attention catching groundwork the horse's mind

Catching a reluctant horse

I had done a few sessions with Cash before I bought him – that was how I knew I wanted to buy him – and I knew he could be a little unwilling to be caught. He was very ear shy and he was also worried about going through gates and being ridden, so there were a lot of reasons that he wasn’t keen to be caught. Consequently he wore a halter while he was out and he was usually caught using a scoop of mix and clipping on a rope when he went to eat it.

When he came to stay the first thing I did when I put him out was to take his halter off and let him loose to explore his new field for a while. Later in the day I came back with a halter and he allowed himself to be caught almost straight away. I was impressed, so I gave him a pony treat and let him go again. After a minute I went to catch him again. This time it took an hour and a half and I had to go through the whole process of teaching him to be caught. As you can imagine, I was very pleased I had decided to test that.

Setting Cash up to be caught.
At least he was facing me at this point- a good start.

What I do with a horse who doesn’t want to be caught is to spend a while following them around. I don’t chase them, but as long as they want to walk away I follow them. If they want to stop I stop, if they give me an ear or look at me I step away. The moment their attention leaves me ( if they start grazing or looking at other horses or whatever ) I start approaching again. As I mentioned previously holding the horse’s attention is the starting point for any work you do with their mind.

After a while they figure out that they can approach me and I move off, which gives them some control over the situation- as far as the horse is concerned there is something going on that they have a part in, rather than me just trying to do something to them. Fairly soon the horse will start coming up to you to sniff you and investigate you at this point and be ready to accept you in their space.

How I progress depends a lot on why I think the horse is choosing not to be caught- as with many situation where a horse chooses not to do something, their decision making is on a continuum between “I have better things to do” and “I am afraid.” My aim is for them to be in the middle, where they are unafraid and want to spend time with me.

With a horse who doesn’t want to be caught because they don’t feel like it, I will tend to push them a little when they decide to move away from me- if they want to face me or approach me, I will back off and take off the pressure, but if they want to walk off then I will perhaps change things so they have to trot or canter instead. At the very least I want there to be no benefit in moving away, so I certainly need to make sure that they don’t get to eat or rest when they aren’t paying me attention. A consequence of this is that if you have a large field and you don’t want to spend a long time and get worn out, you might want to do this in a restricted area at first. You could also do it from the back of another horse, but if you’re placed to do that you probably don’t need my advice in the first place. Likewise it is easier to work on it if they aren’t out with a herd of other horses – you don’t need to do anything different if horses are around, but they are likely to get in the way, try to push the horse you are aiming to catch around and generally make the process take longer.

Cash was afraid, so I worked at the other extreme, trying to set things up so he didn’t feel that he needed to run away from me. I spent a lot of time on my approaches watching his balance and looking for him preparing to leave,  then just waiting on that point so he didn’t have to. By this point I had his attention and he quite wanted to approach me so if he started to lean away or prepare to turn and I backed off a little he would often relax a little and maybe turn back towards me.

When he would stay still when I approached, I didn’t go straight for haltering him. I spent a while walking most of the way past him and just petting him on the rump then moving slowly forwards, rubbing on him. That gave him plenty of space to move if he needed me to and made my approach less threatening to him while also making my company pleasant. The first couple of times I did this, I walked away after I reached his shoulder to give him time to think over what had just happened.

Once I could stand at his shoulder I would rub on his neck and mane, still facing backwards and reaching under with my left hand to pass the halter up to my right hand without stopping rubbing on him. I was very careful and gentle with this and careful to avoid his ears as any contact with those bothered him. Whenever we made what seemed to me like a significant positive change I would give him a pony treat and walk away. I don’t hold a strong opinion on the use of treats with horses- sometimes with some horses it’s a good idea, other times with other horses it’s a bad one. If the horse is afraid and they’ll take the food then it is probably helpful as long as they are still able to give you their attention rather than obsessing on treats.

