Updated: Jul 16
Getting a Horse's Attention
notice taken of someone or something
Being able to bring your horse's attention to you, or maintain that attention in the face of distractions, is a valuable skill to train. How this might be achieved is a widely discussed topic in the horse world. I hope to shed some light on the various ways this can be done in the next two blogs. Here is Part One.
'Effectiveness is not enough'
As a clinical animal behaviourist, I understand that how we train horses is more important than what we train. It isn't enough to just achieve training goals: we should do so using reinforcement-based training techniques, in ways that minimize causing horses to feel fear, anxiety, and stress during training. Training that causes horses to feel fear, anxiety, and stress damages the bond between horse and human and carries a risk of creating behaviour problems.
The first step towards getting a horse’s attention is being able to recognize what appropriate attention looks like. My colleague Dr Robin Foster has a phrase she uses to describe 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. For the purposes of this blog, it conjures up an image of a horse showing attention towards the person, particularly when cued by the person, without exhibiting any signs of tension while doing so.
In a previous life, I worked for 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 look at something while the trainer was sitting on them, the trainer would wiggle their toes on that side; if the horse didn't promptly turn their head back - THUMP on the shoulder with the stirrup or the spur. If a horse wouldn't keep looking at the trainer when cued to do so as he left the paddock, the trainer would drive the horse's hindquarters around with a flag until he the horse kept both eyes on him. If a fidgeting horse, being groomed while alone in a barn alleyway, didn't flick her 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. While each trainer gained the horse's attention using these techniques, these horses were tense: attention with tension.
Losing a horse's attention
Horses are sentient beings. They have their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations for behaving in the ways they do. Horses may pay attention to something other than the trainer for any number of reasons - as varied as the reasons people may lose their attention during shared interactions with others. Failure to appreciate this can lead to situations where the trainer disregards the horse's experience or perspective during shared interactions, resulting in anger or frustration when a horse's attention shifts elsewhere.
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 attention - or 'respect' - is regained.
One of the most common scenarios where horses lose attention is in situations that are new, or rich with distractions, such as shows, trail rides, or vet clinic visits. Besides perhaps being anxiety or fear-provoking locations in themselves, horses frequently aren't purposely and progressively trained to give or maintain their attention in such environments. Just like we humans also need to train to remain focused on a task in the face of distractions, so do horses.
When the trainer doesn't understand this need to purposely train for such situations, their expectations of the horse will be unrealistic: expecting the horse to offer the same level of attention as they do in less busy or stressful situations.
Fear and attention
Losing attention is often a result of the horse feeling anxious or fearful. When a horse is anxious or frightened it is extremely difficult for them to focus on anything other than the perceived stressor. This is because when the horse feels a situation is stressful or dangerous, their sympathetic nervous system is automatically triggered. This 'fight or flight' system prepares the horse to escape the situation if need be, by whatever means possible.
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 good in this context. It simply means that whatever the trainer is doing is more uncomfortable or threatening than that which is already causing the horse to feel anxiety or fear. Certainly, there are situations where human and horse safety require getting the horse's immediate attention on the human, necessitating the use of more unpleasant means (usually in the form of escalating pressure). 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 behaviour results in the desired outcome, the trainer is more likely to repeat this behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour problems.