My loyal readers know that I don’t believe in “making” horses do anything. I don’t even believe it’s possible to “make” horses do anything (and neither do others, as evidenced by the famous saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”).
So why am I talking about making your horse pay attention? Simply because it would sound a little strange if I talked about how to persuade your horse to pay attention…or encourage your horse to pay attention. Those phrases sound too half-hearted for such a serious endeavor. And they miss the point — that paying attention is non-negotiable.
If you have horses that are unfocused or easily distracted…or more concerned with their own welfare than yours…or convinced that their agenda is more important than anything you might come up with…or who tune you out when they decide they feel like listening to a different kind of music than whatever it is you’re playing, read on. I have some ideas that might help you.
Unfortunately, as usual, the onus is on you. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. Are you paying attention to your horse (I mean really paying attention)? If you want your horse to pay attention to you, you have to pay attention to your horse. If you want your horse to stay focused on you, you have to stay focused on your horse. Admittedly, this can be a challenge. Especially when you want to chat in the barn aisle or text your BFF. Well, too bad. You have work to do. And if you want to get the job done, you have to make sacrifices.
2. Are you boring your horse? I know this is a hard question to answer because the answer can be hard to swallow. We consider ourselves — or at least many of us do — smarter than our horses. And while that may be true (in many instances, I know it for a fact to be false), intelligence does not equal interest. It’s easy to be smart and boring at the same time. I went to Yale; I should know.
Even if you think you might be boring your horse only on the rarest of occasions, think of how much more focused your horse might be on you if your interactions were really interesting. For example, if you never repeated the same geometric pattern twice during your schooling session. Or if you did something fun that you don’t often do, like jumping or galloping or doing groundwork or clicker training or bodywork or riding bareback or playing mounted games or agility or working equitation.
Nothing pleases a horse more than routine (unless it’s eating grass). So routine is great if all you’re interested in is pleasing your horse. Altering routine is great if you want your horse to please you (it also teaches patience and flexibility and adaptability). To be successful and not stressed-out while altering routine, it helps to be able to answer the next question in the affirmative:
3. Are you a confident leader? Leaders inspire, so followers want to follow them. A leader is not a dictator who forces compliance. It’s common to see more dictatorship than leadership in the horse world, probably because horses are so much larger than we are and that makes us afraid. Fear really kicks in when we think about the harm an unfocused thousand-pound animal could wreak on us.
Out of this fear arises the popular “alpha” models of horse management, the home of such cherished concepts as “come to Jesus moments.” Regrettably, this school of management churns out zoned-out zombie horses with dead eyes, who have exchanged their initiative and generosity for obedience. But even when it’s not so bad, it’s just as fake, when horses look in the right direction but lack interest, comply but don’t engage, and move their bodies in response to your aids, but never with enthusiasm or brilliance.
4. Do you trust yourself and have faith in your horse? Just as people need to know you believe in them if they’re going to give their best, so do horses. When you’re working with horses, it’s important to trust yourself and trust your horse and trust the process. If you find that difficult, you can just act as if. Act with calm and quiet self-assurance and leave the bravado for the pitchmen. With practice, you’ll find that trust (and the quiet confidence that comes with it) will become part of you.
Whatever you do, don’t ask your horse to make decisions for you. Don’t beg or plead with your horse and don’t take no for an answer. Just maintain your boundaries, be firm and loving, and communicate your expectations clearly.
5. Are you needy? I know that as a young girl, I was desperate for the love and safety I felt around horses — love and safety that was missing from my life away from the barn. I was needy then, and I’m sure the horses knew it, but most horses have a soft spot in their hearts for children, and take care of them.
As adults, we’re in a different boat (or saddle). In my experience, at least, horses don’t particularly enjoy being around needy adults. Sometimes, needy adults solve the problem by becoming human treat dispensers, asking nothing of their horses except to be kind enough to eat out of their hands. Which horses are happy to do. And if you’ve asked nothing of a horse before giving that treat, that horse is likely to be a lot more focused on the treat than on you.
