The Attentive Horse

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By Perry Wood

You could be the world’s greatest rider, but if the horse isn’t listening to you, you won’t get very far at all. The importance of having the horse’s attention is often underestimated and is something worth addressing above everything else.

The reasons for horses being inattentive are perfectly natural: horses are interested in their surroundings, because their survival as a prey animal depends on knowing what dangers may be around the next corner. Also, being sociable herd animals, horses are naturally keen to focus on other horses rather than focus on their rider.

Horses don’t really want to focus on the environment in preference to focusing their attention on their rider, they would far sooner the rider be the leader and take responsibility for the safety of the horse and themselves. But if the rider is not up to the job of being the leader, the horse will find himself with no option but to take responsibility, be alert to the surroundings and therefore not pay attention to the rider.

The nice thing about an attentive horse is that he will relax, the aids can become lighter and he shies and spooks less.

How to get the horse’s attention

Ask the horse to look to the inside of the arena or bend his head in the direction of travel using a simple request with the inside rein (use a slightly open rein, i.e. an inch or two away from the horse’s neck). As soon as the horse responds by following a feel on the rein, relax the aid. Repeat as many times as necessary. Do this whether you are riding or leading from the ground.

If the request to bend to the inside doesn’t work or he won’t follow the feel of your direct rein aid to look away from whatever he is distracted by, make a small circle (6m or 8m in walk, slightly larger in trot) in the oppositedirection to the source of his interest. This will inevitably lead him to bend in your desired direction. Repeat as necessary. It is much better to be intelligent than to fight about where he is looking.

Shift the horse’s focus by finding something absorbing and interesting for him to do, e.g. constant changes of direction or transitions up and down.

Work in an area of the arena where he feels safer and is less distracted. It pays to work within the horse’s comfort zone, improve the quality of the conversation between you, increase his relaxation and his responses to the aids and then expand the working area to include more ‘distracting’ areas.

Stay incredibly attuned to your horse and keep his focus with you before it goes; that means noticing the very moment his mind begins to wander, rather than waiting until his focus has gone altogether.

Get in the habit of asking for the horse’s attention all the time whilst leading him, that way he will find it easier to understand the rules: when you’re around he has to stay attentive to you.

When riding, feel the relaxation of the bit in his jaw as he carries it contentedly and attentively. When his mind starts to wander, the first thing you may feel is one side of his jaw becoming a little tighter on the bit. A gentle and momentary play with the fingers inside the contact on the tightened side can help keep him in a state of relaxed attention.

Likewise, you may feel the horse go a little solid against your leg on one side as his attention starts to wander (usually the opposite side to the direction in which he is planning to gaze at the horizon), so a gentlereminder with that leg or a light little touch of the stick can bring his attention back to you and away from the distraction.”

About Perry Wood

Perry Wood is an internationally recognized horseman, with many years experience training horses and people. His approach is one of empathy and understanding towards the horse. Perry is the author of 7 published equestrian books.  

Thank you publishers J.A. Allen for allowing us to share “The Attentive Horse” from Dressage the Light Way, Perry’s latest book available athttp://www.allenbooks.co.uk/.

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