This article lays out some handy tips to get and keep your horse’s attention. If your horse is so distracted that he can’t focus on you, it will be very frustrating and nearly impossible to help him learn or gain any confidence. This is a major topic that needs to be strongly emphasized. Your horse’s ability to pay attention will play a huge role throughout his education. It needs to be one of the very first skills he masters.
Attention Through Groundwork
At our clinics we do around the country, the majority of horses do not arrive with this skill. Their attention is all over the place. As they first come out into the arena on a halter, they are looking left and right, bolting forward, going sideways, and focused on everything except their human. And typically, if a horse is inattentive on the ground, he’s the same way with a rider on his back.
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So, we start the groundwork being very particular about the horse’s attention. If the human is not particular the horse can’t be particular. Any time the horse wants to run past the human or walk off, we disengage the hind end so that he’s facing us again. We teach the horse to respect personal space and stay at a distance. We also do several more exercises to gain control of the horse’s front and hind feet. Anytime the horse’s attention BEGINS to drift, we immediately do something to get it back. We basically become more interesting than any distraction.
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As the horses advance through the groundwork section of the clinic, they begin developing the HABIT of paying attention to the human. They become less spooky. Many of them start to focus and think. They quit being drawn to the other horses or their stall to find security. They begin to look to the human for direction. Their self-preservation instincts lower because the human is clearly letting them know what they need to do. We should never underestimate the powerful value of clear communication.
Attention While Riding Your Horse
From their back, there are also things you can do to develop your horse’s ability to pay attention.
When riding a young or uneducated horse for the first several times outside of a pen, set your hands 2-3 feet apart with an inch or two of slack in the reins. Your hands will be forward, wide, and low. If the horse looks off to the left, he will run into pressure from the right rein, and vice versa. It will encourage him to stay centered.
After only 4-5 rides, even on a colt, they develop the mindframe of looking out ahead of where they are going. They lock on to where they are pointed and simply go there. This also builds unity between the horse and rider. I have an idea to ride to a certain spot. I communicate that idea to the horse and help him stay focused by using good rein management. The horse learns to keep his body and feet between my legs and reins.
Later on, when you come out of neutral to ask him to turn or back up, your horse recognizes that change and begins to determine what he needs to do to get the rider back to neutral.
Become Interesting To Gain Your Horse’s Attention
An inattentive horse will likely be spooky and have magnets that he is drawn to. That magnet may be another horse, the barn, or the arena gate. Our job is to become more interesting than the magnet and help him learn to focus on his human. As this skill develops, the potential spooky distractions become a non-issue.
For example, think about how we feel if we are hanging out with an unfocused or agitated person. They are attempting to communicate with us, but they are unable to stay on topic or they begin to rant and rave. At that point, I would be looking for something else to pay attention to. The person has failed to keep me engaged. So my attention easily goes to the squirrel running across the tree branch instead. I was hoping this person was going to give me some good information and clear instructions, but now I have lost confidence in their ability to do that.
Develop and Refine Attention
In conclusion, there are not 3 magical steps to train a horse to pay attention. Every single interaction we have with our horse develops and refines this skill. Remember that the horse does not automatically know what to do. We have to take on the responsibility of being the type of effective communicator they need to show them the way.
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