As this is my first post on this site, I thought I would begin at the beginning by talking about the first thing I establish any time I work with a horse. This is so important and the source of so many problems that I will doubtless come back to it in future, but I’ll start by talking about it here.
You have to have the horse’s attention.
When I am working with a horse I want to be able to work with their thought, to get them focussed on what I am asking them for so they are able to do it. If they are busy looking out into the distance, trying to see what their buddies are up to in the field or otherwise zoning me out then I’m simply not going to be able to get any sense of them. I need to have their attention from the start and I need to keep it the whole time.
When I am working on the ground I will start this by just doing something whenever the horse begins to tune me out. The minute they start paying attention to anything other than me, I will do it again, the moment they give me their full attention ( putting their eyes and ears on me ) then I stop. What I do depends on the horse- often it is sufficient to just stamp my foot, slap my thigh or kick some sand around, sometimes I might need to pick up my energy a little and perhaps move them around until they are listening to me rather than looking off into the distance.
Horses can be very determined that they need to pay more attention to what is going around them than they do to what the human handling them is asking them for and it can sometimes take a lot to get them paying attention to you – sometimes you have to be ready to effectively say “you think what is going on out there is scary, check out how scary I can be.” It can actually be helpful if the horse isn’t completely one hundred percent certain that you won’t eat them.
I probably lost a few readers there for being deliberately mean to ponies, but the simple fact is that if you want to see something really scary go to a show and watch the horses who are fascinated by everything around them and paying no attention whatsoever to the human on the end of the rope. Any time I see a human in a situation where they are relying on pure luck to keep them safe with their horse I find that nervewracking. There are also a lot of fairly anthropomorphic ideas about how horses see the world. As a human in the modern world we are infrequently scared and we find it quite unpleasant. Horses are fear-oriented animals and they spend a lot of their time spooking at things and running away from them. It seems to me that because of this and because they live very much in the present, horses are only briefly affected by most things that spook them and if a horse is determined not to offer me any attention then I am quite happy to use that response to change their mind about that.
There are many ways that you can lose your horse’s attention when you start working with them and it will happen from time to time. One of the most common is where you work on a pattern for a while – either on the ground or in the saddle – and the horse learns the pattern and then doesn’t need to be paying attention in order to perform it. This is tricky because it is often the point at which the pattern starts to look really good and because much like our equine partners, we are creatures of pattern and it’s easy to do the same set of things any time we do groundwork or schooling with our horses.
The best way to avoid falling into these patterns is to be aware of them. Once you have the basic steps of a form or shape then start changing them – can you do it step by step? Can you change direction and reverse it? Can you get half way through and reverse it? Can you change one element of it but leave the rest the same? By challenging yourself like this you make life more interesting for yourself and your horse and you have a much better chance of holding their attention.