A few times during the process, especially as I got closer to having the halter on, Cash got concerned and had to leave but each time it was quicker to get back to where we had been and once he was caught and got treats and came in for his evening feed it was meaningful to him and it only took a few more sessions until I could walk up to him in the field and catch him. He’s still wary if you change anything, though – if I have his leather travelling halter rather than our regular rope halter he’s decidedly sceptical- but in general he’s now very happy to be caught.

tack and equipment the horse's mind

How tight should you fit that noseband?

Anybody who has bought a bridle in this country in the last few years will be aware of the baffling selection of nosebands available to you. In fact one would probably need to go to a western tack store to find one without and there aren’t a whole lot of those in the home counties.

The main purpose of most noseband designs is to hold the horse’s mouth closed. In some cases there is a safety reason for this- if your horse somersaults at speed and their mouth is open then there is a risk of a broken jaw, so for hunting or riding cross-country there is a clear and sensible reason for having a tightly fitted noseband. Most of the time, however, that isn’t how I see them used – mostly they are utilised to stop the horse opening their mouth in response to the bit.

To my mind, this is using a physical mechanism to prevent the horse expressing their feelings about the bit, using physical resistance to counteract the horse’s physical resistance. I have no disagreement with the use of bits – they are a great tool that allows us amazingly subtle communication with our horses  – but I place a lot of emphasis on teaching a horse to carry the bit and to be comfortable and willing following the rein. If a horse is gaping their mouth open when the bit is applied or getting their  tongue over it they are showing a lack of understanding.

Zorro's head, from horseback.
You can see that the bit is not hanging from the bridle, Zorro is carrying it on his tongue.

If you are riding with a bit then it is so much easier to develop relaxation in the mouth and on through the rest of the body if the horse understands the bit and follows it willingly.  This is part of the foundation that every riding horse should have and unfortunately it is one of the parts that is missing most frequently. When a horse is really carrying the bit correctly they will lift it and hold it in place with their tongue, putting it in the most comfortable place in their mouth and it is then easy for them to respond to the most subtle signals. It seems to me that a horse who is doing that is really taking responsibility for their end of the rein so as long as I take equal responsibility for my end we have a lot of communication available to us.

I don’t use a noseband at all – this is something that I take from the western side of my riding background – but I know a lot of people like the look of them on their horse. That is as good a reason as any to use a piece of equipment; by all means have it there but leave it loose and treat it as decoration.



learning people teaching

How do you find a good teacher?

This is a very tricky question for anybody starting out with horses- how to find a good professional to learn from. In fact finding a good professional in any equestrian field is exceeding challenging – evaluating a farrier, dentist or chiropractor is likewise a very tricky problem – but I’m going to focus on teaching for now and perhaps try to touch on some general rules that can be applied in other cases.

When you are first looking to learn to ride or to learn how to improve the connection between you and your horse the real problem you will run into is that of what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “Unknown unknowns” – the things that you don’t know that you don’t know.  Until you have learned enough to evaluate how a trainer keeps, rides and handles their horses, it is very hard to be sure that they are a good person to ride with.

So how can you judge? I don’t have a definitive answer, but the starting point is to decide what you want. Do you want to learn the basics of how to ride, how to handle and understand horses or to improve in a particular discipline? A lot of people who teach will tend to specialise in one or another of these areas rather than covering all of them. Dressage is more or less universal- the basics of Dressage are the foundation for all types of riding – but a competetive Dressage instructor may not necessarily be the best person to begin learning with.

I am of the opinion that you can’t learn very much that is useful in terms of riding or horsemanship technique from a book until you are already working at a fairly advanced level, but what you can learn from watching and reading is what a horse looks like when they are working correctly and happily. If you want to identify a horse working correctly you could take a look at the work of people like Gerd Heuschmann and Dr Deb Bennett. There are some fairly clear biomechanical principles involved in a horse carrying a rider and they are something you can learn about and learn to see in people’s riding. In terms of identifying if a horse is happy in their work, there can be a lot of differences in opinion regarding that, but I look for an appearance of softness and physical relaxation combined with attentiveness to the rider’s cues. Ross Jacobs writes a lot about this on his blog, often posting video clips of what he considers to be particularly good or bad examples. Spending some time to learn about both of these things will be very useful when you want to evaluate potential teachers.

