Distraction: A Simple Answer for Bright Shiny Things


Is your horse distracted? Is he always swinging his head at every noise? Does he knock you with his shoulder or just stop and freeze? Now people are coming. What will they think seeing you standing flat-footed with your horse looking like he might spontaneously combust? Maybe you jangle the rope; did you read that was the right thing to do? Run him back and try to be scarier than what he’s looking at? Or whack your whip on the ground. Maybe you whack him. Not to hurt him, just enough to get his attention. But the popper startles him, almost what you wanted, and then his hooves start hopping but you’re still standing like a deer in headlights watching him dance around, just knowing you’re gonna get stepped on. So, you see his hoof coming to land right on your foot. The Law of Attraction.

Maybe your horse is distracted but you are a positive thinker, so you stand there affirming your love for this horse who is acting like a headless chicken. You say, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.” As you reach to pet him, he moves back, almost bumping some trash cans, but because you know your touch would soothe him, you keep reaching for him. Even if you’re nervous. Love is the answer. The closer you come to touch him, the farther he skitters away, still looking at the thing you can’t see. But as he retreats, his hind crashes into the trash cans, and bottles, cans, and plastic spray in all directions. He got the recycles! His hoof unintentionally crushes a can and he spins around, knocking you sideways just as you yell, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.” You don’t fall, but you do take a few of those flailing-for-balance steps, leaning on the lead rope to stay up, but you still manage to sprain your ankle. In hindsight, you saw it coming, not that hindsight is helpful now.

Is your horse overreacting? Are you? And to tell the truth, your horse wasn’t distracted. His focus consistently stayed on his question about the environment. He’s hardwired to stay alive by using his senses to be aware of danger. That’s what it means to be a horse. Is it ever fair to ask a horse to ignore his surroundings? Or are we confusing horses for dogs? Are horses supposed to stare at us like a Labrador when we’re holding a ball? But wait, is the dog focused on you or the ball?

When did trying to frighten fear away ever work? It’s gas on the fire. Should a horse take our word for it, exhale and relax, because we love them? And who elected us the center of the universe, anyway? The more we try to distract him, the more focused/frantic he becomes. At the same time, the horse isn’t ignoring you. He can’t; remember he’s hardwired to the environment? The real question is have you switched sides and become part of the dangerous chaos?

How to fix this? By the time a horse is in his flight response, it’s too late. Give him some room; it’s why we use a long lead rope. Get out of his space and breathe. Notice what happens and believe it. Rather than giving corrections, give him peace and room to settle himself. Hold space for him to find the answer. Give him the time he needs to self-soothe. And in the meantime, stay safe yourself and chip away at the notion we deserve blind obedience.

To begin, do no harm. Stacking up challenges isn’t going to resolve anything, but we can make a decision to not be part of the problem. Look to yourself first. Is it fair to ask your horse to have a longer attention span than yours? When you are around your horse, do you feel scattered and doubtful? Do you forget most of what you need and have to retrace steps? Are you checking your to-do list for the day while haltering him? Do you stop to listen to friends rant about their problems while you’re grooming?

Horses notice everything. They will tell you that multi-tasking is the same thing as being an erratic thinker. It’s being inconsistent and unreliable. The busier we get, the more impatient we are, the less connected we are. If you find yourself hating a hoof pick, it’s time to sit down. Instead of doing a handful of things poorly, just do one thing thoughtfully. As you pause to think about what that might look like, notice that your horse seems almost introspective. The Law of Attraction again, but better results this time.

We often swing between being too complacent to micromanaging, not that we notice our own inconsistency. The place to start is to notice when you are present in the moment. Make that your new home base. Become equine-aware of the environment. Is there a breeze? What can you feel with your feet? Prioritize the reality of the now. Stand a few feet away. Be an autonomous thing and stop pushing. Trust your horse to be drawn to you for the right reasons, while he is standing in autonomy. Converse with him by acknowledging what he sees, responding to his calming signals. Separate beings in a shared world.

