Jason explains how to gain your horse’s attention….and keep it!
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. So this blog post is about how to gain your horse’s attention….and keep it!
How long is a horse’s usual/average attention span?
Horses have the ability to focus on one thing and block out everything else. This is part of their survival instinct. If their attention is on something that is worrying them, they will be highly focused and compelled to react in seconds.
If they are calm and interested they can stay focused for longer periods, but they are easily bored, and will start to look for an easier option, or release some energy through some high jinks! 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.
Horses can remain patient for long periods if they are relaxed. For example, when they are standing on the tie. During these periods they are not necessarily focused, but they are simply resting.
Why is it important to hold your horse’s attention?
It is important for your safety. If your horse becomes distracted by something they may be unaware of you momentarily. Gaining, and maintaining your horse’s attention is a key step in gaining trust and respect in all your dealings with your horse. Lastly, your horse does not learn when they are not paying attention, so it is key to progressing with your horse’s training!
What does it signal if you struggle to hold your horse’s attention and focus?
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
- Your horse’s attention threshold i.e. young horses, and certain breeds of horses, tend to have lower thresholds than others
- They may have had a bad experience, and find it hard to settle
- Are they distracted by trivial things, or is it only something out of the ordinary? If it is the former, it can signal a lack of respect for the handler. If it is the latter, it is a normal response that can be rectified by the handler remaining calm, consistent and decisive (CCD) in regaining their attention
What common mistake can lead to us losing our horse’s attention?
I find “nagging” is the biggest cause of horses losing focus. This is when the handler/rider fails to stop giving a cue or “ask” when the horse has responded correctly. This can lead to your horse “switching off” to your cues, or looking elsewhere for answers.
What role does instinct play in your horse losing attention?
Instinct tends to override all training if a horse is very unsure, or spooked. The more Calm, Consistent and Decisive a handler can be when a horse’s instinct kicks in, the better your horse will respond next time. This will lead to a higher level of trust and respect over time.
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.
When riding, you need to return to something they already 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 to redirect energy and re-establish control. Your horse will find it very difficult to resist and/or ignore your aids when doing this exercise. Once he is doing this without resistance, and he feels relaxed, you can start to build back up to his usual training level..
How do you harness your horse’s attention and teach him new things?
If your horse is not paying attention to you in a training session, you will struggle to achieve anything, and your horse will not learn. Warming up is part physical, and part mental. Therefore, when I warm my horse up, I start on the ground, letting them get rid of any excess energy during a basic lunge, with changes of lead (these techniques are all found in the Foundation Groundwork Course in Your Horsemanship online). I then do some simple exercises that we both know to get their attention. I avoid “spooky” areas of the arena or field to start with in order to build confidence and maintain their focus. Once they feel settled and “with me”, I build up their work from there.
To summarise, if you notice your horse isn’t paying attention to you, address that first before you continue with your ridden or handling work. Remember without their attention you are in a vulnerable position with little control, and they will not learn until they are focused, settled and paying attention to your cues.