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Paying Attention

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 30 April 2012 · 683 views

One of the common things today’s on-line horse trainers say is that you always want your horse paying attention to you. Certainly, if you’re trying to get your horse to do something, it needs to be paying attention, but my horse doesn’t ALWAYS need to be paying attention to me when we’re together. For example, if I’m just sitting on her talking to somebody, she doesn’t need to be paying attention to me. If I’m essentially ignoring her, why shouldn’t she be able to ignore me, too?

The on-line trainers give several examples of why horses should always pay attention. One example is the following: “…there've been plenty of cases where a horse was being ridden, forgot his rider was up there on him, suddenly saw him again and bucked.” That example has always puzzled me. I’ve NEVER heard of such a thing actually happening. When I trail ride, I often let my horses have control, with me just being a passenger, but they’ve NEVER forgotten I was there. I can IMAGINE such a thing happening, but I can’t believe it’s very common.

Another example is, “…if you're out riding a trail and they're forgetting you're on them, you could be in BIG trouble if they spook.” I guess the idea is that, if they’ve forgotten about you, they won’t respond to your control if they spook. Of course, NO horse is responding to your control while it’s spooking. It’s only after the first reaction that you are able to regain control, and my horses would respond to my directions with same speed whether or not they’d initially been paying attention to me. The speed of their response would depend on the degree of their panic, not on whether or not they’d been paying attention to me when they first shied.

Similarly, if a horse “…has a mindset of disrespect, who do you think he's gonna take care of when he gets scared?” Again, the idea seems to be that, if the horse “disrespects” you, it won’t respond to your control if it spooks. So, “having your horse's attention is … respectful.”

I agree that, if your horse isn’t paying attention when you’re giving directions, it is being “disrespectful.” However, a “disrespectful” horse is going to ignore ANY directions it doesn’t want to obey, whether it’s paying attention to you or not. As the particular trainer I’m quoting also notes, “…without his respect you can hardly teach him anything cuz he'll think he doesn't have to do it.” If the issue is whether or not he has “to do it”, we’re talking respect for consequences, which is not the same as respect for people, in my opinion. However, if there are no consequences for disobedience, the horse won’t THINK he doesn't have “to do it” --- he’ll KNOW he doesn't have to do it. You won’t have control when your horse isn’t paying attention, but you won’t have control when it IS paying attention, either. Likewise, you won’t have control when your horse spooks, but you also won’t have control when it’s not spooking.

On the other hand, if your horse is not paying attention when you’re NOT giving directions, it is NOT being disrespectful and its temporary lack of attention has nothing to do with your ability to control it when you DO give it some commands. In addition, it is possible to let a horse disobey a request without losing your ultimate control, as long as the horse understands that YOU chose to ALLOW it to disobey the request. For this type of interaction to work, you have to teach the horse to recognize when you’re making a request and when you’re making a demand, but my horses have all learned this lesson quite easily.

The trainers who harp on “respect” usually recommend gaining it by making the horse move. So, “(t)hat's one of the reasons you ask a horse to move around. It gets their attention back to you. It's sort of the equivalent of someone saying your name and you looking to see who's calling you.”

You know what? When I say my horse’s name, she looks to see what I want, just as a human would do. I don’t need to make her move to get her attention. I can just say her name.

Suppose we’re in the round pen, and I’m on the ground talking to somebody. I’m not paying much attention to her, so why should she be paying attention to me? Suppose she starts nibbling on some peeling paint and I want her to stop. I don’t have to make her move. All I have to do is to call her name. More than likely, she’ll realize I called her because I didn’t like what she was doing, and she’ll stop. If not, all I need to do is to say “No!” Then, she KNOWS she needs to stop nibbling, and she will. At that point, she can find something else to do and begin ignoring me again. When I’m ready to stop talking and start working, THEN I make her move --- not because I’m trying to gain her respect but because I want her to work. While she’s working, she’ll be paying attention to me because I’m giving her commands. If I stop giving commands and start talking to somebody again, she gets to ignore me again. Bottom line: She only needs to pay attention to me if I want her to do something.

The final on-line trainer’s example of why horses should pay attention is because “(t)he more they're used to giving you their attention, the safer you're gonna be in the long run.” I don’t agree that making a horse pay rapt attention to you (or else!) when you’re not giving orders has anything to do with safety. However, horses and people do always need to be aware of each other and of their surroundings. If your horse is not aware of either you or its environment, something in the environment may startle it and it might trample you trying to escape. When you are around horses, you always need to be aware of that possibility and stay aware of the environment yourself --- including where your horse is and whether you are in a pathway it might use to escape something.

However, my experience has been that a horse will just naturally keep an eye on you if it considers you its friend --- just as it would keep an eye on its friends in the herd, so it knows what they’re doing. A good horseman will also just naturally keep an eye on his horse, for the same reason. It’s a tendency to maintain a peripheral awareness of somebody important to you, as opposed to the kind of “paying attention” involved in giving and receiving orders. If I have my back to my horse and I turn to look at her, she will usually look back even before I say anything, because she’s peripherally aware enough to notice that I’ve moved, so she will look back at me to see what I’m doing.

When I’m giving orders, I want my horse to pay attention to me. When I’m not, she’s welcome to ignore me, but I do want her to be aware of my presence. Such awareness not only makes me safer but it shows that she cares about me. I want her to care, but I want her to care because she likes me. I want to be friends with my horse --- not just the boss, not a dictator, not a nuisance, not a pest, and certainly not somebody to be feared. When it matters, our horses need to follow our orders, but they also need to enjoy being around us. That kind of relationship is what we should all be trying to achieve.

I want my Emmy to be paying attention and stay aware that I am on her and am in control. She is smart, sensitive but unconfident and reactive. By keeping her mind on me, I can help her to be more confident and less reactive. She can get distracted and worried and yes if that happens I might have a more difficult time getting her attention back on me - on keeping control of her mind and her feet. I don't want her in control when I am riding.

It doesn't take much to remind her hey I'm up here - pay mind and don't worry. Just a slight lift of one rein to tip her nose a bit or a little wiggle of my toes.

Perhaps with more miles and hours under saddle we'll both relax more but it is in her nature to be flighty so I'm willing to bet I will always need to keep her mind on me and pay close attention to her.
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My current pet horse is also very anxious and reactive, but I can still let her be in control during trail rides --- sometimes. It is usually her choice, determined by the looseness of the reins. If they are loose, she is in control. If she gets nervous, she will reach out for contact, then I will take up on the reins. When I have contact, I am in charge and therefore responsible for our safety in her mind. When she relaxes after we pass whatever made her nervous, she will pull on the reins to ask me to loosen them again.

It is true that sometimes she is startled while she's in control and it may take longer to regain control after the shy, but she also shies when I'm in control, and the difference in time to regain control is pretty negligible. If two ducks fly up practically from under her feet, she's going to react regardless of who's in control or what we're doing, so I don't expect her to act like a bombproof horse. It isn't in her nature. Sometimes, I have contact for the whole ride, because she never really relaxes that day, but when she does relax, it's a real pleasure to let her have control. If you get to that point with your horse, you'll discover that relaxing with a flighty horse is even better than relaxing with a bombproof one, because you get a real sense of accomplishment. They may never get dependable about being relaxed, but every little relaxed moment is a special treasure.
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Your mare sounds very much like mine! I can identify with and understand what you are saying.
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Good luck with your Emmy. The flighty ones can be a challenge, but I've always thought the challenging horses were more fun. Helping an anxious horse relax improves its welfare, too, and improving a horse's welfare is always rewarding.
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