I recently helped a client with her horse who had the equine equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder! The challenges she faced and that I helped her to overcome are faced at some stage by most horse owners (well, probably all if I’m totally honest!). So this weeks blog post is about how to gain your horse’s attention….and keep it!
So how long is a horses attention span?..
Amazingly horses have the ability to focus on one thing and block out everything else. We’ve all seen our horses grow a few inches and stare into the distance completely focused on a dot on the horizon. Unfortunately for us he moments when they are a their most focused is often when they are worried. If their attention is on something that is worrying them they will be highly focused, compelled to react in seconds. If they are calm and interested they can stay focused for longer periods but we are talking minutes before they can become bored or look for an easier option or want to release some energy. Generally the younger a horse the shorter the attention span. Attention span is also affected by the way the handler or rider is with their horse.
It is interesting to note that horses can be be patient for long periods if they are relaxed, during these periods they are not necessarily focused, they are simply resting!
So why is it important to hold your horse’s attention?
It is important for safety. If your horse becomes distracted by something they may be unaware of you momentarily. Remember that horse staring into the distance, growing a few hands higher and you on the end of the line trying to get through to them…it can be a scary place! Another key factor as a trainer is your horse can not learn when they are not paying attention.
You struggle to hold your horses attention, what does this mean?
There can be a number of reasons for lack of focus:
* The horse does not see you as important or a leader worthy of their attention
* Something other than you is of more concern to them
* They may not understand what you want of them and become frustrated and look elsewhere
* Where your horses attention threshold is, i.e. they are young or easily distracted
* They may have had a bad experience and are on the look out all the time
Are they distracted by trivial things or is it only something out of the ordinary? If it is the former it signals an unsure handler, if it is the latter it is a normal response which will be rectified by being calm consistent and decisive (CCD) about regaining their attention
What can cause you to lose his focus? What role does instinct play?
I find “nagging” is the biggest cause of horses losing focus because their handler/rider is failing to stop giving a cue or “ask” when the horse reacts correctly.
Instinct over rides all training if they are unsure. This is true for both horse and rider. The more calm, consistent and decisive (CCD) a handler is when a horses instinct kicks in the better your horse will respond next time and this will lead to a higher level of trust and respect.
If you lose your horse’s focus, what can you do to regain it?
On the ground I use energy to regain his attention and get him to face me. The amount of energy required to do this differs from horse to horse. When done correctly your horse will move their back legs more than their front. I only do this if a horse acts on their thoughts and moves past me, away from me or over me. To see examples of this please look on my training website Your Horsemanship:
When riding, you need to work on something they know. The bigger the loss of attention the more basic you make it. The first and most basic aid is to move the hind end using one rein redirecting energy. Your horse will find it very difficult to resist and/or ignore your aids when doing this exercise. Once he can do this easily and feels relaxed you can start to build back up to his usual training level. Again for examples of this refer to my training site to watch videos.
How can you improve his attention span?
Repetition and being CCD as a handler or rider.
How do you harness your horse’s attention and teach him new things?
As with human athletes, warming up is part physical and mostly mental. If your horse is not paying attention to you in a lesson you will struggle to achieve anything and your horse will not learn. Do some simple things, things that you both know first to get their attention then build from there. I often start off with lots of changes of direction and transitions but when you ask them to go forwards ensure you allowing them to move. The key is to ride with purpose.
To summarise, if you notice your horse isn’t paying attention to you, address that first before you move on with your ridden or handling work. Remember without their attention you are in a vulnerable position with little control which is unsafe and that they will not learn until they are focused, settled and paying attention to your cues.