Thursday, November 4, 2010

Focus and Attention by Sherry Jarvis

I see so many horses that are not paying the least bit of attention to their handler or rider.  When you take a horse away from the comfort and safety of his natural surroundings, there are many things in the big wide world that can distract or attract him. His attention wanders to those other things. All horses are this way by nature, and green horses or horses that haven't been handled much or well are by far the worst. They HAVE to check this, that, and the next thing out in their environment.  They need to be sure there's nothing that's going to come get them. They like to check and see if there is some other horses they'd like to be with, some grass or some other food they'd like to go eat, some manure to smell, or some wide open space they would like to go lounge in. These are the things that give pleasure to all horses.

A horse pays attention to what matters to him, and the direction of his desires. Are you more important to your horse, than anything else in the world, including such powerful draws as other horses, food, and piles of manure? At some point you have to get to where you rate higher in his mind than those piles of manure!!! Are you something that gives your horse pleasure? Or does he dread to see you coming unless you have a bucket of grain?

If your horse is easily distracted and doesn’t seem to want to stay with you it's time for you to start thinking about supporting your horse toward being more able to choose to be with you rather than anywhere else. When a horse learns to pay attention to the handler/rider he becomes able to focus on the handler/rider when requested for a few seconds at first then building to longer periods. Something magical happens when a horse begins to really pay attention. It is like something clicks over on the inside to where he begins to have a feeling of inner peace and confidence, rather than a feeling of anxiety. He actually stops trying to leave you all the time, and starts wanting to be with you.

We have all had the experience of being in a classroom at school. The teacher stands at the front of the room and expects all the students to pay attention to what he/she is saying. When people pay attention to a speaker they look at the speaker. But if, suddenly, there was gunfire out in the street, then everyone's head would turn because their attention would have been caught by the sound from outside. It is your power of observation to see where the horse’s attention is and how to get it back that allows you to train horses with effectiveness and without the need of painful physical force or coercive methods.

There is a law of the horse's life which says; wherever the horse’s attention goes, his body must also go. It causes a horse to experience great inner turmoil to have his body separated from his attention. The main cause of a horse’s body and attention being separated is the actions of people who do not even realize what is occurring. Some horse owners are not even aware when the horse has lost his attention they only see and are aware of the things the body is doing wrong. I challenge each of you to pay closer attention to where your horse’s attention is especially when he isn’t doing what you want him to do.

A common way to practice being more aware of where the attention of your horse is directed is to dramatically slow down your actions. If you will learn to be more present in each moment with the horse you will start to see things you never saw before. Learn to wait on the horse, and give him wait time. This doesn't mean you can't be present while working fast. Speed and intensity of focus can go hand in hand.  Also worth considering is the subtle distinction between "working quickly" and "being in a hurry"

If your horse jumps around and this catches you by surprise, it is because you were not paying attention. This means you were not attentive to what the horse was paying attention to. It means you were not sufficiently focused to call upon him to remain focused upon his work, or what you wanted him to do. Your focus determines his focus. Your confidence and inner peace determines his confidence and inner peace. Your ability to "set the horse up" to go quietly depends entirely upon your ability to attend to the signs he gives you BEFORE he jumps around.

There are a million things that can potentially distract or spook a horse. You can never desensitize him to all the things he may encounter. Our mistake is in thinking that being distracted or being afraid is the horse's main problem. It is not his main problem. The external situation or objects are not what cause the horse to be distracted or concerned. It is the loss of his attention, the loss of his inner peace and confidence in himself and in us that is the problem. There is a buildup before this happens. The rider or handler's shortcoming lies in not being able to detect, or defuse, this buildup. We have to know what happens before what happens happens.

It is true that other animals, dead fish, flags, blowing paper, motorcycles, bicycles, rattling dry branches, loud noises, flowing water, high wind, other horses, and ten thousand other things all have the power to unsettle a horse. But they do not have the power to do that all the time. I am sure that all of you have noticed that sometimes the sign on the road doesn’t concern your horse in the least and he keeps his mind on his job. Then the next day the same road sign is associated with a buildup that leads to an explosion. Why is it that on the same trail ride some horses totally refuse to cross flowing water at the same stream that another horse will quietly cross?

The answer is that when a horse gets 100% OK on the inside, nothing bothers him, or at least he has learned how to deal with it. Some people believe this is impossible. But I believe it is possible you just have to work to find that ability with yourself. How do you help a horse become 100% OK on the inside so he is OK with everything on the outside? How do you help a horse learn to deal in a postive manner anything that is thrown at him? In order to do this you have to start with one particular thing or situation where you work through together successfully with the horse no matter how long or how much effort it takes. Then you go on to another success and another. After a time, it becomes second-nature, a habit that both you and your horse do all the time when something unexpected happens.  Many of you have heard me say over and over that good horsemanship is a HABIT. And you have to be Ok with this stuff you are asking the horse to do too. Because until you are 100% OK with what you are bringing to the horse, they will never be 100% OK with you or the object. An example is a person who really wants to canter their horse but the moment the horse brings ups his energy to do it the person immediately says "Whoa" in his mind and also in his body, but especailly the reins. I call it the "Go but not really syndrome". I see it all the time.

Remember horses learn to be 100% OK from the release of pressure. To drive a horse into pressure destroys his confidence and causes the horse to develop distrust for you as a leader.  I take the horse back away from the pressure area until we find that place where the horse is comfortable.  Then once calm is fully restored, move back toward the pressure until we reach the slightest reaction point. Keep repeating the approach and retreat while holding the horse’s attention with you all the time. As soon as you feel or see the horse’s attention starting to leave you need to catch it before it leaves. If you catch it before it leaves it never does leave. This is why we need to ride every step and be present every moment with your horse. The earlier you try to capture the attention the less physical you will have to be to get it back. The goal is to become so subtle that it is invisible to those watching.

If we expect to be able to control our horse's attention, we had better be able to control our own first.  If I am still focused on other things or if I have a case of ADD, is it fair to ask my horse to focus on something other than the grass beneath his feet or the next manure pile that he would like to smell? 

PS: Our Friendly Warning: There is always some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and don’t attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. Any information in this article or that we present through any of our programs are intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques with success. However you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you don’t feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, don’t do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional before attempting things beyond your skill or confidence level. Stay on the "high side of trouble". Keep it natural and above all KEEP IT SAFE!

Until Next Time, 
Sherry Jarvis
Author of "Win Your Horse's Heart" (And Be a Better Horseman)

82507 465th Ave. Burwell, NE 68823, Tel: 308-346-5663