higher level functioning and success in other areas of our lives as well.

There is something called ‘active riding’ which I will mention now. You can either be a passenger on your horse or actively lead the dance of riding. This active riding requires very good riding (equestrian) skills. A deep, centered, balanced seat, appropriate use of legs, light hands and good equestrian posture will help assist your success in the saddle.

The active riding part comes into play through the attention and leadership you put towards your horse when riding it. You should never be a passenger. Passengers ride on trains, busses, planes and in cars, unless they are driving the car. One needs to actively ride a bicycle, a motorcycle and drive a car, or they end up in an accident. A horse knows the instant your attention wanders off. This is the case whether you are riding or on the ground with it. If your attention wanders, do not expect the horse to keep its attention on you. You must keep yourself engaged with the horse to keep it engaged with you. Engaging the horse means keeping a calm focus on it. Like a parent with a very young child going to the park. The parent always has some attention on the child. If they don’t, the child can easily wander off and get hurt. It is the same for the horse. Active riding is actively guiding the horse always and not assuming the animal knows anything about where to go, how fast to go there or what will be there when you both arrive. The leader of the dance actively guides his partner all the time and does not assume the partner knows where to go and how fast. He does not force anything as both partners are well educated in the dance. But he does lead every step of this well-known dance. So, both you and your horse need to be well educated in the basics of riding (the dance) and you need to lead every step of the way. This does not mean you should not have a relaxed, easy going dance sometimes. It simply means, pay attention and lead every step energetically as well as physically.

Having intention to go a particular place, even if that place is a few yards away, also assists the horse keeping its attention on the rider. Looking where you want to go helps the horse stay focused on getting there. Knowing what you want helps you have a better chance of getting it. Not knowing what you want works against you receiving it. Intention goes hand-in-hand with having vision.

Having intention to go somewhere in particular helps keep a horse’s attention on the rider and the destination. After you have achieved proficiency in providing a consequence if the horses behavior is other than what you want, having the intention to move forward will greatly assist you doing just that, moving forward. Don’t make a big deal of something that really is not. Most things are only a big deal if we make them so. I ignore a lot of equine behavior that many folks make a big deal of. I am a confident and calm rider and horse handler. Few things rattle me or make me nervous when I am with a horse. This comes from years and years with them. But, unless something is obviously a big issue, don’t make it one. If you can simply move a horse forward no matter what else is going on, you are ahead of the game. If you can move him in a circle, that’s even better. Moving in circles can settle a horse and calm it. Trotting figure eights is a great movement to put a nervous horse to. Practice them in an arena before you need to do it on a trail or in a show.

Anyway, I hope I have provided you with a few things to think about and try. All this comes from many years experience with horses and I know this is sound and useful information. It is also logical and makes perfect sense if you know and understand horses at all. If you love horses, everything here should resonate well with you as it is all about offering the horse our best, our good knowledge, our love, compassion and kindness.

Sincerely, Franklin

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