Getting a horse's attention
Being able to bring your horse's attention to you, or maintain that attention in the face of distractions, is a valuable skill. How this is achieved is a widely discussed topic in the horse world, and I hope to shed some light on the various ways this can be done in the next two blogs.
The first step towards getting your horse’s attention is being able to recognize what appropriate attention looks like. My colleague Dr. Robin Foster has a phrase she uses to help clients picture this: 'Attention without tension'. This simple - yet powerful - phrase is a good one to hold in your mind when training your horse, or while observing others train.
In a previous life, I worked or rode with trainers who gained and held a horse's attention in ways that were more often, 'Attention with tension'. For example, if the horse turned their head to better focus on something off to the side while the trainer was sitting on them, the trainer would wiggle their toes on that side; if the horse's ear didn't promptly flick backwards - THUMP on the shoulder with the stirrup, or the spur. If a horse wouldn't keep two eyes on the trainer while he left the paddock he would gesture towards the horse's hindquarters with a flag - a cue that the horse had previously learned meant an escalation in pressure was coming. If a fidgeting horse being groomed in a barn alleyway, anxious at being separated from others, didn't flick his ears back towards the trainer when he touched the horse's flank, the touch would escalate into a thump, or the trainer would drive the hindquarters around until attention was regained. But while each trainer may have gained the horse's attention in that moment, the horses were tense.
Why a horse's attention might go elsewhere
Horses are sentient beings. They may pay attention to something other than the trainer for any number of reasons - as varied as the reasons one human may lose their attention on another during an interaction. Horses have their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations for behaving in certain ways. Failure to appreciate this can lead to situations where the trainer disregards the horse's experience or perspective during shared interactions, and instead focuses only on their own thoughts, feelings and motivations.
Many people believe that a horse who loses attention is clearly a horse who doesn't respect the person. The owner of a horse who loses attention may be told their leadership is lacking, or that their horse is disrespectful, or trying to dominate them. The recommended solution in these situations is often to do something to regain the horse's attention: disengage the hindquarters, put the horse on a ridden pattern, or move the horse's feet until focus is regained.
One of the most common scenarios where horses lose their attention is in situations that are new, or that are rich with distractions, such as shows, trail rides, vet clinic visits etc. A common factor these experiences share is that they are often anxiety or fear provoking for horses, and therefore stressful. When you consider this, it becomes a little easier to understand why a horse may lose attention in such situations. Horse often aren't properly prepared to cope with new or distracting events. It may then be expected that they have the same level of attention on the person in such situations, as they do in less stressful situations. But this expectation is unreasonable, and can lead to the development of behavior problems. I'm sure most readers can easily put themselves in the horse's shoes here, having experienced an anxiety-inducing situation that made it difficult - if not impossible - to focus on anything else happening during that experience.
Fear and attention
Losing attention is often a result of the horse feeling anxious or fearful. When any animal is anxious or frightened it is extremely difficult for them to focus on anything other than the source of the fear. When imminent or immediate danger is perceived, the brain and body prepare the animal to escape the situation, and thoughts and behavior that facilitate escape become priority number one.
Using unpleasant means to get a horse's attention can result in the desired effect - the horse focusing intently on the trainer - even with anxious or frightened horses. But this only happens because what the trainer is doing is more noteworthy than anything else happening to the horse at that moment. Being noteworthy isn't necessarily good. It simply means that whatever the trainer is doing is more uncomfortable or threatening than that which is distracting the horse. Certainly, there are situations where human and horse safety require getting the horse's immediate attention on the human, necessitating the use of unpleasant means. But these should be special-circumstance exceptions, and not routine training practices.
What we gain, and the price we pay for attention
Training horses is a two-way street of learning. When a trainer's behavior results in the desired outcome, the trainer is more likely to repeat their behavior in the future. Outside observers may see that the trainer's approach gained the desired result, and may mimic it at home with their own horse. But such approaches come at a cost. Using methods a horse finds unpleasant to regain attention can result in the creation of negative associations about the situation where attention was lost. For example, if a trainer uses unpleasant methods to regain the attention of a horse distracted by another horse also being ridden in the arena, the trainer’s horse may start to become anxious and distracted when new horses simply appear outside the arena. From the horse’s perspective, the appearance of other horses predicts unpleasant actions from the trainer. Such training approaches also decrease trust between horse and human, and can lead to the development of other behavior problems, including increased fear or aggression.
Up next: Part Two, how to get and hold your horse's attention
Being able to recognize 'attention without tension' and being able to attain and hold a horse's attention is an important skill to have. In Part Two I'll talk about what 'attention without tension' looks like, and how to teach your horse to give you their attention - using techniques that build trust, and aren't likely to result in the creation of new behavior problems.