When it comes to actually finding someone, recommendation is a good starting point, especially from people you know whose riding you admire. Not everyone has lessons, of course, but people with experience will often know which instructors they rate even if they aren’t currently learning. If you don’t feel anyone around you exemplifies the way you want to ride then you might choose to look for people who come from a particular approach that is interesting to you- there are various organisations dedicated to teaching riding and horsemanship around and most of them have some very good instructors, although very few have only good instructors. If there isn’t anyone in your area, you could always ask the nearest person you can find anyway- sometimes people are willing to travel or are travelling anyway, other times they may be able to recommend someone closer to you.

Riding in a lunge lesson
I'm lucky enough to have one of the best riding instructors around not too far from where I live.

When you have identified a potential instructor, the next thing to do is to make sure they are a good teacher for you and will be able to teach you what you want to learn. That might seem a little obvious, but not every teacher suits every student. You may be able to judge that just from a phone call, but most teachers should be happy for you to watch a lesson if you want to so you can decide for yourself what you think of their way of working. If you are happy with how the horses they are teaching with respond to them and that they are teaching what you want to learn then you’ve found yourself a great opportunity. If not, you haven’t wasted their time or yours on lessons that don’t suit you.

A few more points that don’t quite fit into a structure but I think are worth being aware of:

  • If you are starting to learn to ride, nothing will be better for you than lunge lessons. Find an instructor that can offer them.
  • A good teacher can always explain what they are doing and why. Never be afraid to ask if there is something you don’t understand and to keep asking until you do understand- that is what you are paying them for.
  • If you are riding your own horse and an instructor suggests that you do something that you are not happy with don’t be afraid to say no. It is your horse, and your lesson. A good instructor should be able to explain why they they are suggesting what they suggest and if you are not happy with it just ask whether there is another way that you could get that result.
  • In the UK there are two main riding instructor qualification organisations, the BHS and the ABRS. The structure of their examinations and the approach they take to teaching means that in my opinion an ABRS qualified instructor will have a more solid grounding, although there are fewer of them.
  • If you are in doubt about anything, just ask. You are there to learn and anyone interested in teaching is always much happier to be bombarded with questions than to be left wondering whether their student is understanding what they are trying to teach.
  • Every lesson should show some kind of clear improvement. If you are continuing to have lessons but you don’t feel that you are improving then at the very least you need to talk with your instructor about that. Sometimes this is a mark of you having outgrown what someone can teach you or needing to take a break and just let it soak in a little. Other times you might just need your instructor to change their strategy a little.

Of course ( ahem ) if you’re interested in learning about horsemanship and developing softness, lightness and communication, and you’re based here in the South East, it would be remiss of me not to point out that I have a contact page. I may not be a professional but I have spent a lot of time working on this and I have learned enough that I can usefully share.

groundwork the horse's mind training

Keep your distance

Without wanting to get all Mark Rashid on you ( and without claiming to be a hundredth of the horseman that he is ) I used to be a martial artist at one time. Not a particularly good one, but I did train diligently for a long time, which is an excellent substitute for talent. One thing that is ever so important to a martial artist is the distance between you and your opponent- if you get too close they can easily attack you before you see it coming. The starting point in the art I learned that you wanted to be far enough away that you could see the whole of your opponent without having to move your eyes.

I have no interest in taking such an adversarial pose with my horse- of course not- but that doesn’t mean that I want them any closer than that. This is something I have really had to work on over the years because horses tend to want to be quite close in to you. This isn’t just a consequence of excessive friendliness, although if a horse has had a few pony treats or a lot of scratchies they might want to be near you for those reasons ( and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they will move away when you ask them to.)  The more relevant  reason is that once they are confident that you aren’t going to harm them then they will start to explore whether or not they can push on you. Most of the time horses figure out the world and their relation to it through two questions:

  • Do I need to run away from it?
  • Can I push on it?