So don’t make a negative contract with your horse — “I’ll give you treats if you act like you love me.” Your horse will certainly love the treats. Your horse probably already loves you and would love you even without the treats. But does your horse care if he pleases you? Or have you taught him to be more interested in how you’re pleasing him? Which brings me to…
6. What are your expectations? You should know what you expect of your horse. And then set a standard of excellence. You’ll work to achieve it and expect your horse to do the same.
If you want to make your horse pay attention, you’ve got to keep raising the bar. It doesn’t have to big things. It can be little things. In fact, it should be little things. Beudant said, “Ask for much, be content with little and reward often” but sometimes asking for much is no more than asking for lots of little things. Ask for a little flexion while you’re leading. Ask for a little patience while you’re at the halt. Ask for a little more collection or a little more extension. Or even just a little more space for yourself.
You’ll know you’ve got it right when your horse keeps his or her eye on you when you’re together, who is responsive to your requests (while waiting to hear what your next request will be), and who appears as enraptured with you as a boyfriend ready to pop the question.
After a while, your bond will be strong enough that you’ll know you’re connected even when it’s not as visible. You’ll both feel the connection and your horse will be a full participant in your partnership.
“who appears as enraptured with you as a boyfriend ready to pop the question.”
Funny. I was just asking a friend to help me explain in a non-anthropomorphic way why after two days out of town (only one full day in which I didn’t see him) my horse was absolutely glued to me. He still did the near but not touching, letting me initiate physical contact, but as soon as I walked in his stall he put his head down blocking me so when I stepped forward the front of his face was against me and eyes covered so he couldn’t see, then he followed me trying to keep his nose near me as I moved around him. I think the fact he tends to put his head where contact is an invitation and I can cover his eyes if I choose to cuddle is an expression of trust of my role in the herd, especially as he does it when something has scared him recently.
I refer to my horse as ADHD because he doesn’t tend to focus much on anything naturally, and when I got him focus was very difficult! Now, though, from the time I ask him to start working until the time I dismount or give him permission to look at something he generally has a laser focus on me. Our rides can be 15 minutes or well over an hour and it doesn’t matter, he focuses on me without fight or force. It was definitely a continuum and he had to learn it, but I think your advice is great for explaining how we got there. A professional may have gotten there sooner, but at least some professionals probably would have made it a forced submission where bystanders wouldn’t see the joy radiating from him that happens when he gets something really right, or simply enjoys moving.
Thanks so much for your comment Net and for sharing your experiences again with me and with my readers. You’re not one of my students, but clearly on the same path — the one as you say, “without fight or force” but with joy.
Sally Walker said:
After a horrible accident which was no fault of my horse I have found it difficult to ‘let go’ and trust him and to be a good strong leader for him – but its coming. Reading the 6 point plan has helped me focus again and really think about how I need to ‘be’ around my horse. He is careful of me on the ground, when I’m grooming him he turns his head and touches me with his nose. He is so gentle. After reading this post, today I rode him and I really thought about how I could support him when he was unsure by being strong and positive in a gentle way, showing him I would care for him when we were out and he need not worry. I thinking of how I work with him in the school – expecting him to focus when Im thinking of other things – shopping, work, what shall we have for tea! instead of treating it as our time to work together – so much to do! but better to have our thoughts ‘jogged’ so that we think about how we can do our best than carrying on in the same way.
Hi Sally — Thank you so much for sharing your experience here. I know how hard it is to trust again and regain confidence after an accident — and so do so many of my readers. It takes time. The silver lining is that our fearful and protective “fight or flight” responses, which often become automatic after an accident, can help us empathize with our horses, for whom these responses are the most natural thing in the world.
I’m sure that as you work on being the partner you wish to be to your horse, that you will continue to gain in confidence, and the trials of the past will be events you can say you overcame.
Another thing that horses have to teach us — the ability to be present in the moment. So you’re right to leave worries and obligations and teatime in the tack room (unless you want to share a biscuit with your horse after he does something you ask), and try to be fully present with your horse when you’re together.
I’d love it (and I’m sure would my other readers) if you checked in again and let us know how things are progressing!