Focus is Active Listening. Horses Do It Naturally.

I had a friend who used to write me little vignettes about the antics of her and her horse at their self-care boarding barn. I always looked forward to each installation. Usually, they were hen-cackling funny, but this one took a bittersweet turn:

“This morning at the stables, someone asked my opinion. About 20 seconds into the conversation, she answered a text on her phone. 30 seconds after that, she began telling me about her broken toe, and as I steered the subject back to what she called ‘Blatant Disobedience’ from her horse, she loudly began shouting over me, saying he COULDNT POSSIBLY be that tight in his glutes to stop him wanting to canter.

When she answered another text, I walked away, back to what I was doing, and then it hit me right between the eyes. BOOM. We loathe that behaviour in people, but it’s exactly what we do with our horses. They want to tell us something but we are too self-absorbed, too distracted, too set in our ways to listen. Conversation with us must be heartbreaking, but still they try.

I collected Bruce from his field, and in the short walk back to the stable I vowed to keep a clear, uncluttered mind, focus on his footfall and let go of random thoughts as they floated in. Even for that short time, I failed miserably.

Reward the try; awareness is a good start. We will find our quiet place together.”

Remembering this note again, what “hit me right between the eyes. BOOM.” was the challenge of learning to focus (listen,) is that our brains are too busy to notice that we aren’t. We’re multitasking so fast, we don’t notice we don’t breathe. It’s almost like proving a negative; it takes focus to notice we aren’t focused.

We think our horses should focus on us, but do we seem like butterflies who have random fits? But how many times do we absentmindedly contradict cues, crowd our horses, or interrupt their processing by fussing with their forelock? How often do we pull on their face when we don’t mean to, or not focus long enough to give our horses time to answer? We hold our breath while we hold the lead and focus on something we don’t care about. Want proof? Take a video of you and your horse and see what you missed. Meanwhile, our good horses keep trying.

Focus is easier for horses. It’s their nature; it’s how they communicate. Their survival depends on focus. Horses are incapable of not focusing on everything all at once, with senses so much sharper than ours. Think of focus as active listening. It isn’t problem-solving or explaining or overthinking; it’s staying tuned in with our senses.

Focus is the good habit that then encourages other good habits. It gives us a chance to help sooner, to encourage the horse when confidence begins to waver, to avoid big issues by noticing them small, and a breath will be enough to resolve them. It means we don’t need to correct our horse because we are so inside the moment, that we can prepare ahead, and the horse’s quick reaction time works in favor of both of us. It isn’t that some horses are perfect, it’s that some riders can be there for their horses before things come apart. It isn’t constant correction, it’s focused support. It’s catching the glass before it falls rather than picking up the pieces later.

I think you have noticed that focus is not natural for humans. Our brains are drawn to bright shiny thoughts. We have to school ourselves in slowing down, noticing details, and staying in conversation. Aware of our surroundings but not distracted by them. This is a good time for a martyr to draw a knife and stab themselves, but please understand, that is a distraction, too. Kindly take a breath and excuse that inner-railbird. Return to your good horse.

The bittersweet part of this vignette was the self-awareness my friend found in the interchange. She didn’t make a joke, and acknowledging that she failed, she chose to do better. She is right, the fact that horses keep trying should inspire us to pick up our game. When we make a mistake, we have to understand that it’s good news. We can’t change until we notice what needs to change. Awareness is the true path to a quiet place with a horse.

Start small. Let it be this simple:

Inhale. Focus on one small task. Complete it. Notice.

We have to pry the sticky old habits loose and practice holding a bright soft focus. Show yourself the patience your horse likes. When you fail, as we all do, reward your try because we don’t get the praise we deserve either.

This woman got on my friend’s nerves. I thought she was a caricature when my friend mimicked her glass-shattering voice. But I got to visit my friend’s barn a year later and meet her handsome maxi cobb gelding, Bruce. As we were admiring him, we heard a rattling disturbance coming closer, trash cans being moved, and someone muttering squeaky swear words and not exactly under their breath. I touched my friend’s shoulder with my eyes wide and mouthed the words, “Is that her?” Incredulous she was so recognizable. As she stormed by the stall door, complaining someone had stolen her muck fork, my friend said, this is Anna from America.  The woman waved over her back and continued slamming her way, now she would be late, she said. My friend gave me an I-told-you-so smile.

