If you are working or training horses, then you understand the importance of having your horse pay attention and focus on what you ask of them. It can be dangerous to have a one-thousand-pound animal doing their own thing and not paying attention.
So how do you get your horse to pay attention? The way to get a horse to pay attention to you is to keep their mind focused on their work. This can be accomplished by doing the following:
- Gain your horse’s respect through groundwork.
- Choose exercises that encourage your horse to think.
- Switch up your horse’s routine and make the workout interesting for them.
It can be frustrating when you don’t know how to get your horse’s attention. Many find that if they let their horse focus on something outside of the arena or in the distance, like another horse galloping and whinnying from another field, that their horse becomes worked-up or spooked. Having a thorough understanding of the following information can help you in all aspects of your riding.
How to Determine Whether or Not Your Horse is Paying Attention
If your horse isn’t paying attention to you, most times you’ll know it. You can tell through the horse’s behavior and body language where their focus is. Some obvious signs that you can notice are your horse looking out, away from you or away from the arena. If your horse is whinnying quite a bit, they’re probably not paying attention to you, but rather looking for their pasture mates. If your horse is spooked and jumping at everything that moves, they are more likely paying more attention to their surroundings than to you.
Some more subtle ways to tell if your horse isn’t paying attention would be to notice where their ears are pointing. Are they pointed forward, listening to something in the distance, or are they pointed to you?
Another way to tell where your horse’s attention is can be based on how fast they respond to cues. If they are slow to respond, they are probably focused on something else.
It will be very obvious when your horse is paying attention to you. If you are your horse’s main focus, then they will be looking at you and watching your movement. Their ears will be pointed towards you, awaiting your direction. They will chew their teeth and keep their eyes turned to you. Their response to your cues will be quick and accurate.
How to Gain Your Horse’s Attention On the Ground
Groundwork is where you establish the foundation of respect between you and your horse. It’s often said in the horse world that if you can’t do it on the ground, then it isn’t going to work in the saddle; this applies to getting your horse’s attention as well.
Groundwork teaches your horse to respect and be aware of your personal space. Anyone who has dealt with a horse not paying attention to them understands how any form of personal space suddenly goes out the window.
For example; if a horse is distracted by another horse, they might start prancing, pulling on the lead, and running their shoulder into you. The first thing you will want to do is to re-establish your personal space, which will, in turn, get your horse focused back on you.
There are endless exercises you could do when it comes to groundwork, but one of the most basic, attention-grabbing exercises to do would be to move your horse’s hind-end and front-end.
To move the hind end, you can lift one hand with the leadrope with pressure up to the withers and walk towards the horse’s hip. The horse should then step their hind legs away from you, crossing one leg in front of the other.
Likewise, to move the front-end, you can stand in front of the horse’s shoulder, putting your hand up to their eye (not touching their face, just creating a wall with your hand) and moving in towards them. They should step their front legs away from you, crossing one leg in front of the other.
You can do both of these exercises from a standstill or by working the horse around you in a circle. Either way, these exercises will get your horse focused and out of your personal space.
Groundwork is a great fix in any setting; If you have a horse acting up or a horse getting distracted while you’re out riding, instead of getting frustrated and just powering through, you can try dismounting and doing some groundwork with them for several minutes. You’ll be surprised at the difference in the horse once you mount back up. Here’s a guide to my five favorite groundwork exercises to get you started.
How to Gain Your Horse’s Attention By Encouraging Them to Think
A horse can usually only focus on one thing at a time; so are they going to focus on you or on all the other distractions that they come across? If you want your horse to pay attention to you, then you’re going to have to give them something to focus on.
When you notice that you’re starting to lose your horse’s interest, you can cue them into an exercise that will rein them back into focus.
Some great exercises that will not only engage your horse’s body but also their mind are things like leg yields, shoulder-ins, and changing your horse’s bend. All of these exercises require your horse to think.
Let’s say you’re out on a trail ride and you’re returning home. Your horse can sense that the barn is getting near, so he starts to pick up the pace. He’s hesitant to respond to any of your cues to slow down.
In turn, you ask him to bend and flex, rotating between flexing left and right. Not only will this get him to focus back on your cues, but it will also encourage him to carry himself correctly and slow down.