Training is a bit of a self-important term. It has the soul-killing stink of domination to it. We are amiable when we groom and tack up but get too serious when we begin working horses. We forget that what we are working on isn’t as important as understanding each other. We forget we’re on the same side. The problem with being defensive is we create distance when horses need our confidence the most.

Teach yourself to notice the smallest incident, when things just start to separate. Right then, pause mend it while the anxiety is small. Find a way to say yes, align yourself with your horse. Refuse to be defensive, instead find a forward affirmative approach. Celebrate curiosity. Smile and lead your horse to a safer place in his mind. If training feels complicated, you’re doing too much. Cut the moment into tiny pieces, one at a time, so nothing is too big. Know that well-formed small bricks are a firm foundation. No drama. Create a habit of confidence and wellbeing. Good training is done in small moments on good days. Hone your self-focus, learn to choose a better response within you. Trust your horse to sense that. Consistency is being dependable. Consistency is safety.

Comes the day that the two of you spot something in the distance. A bright shiny thing to appreciate and share.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

Want more? Visit annablake.com to see our class schedule, online courses available on a revolving basis on Calming SignalsAffirmative Training, and More. You can book a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join us in The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more.

Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

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Anna Blake

25 thoughts on “Distraction: A Simple Answer for Bright Shiny Things”

  1. Could not agree more. When we try to see the world through the horses eyes it makes all the difference. Hard to do, but your thoughts above make it easier to comprehend (and hopefully remember) in that moment when we first sense something is about to go wrong. When our horses TRUST us to see what they see, and protect them from it, it is often all they need and has the biggest (positive) impact on their lives in that moment, and more importantly, going forward. In human speak, when we know someone “has our back” we are much more confident in moving forward in the world with them. Thank you for this post.

  2. “Create a habit of confidence and well being”.
    You take my breath away, in the best possible sense. THIS is what I work toward every day with the amazing horses in my care. It doesn’t matter if I get to a perfect place. Horses are so willing to step into the divide between our perceptions of the world, and meet us somewhere in between. It’s such an act of grace on our part to take a horses word for it, that there’s a thing outside our vision/hearing/perception, that is REAL. That they need to work out with our confident but quiet support. Thank you Anna.

  3. Wow! So much in this Anna, I’ll have to re-read it several times I think. It really “gets into the cracks” so to speak. Loved it. Thanks again for snother superb Analysis.

  4. Every word of this resonates with me. You met my horse about a year ago, in Oregon, the bay Curly horse named Owen? He was such a troubled horse back then. You wouldn’t recognize him now. The difference has been the time I spend with him, nearly every day, just letting him be himself. Listening to him and respecting his choices. Letting him know I hear him. And having no agenda, just taking opportunities as they come and celebrating them. People that hear this immediately think it means I let him walk all over me, but nothing could be farther from the truth. We co-exist quite peacefully. I don’t have to be big or put a ton of pressure on him for him to be respectful and safe to be around. I don’t have the right to demand total obedience! But if I’m 100% present and in the moment, he’ll do what I ask, he’ll go where I guide him, he’ll try for me. Because we’re looking out for each other. It’s so great.

    • Of course I remember Owen, he made a big impression. So glad for the update, best wishes for more times like these times for both of you. Thanks Bonnie.

  5. Anna,
    Superb and timely. I just had this situation with my OTTB two days ago.
    He saw/heard something during hand-walking. It’s a 30-acre farm with a
    long road to the barn. I could see/hear nothing. He would return to his grass
    and then once again lift his head, alert, ears up, not imploding, but braced, definitely.

    I did what you advise: I took a deep breath, loosened the lead rope so that it was slack
    and just mulled around at a safe distance, but stayed close, hummed, chatted to him as
    I normally do. I ignored the direction in which he was looking.

    Then, said, playfully, “Jacky! Jacky! Let’s go and find more clover.”