Trainers always say that horses need consistency. Well, not this kind. Later as my friend and I were taking muck down the alley to dump, a horse struck at us, teeth bared and ears pinned flat, out the half-door of his stall. I recognized the woman’s horse just as quickly. Pain will do that if we don’t listen.

I’m not sharing this story hoping to hear all the complaints you have about stupid people. Trust me, idiots are not in short supply and I am sick of hearing about them.

It’s time to make a choice about what we focus on. They don’t deserve our precious attention. Maybe we could practice focus by refusing to let ourselves wallow in disgust. It leaves a mark on us and our horses notice. Instead, we might belligerently keep our eyes lifted, our breath clean, and when our minds wander, gently call them back to something affirmative. Here’s my secret: I remember I love horses and re-focus on the one in front of me.

We were almost finished; I was making Bruce’s bed for the night and my friend had gone for more shavings. Deaf in one ear and I could hear the woman’s voice clang down the alley, calling my friend. As she neared the stall, I ducked behind Bruce, and he closed his eyes. She didn’t see us.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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20 thoughts on “Focus is Active Listening. Horses Do It Naturally.”

  1. I have two mares who were pushed at a young age to be performance horses. We are working on trust and relaxation. Yesterday while a stride the older of the two sitting in the middle of the arena attempting to avoid the craziness the gal that works there said to me “I saw you riding your horse for the first time yesterday, you are usually just sitting on them or standing with them”. Thinking back I should have said “thank you” but of course I just shrugged and said “hard to figure”. This is my first experience with boarding my horses and it takes quite some getting used to!!

  2. Thanks to you, I read Elaine’s husband’s blog, and so recognized who you were talking about immediately. THAT was bittersweet. I hope Bruce has someone else who will try so hard to listen to him.

    • Thanks Michelle. Bruce died about three months before Elaine. He was extraordinary, she wrote about him in her book, A Horse, A Husband and Cancer.

  3. I imagine that anyone who has attempted to meditate on a cushion, even for just a few minutes, is familiar with our mind’s tendency to jump around, and how difficult it is to rein in that monkey mind ! Being with a horse, and say, leading him, is an opportunity to practice being in the moment, to be grounded in the environment with attention to our horse. But with soft eyes as mentioned last week !! All this is one reason I say horses are a spiritual practice.

    Thank you for putting this into words. I have discovered a new pet peeve for me regarding people and their horses. People who start spinning a myth, writing a romantic story and verbalizing it as they approach and start working with their horses…. as if that will make it so, and with good intentions of course. But one really cannot listen to their horse while spinning out a tale at the same time ! Anyhow, focus is a critical matter and glad you wrote about it this week.

    • I agree, Sarah. A pillow is harder for me, but it’s the same thing. I credit dressage for my focus. Step by step going up the levels, I had to get better in increments. I think seeing the ladder made it more real, but we all fight the bright shiny thing. And I share that peeve. Thanks, Sarah.

  4. Love the analogy to active listening (as opposed to waiting for your turn to speak, or just doing 8 other things). It is such an absolute gift we can give ourselves, being in the moment and actually experiencing the thing we are choosing to do. Less a chore, and more of a blessing that is there for us to accept 😊

  5. Doing a bit of self-reflection here as I try not to listen at the top of my lungs, Anna. Thank you for this reminder about focus, and the bittersweet tale of your friend.

  6. Yes! So hard to do, staying in the moment and not letting the mind wander. Thank you for this. And for that self awareness idea poking through the thoughts, that I might be (AM!) the problem. Let him talk, and listen to him!

  7. Just read your active listening article. Busy in, busy out, things to do, things to think about. Please be still, dont do that. Oh my gosh, how glad I am to have come across this article today. I hear myself on those days w/o being conscious of myself or my two girls in the barn. The light has come on and will never be turned off again.Truly a God-sent article for me. Thank you!

  8. Went back & re-read this – What grabbed me (this time) was “I ducked behind Bruce, and he closed his eyes. She didn’t see us!”
    Sounds like Bruce & his “mom” were of the same mindset!


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