Very often one will start a groundwork exercise perfectly positioned and end up a lot closer to the horse than one planned to, they are masters of controlling their position relative to yours- that is what millions of years of evolution as herd animals have taught them.

Zorro disengaging
Here I'm far enough away from Zorro that I can see what is going on with his whole body.

It is important to maintain that distance, however, because that is what gives us the bigger picture. Details are all-important in horsemanship and we need to be able to see how the horse is carrying their head, what shape their body is in, where their feet are landing and how they are carrying their tail. It is very often once we get caught up too closely in what one part of the horse is doing that we lose track of the whole picture and whatever exercise we are working on goes straight out the window. The need to work at a useful distance from the horse is one of the reasons I favour a 12′ line rather than the shorter lead rope that many people in the UK appear to favour.

There is a secondary benefit as well, one that is particularly valuable with a more unruly horse- nobody ever got bitten, kicked, struck or trodden on by a horse that was a long way away from them. If you are in any doubt about how a horse is likely to behave, then you would be wise to keep them at a safe distance until you are sure that they don’t regard you as an opponent.

emotion the horse's mind training

Emotion and calm

Horses are emotional creatures. Their first response to most new things is an emotional one – usually fear, often turning that into inquisitiveness once they have established that the thing won’t harm them. For many years I used to wonder whether my horse was afraid or defensive or angry in some way until I realised that firstly I will never actually know what emotion the horse is experiencing at this moment and secondly it doesn’t really matter. I may not know whether my horse is angry or afraid – for all we can know there might be no similarity at all between emotions as horses experience them and emotions as we experience them – but it doesn’t change what I do. I need to let them work through the emotion they are experiencing and help them to be calm again.

The place where I begin to work on that is by letting them move – it is absolutely counterproductive to try to stop a horse from moving their feet if they are emotional – but to direct that movement and to ask them to bring their attention back to me. It seems to me that the emotion takes the horse’s mind off what I am asking them to do and gets them thinking more about whatever it is that is causing them to feel that way. By getting them thinking about what I am asking them for ( and importantly by getting them thinking rather than just reacting ) I can break that pattern a little. So I’ll ask for regular changes of direction and typically I won’t put any more energy into the system- I won’t ask them to go faster – but I will let the energy that they have put in drain out by simply waiting for them to come through.

Zorro flings himself in the air
Zorro gets very emotional about the rain- is he angry? Excited? Happy? I have no idea, but I don't want to be sat on him when he does this.

The other part of anything we do with horses is how we react to things as well. I am lucky in that I am very calm and patient by nature so it isn’t too hard for me to avoid getting too involved when a horse gets emotional. This is critically important – if the horse is emotional and I respond in kind then that is very likely to make matters worse as I will effectively be telling them  that there is something to be getting emotional about. If I can remain as a calm place that can make my presence much more reassuring for the horse when they are concerned and make my company somewhere they would like to be. 

One thing I found helpful when I wanted to get better at being this way for my horses was to think of myself as being part of the environment rather than part of the emotional dynamic the horse has chosen, so I try to imagine that mentally I am more like an oak tree or rocks that the sea washes around. Whatever the horse does happens in the environment  around me- if the horse wants to push or pull on me there will be no more benefit to them than if they chose to push or pull on a tree – I may have to do something to change what they are doing, but my plan is simply to keep putting things out the way I would like the horse to respond to them and let the emotions wash away. The quicker that the horse can go back to thinking about what I am asking them for, the sooner they will be able to think clearly again and we can go back to some useful work.

attention the horse's mind training

The Starting Point

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.

Cash gives me his attention.
Here Cash is paying close attention to what I am asking him for. Or possibly to the camera. It's the right general direction at least.

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.