    The interest is that it was just a car in the distance, but horses are so adept at sensing
    anything different, that this bothered him. A car had entered the driveway — but stopped,
    backed up, turned around, and then proceeded to another driveway and did the same thing.
    It was not a vehicle he knew (from boarders, or even visitors such as UPS/Fedex.
    The occupants may have been ‘checking the area out’, but they looked a little suspicious
    as they backed up when they saw us come around the corner of the barn.
    Whatever the situation (they may just have been lost), Jack picked it up and was wary.

    Normally, cars and trucks don’t bother him at all. He watched them until they disappeared.
    I did the best thing which was to be neutral and just carry on chatting, lengthening the rope.
    Then I sang a little ballad I often sing to him when grooming. He returned to his grazing.

    I sent this post to my University of Oxford colleagues, Anna. Everyone should read it — it’s timely for all
    not just horse owners. It’s particularly timely for the youth, who I often find are too tied up with cell phones and talking about other things, while working with or even just grooming their horses.

    You constantly remind us to ‘be in the moment’. The barn owner often talks and watches us when we are getting the horses ready, or just at the barn, grooming. I prefer to be quiet and attentive, and just be with my horse, when spending time with him. There’s little enough time in the day/week to be with them, and I don’t want to be distracted by too many things.
    Fortunately, the new barn is quiet and has only five boarders, so we are normally there with one or two people.k
    The owner is always there when we ride, and is super-concerned about safety; she even walks us out to the arena from the barn after saddling and back again after riding. I like this attention and safe practice. It’s good for the rider and the horse, and consistent.

    Thank you, Anna. Always LOVE your writing and your wisdom.

  6. As I have aged, I have become slower to react. At first I was concerned about it until I discovered my slowness reaped the benefits you describe here. Nowadays we stand together separately in solidarity and let that “negative” moment pass. Had to ditch the “love is the answer” answer…I learned it wasn’t the answer!
    Love this post, Anna. Pat’s “into the cracks” is spot on!

  7. Hold space for him to find the answer. .. that is one of my favorite sentences here.

    But of course all the sentences are quite good. I always love how you work humor in with your teaching.

    Every horse person should be required to read and consider this. The “techniques” for “helping” horses through a scary moment do not ever seem to work in my opinion and observation, and yet they continue to be employed it seems. So glad you offer up a better way for those of us willing to try.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I am trying to make listening sound more enticing. I think about this punishing fear or confusion so much, it’s personal to me. I wonder how it got to be okay for pets and kids.

  8. Stopping by and loving it. Thank you, Anna, for doing what you do. Always reminding us to work with ourselves and let that ripple into our relationships with animals; to not buy into false logic (no matter how thoroughly engrained). I am so appreciative for the impact you’ve had on my life! I just got a dog the other day (my first, finally!) and I’m learning with her/’training’ her in ways that are happily inspired by your approach. Be wellllll! Love, Adair

  9. I love reading your posts. Thank you. It is like a little cup of reflection and zen to get me back on track everytime.

    Cheers from Alberta,


  10. Anytime one of the horses becomes more alert, I often find that acknowledging whatever it is they are considering responding to takes the edge off their concern. My bad for not catching on sooner, my friend. I see it/hear it. Thank you for watching out. Do you need a minute to be sure of it? I used to blow things off in my younger, hastier years, demanding their attention. But I certainly don’t like it when my intuition is ignored by those who profess to love me. No one does. So I honor their response. If it’s something I am fairly certain is not a danger, I offer my own opinion with a softening gaze and a deep breath, and wait for them to come to a conclusion. For my guy, this respect has fostered big trust that has allowed us to be in some ridiculous situations together without losing our cool. He believes me when I tell him it’s something we can face. Except for the elephants. In that case, well, we’d already been through the wringer of all trust exercises in a parade and even the most perfect guy has a tipping point on his stress. People remarked on how scared he was, but to this day, I will always remember him standing his ground, not tearing away from me even when everything else in him said to flee. All because I stood with him, took a deep breath and let him look until the danger had passed. There’s power in acknowledging their wisdom, in being that calm in the eye of their storm. If you just wait, that magic moment they take a breath and look to you is worth more than any other treasure in the world.


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