In another instance, you’re out in a wide-open field and your horse spots cows in the distance. Not particularly fond of cows, your horse starts to get worried and spooked.
Quickly change up the situation by asking your horse to focus and carry themselves by asking for shoulder-ins and leg yields. You may need to put your horse on a circle until you have their full attention. As soon as you’ve regained your horse’s focus, proceed on.
One mistake many riders have made is to let their horse stop and stare at whatever is worrying or spooking them instead of keeping their feet moving. If a horse is moving their feet, then they’re engaging their mind; if a horse isn’t moving their feet, then instead of relying on their mind they’re relying on instinct, which just so happens to be flight.
Horses are flight animals, their nature is to constantly be paying attention to their surroundings so that they can flee if need be. If you are controlling your horse’s feet and their movements, then they are going to be focused and thinking rather than going off of instinct.
How to Gain Your Horse’s Attention By Changing Up Your Routine
Horses are like humans in the fact that it is easy for them to fall into a routine. What is your routine like when you go to work with your horse? It’s easy to get in a pace where you take your horse out, brush, tack up, ride in the arena, warm up with a few circles around the ring before jumping a few jumps and being done.
Chances are that if your horse struggles to keep focused during your workouts, then they’re so used to the routine that they’re starting to get bored.
Do you have a routine that you follow through your daily activities? If you drive the same route to work every day, then you have probably experienced a time where you’ve left for work and suddenly you’re arriving in what feels like no time.
You can’t recollect anything that happened on the ride over. You’re so used to the routine that you can basically coast on autopilot without having to engage your thinking. Horses are the same as you when it comes to running on autopilot. Mixing up your routine will help prevent them from defaulting into this mode.
If you usually have your workouts in an arena, try riding on the trail for your warm-up. If you usually take your horse straight to the barn once you get him from the field, try taking him to the round pen and doing some groundwork with him first. Even with your brushing, if you usually start by brushing your horse then picking his feet, mix it up and pick his feet out first.
The change of routine and the unpredictability of what will happen next will keep your horse focused on you. They will be looking for direction in the next thing you ask them to do. Changing the routine will also help desensitize your horse to different situations. Some horses can get so stuck in the routine that when it changes, they have a hard time handling it.
One example is if a horse has only been ridden in the arena their whole life and then you take them to ride in a wide open field, they’re more likely to take off or act up since they’re not used to the freedom the field offers. Mixing up the routine and keeping your horse guessing will help them to stay calm and engaged.
Boring routines aren’t the only thing horses dislike. Check out my article on 6 things your horse doesn’t like.
Why Should I Keep My Horse’s Attention?
Some may ask if it’s really necessary to hold your horse’s focus at all times. What if you just want to go out on a trail ride and let your horse enjoy the ride and take in the scenery?
It’s easily understood why this may be tempting to do, but it’s probably not the best decision. Horses are creatures of habit and they learn by repetition. If you consistently let your horse not pay attention to you, then that’s going to become their habit. When it comes time for you to gather their attention back, it’ll be much harder to do.
You can potentially end up in some dangerous situations if your horse isn’t willing to pay attention to you. Like mentioned above, if a horse isn’t paying attention to you, then any idea of personal space goes out the window. You could easily be pushed over or stepped on.
Likewise, with riding, a situation can quickly turn dangerous if a horse is allowed to focus on something else. For example, you’re riding along a fence line of a horse field, and the horses that are grazing suddenly start galloping off. If your horse is paying attention to them, then your horse will most likely take off too.
Just because you’re holding your horse’s attention doesn’t mean that they aren’t having fun. You create a bond with your horse because they are looking to you for direction instead of their surroundings. They recognize you as their leader and protector, therefore they will pay attention to you.
How Long Is a Horse’s Attention Span?
If you check out this article, you will learn that a horse’s attention span is on average 11.8 seconds. That is a very short amount of time, so it’s important that you remember this when training your horse.
It can be exhausting and frustrating to a horse if you keep asking them for the same thing repeatedly without giving them a break. Don’t expect your horse to work on the same thing for an hour straight; instead, as soon as they make a step in the right direction, reward them by giving them something else to think about.
Horses learn by pressure and release; as soon as your horse does what you ask, you can release the pressure of focusing on that task. Circle back to what you’re working on, but remember, if you keep your horse guessing, they will respond and focus much easier.