Is Your Horse Distracted?

You want the horse to focus on the task and do it.

Let’s say your horse needs to stand still. He pauses, quiet for a few seconds almost before you notice, but he’s close and you can’t help but adjust his forelock. Like a horse even needs a forelock adjustment. Then he shifts to look away (a calming signal), so you pull his face toward you, so close he can’t see you. He looks away again and this time, you correct him just in case he might take a step. He didn’t take a step before but now you rattle the lead and he backs a step. So, you correct him again, you pull him forward, but he takes two steps. You poke him back again. This horse never stands still.

Let’s say there’s an obstacle. You bring your horse up to it and pause. Your horse drops his head to the ground (calming signal) and you jerk his head up because he isn’t looking where you think he should be. He is looking from a passive position, but now the horse knows he’s in trouble, so he shuts down a little. So, you pull his head forward but since horses don’t naturally give to pressure any more than we do, he pulls back. You swing your rope and pop him on his backside, and of course, he moves his backside away. Now the horse is head high and won’t face the obstacle. His eye is very still, but no matter what, he just won’t pay attention to the obstacle.

Let’s say you are asking your horse to transition up to either a trot or a canter. At the same time, you want him to bend but instead of using your leg at the girth, you pull the inside rein. That’s a whoa command so he slows. Then you kick him in a nagging repetitive way because he didn’t take the cue to go faster. He’s losing confidence and one side of his mouth hurts. He needs to escape, so he counter-bends (another calming signal) and pins his ears. You hold hard on the reins, frustrated and escalating now. And in the confusion of one cue to stop and one cue to go, he just does his best.

Is there a more frustrating, discombobulated, stubborn, tense, and just plain contradictory animal than a human?

It’s such a human thing to think someone else isn’t focused because the thing about a lack of focus, obviously, is that we don’t notice it’s us. If we have a discerning eye, we notice other people aren’t focused. When we finally notice it’s us, we make longwinded excuses for not being focused, but it doesn’t improve our focus. It just adds one more ingredient in the mess our lack of focus has stirred up. Wait, it gets worse. Then, we really focus hard on focusing and start to micromanage the horse, which is very similar to not focusing, if you ask him.

It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in the air and quit. Then, in that split second of silence, maybe you see your horse’s eye soften, or an ear turn toward you (calming signals) and you are drawn in, just like always. Because the rattle and bang didn’t work for you any more than it did for your horse. But your horse is right there, ready to give you another try.

It can seem like knowing horses and training them is a complicated thing. And it is, but here is the secret: You have to do it simply, and most of all, politely. We have to learn to not interrupt our horses when they are thinking.

Horses just think about one thing at a time. Humans are the ones who can multi-task, but is it an advantage? We chatter on, interrupt each other, forget what we were saying or doing. We have three or five things going at once, we can’t remember. The more productive we try to be, the less we get done. We contradict ourselves and then get frustrated if the horse answers the contradiction instead of the first thing we said, several contradictions before. Am I rude to be so blunt? Be glad I’m not a mare.

Horses try to teach us. They come near when we settle. We think it’s magic but no, they are drawn to us when we are less predatory, more peaceful. If the horse behaves differently when we muck out the pen or groom than when we train, hear your horse. He has common sense.

But cheer up. It isn’t our fault. Growing up, we got punished for lacking focus, too. When told we were daydreaming or distracted, (thinking about something more interesting than science or Shakespeare) it was a bad thing to be focused on the wrong subject. But when the lecture droned on, when the subject was dull, when we were drilled or worked too long, we got corrected, told to try hard and focus, as if we were a slow-witted horse. Focus felt like detention. and that left a stain on the idea of focus. Somewhere it got all twisted in our minds. Horses understand how that could happen.

You’ve heard it so much it feels like it’s tattooed on your forehead: Less is more. It means just do one thing at a time, don’t let other things distract you, and please don’t nag. It means when we do less, it gives the horse the space he needs to speak up and do more.

Focus doesn’t mean we try harder, instead we listen more. We aren’t more intense, we breathe more rhythmically. We don’t let ourselves worry about the next question, we stay on topic. We don’t ask-tell-make the horse, we pose a polite request. We respect the horse and give him time to answer. And somewhere in this process, we like ourselves better.

Let’s start again. It doesn’t matter what you are doing with the horse, because it isn’t what we train, but the quality of our conversation when we train them. Start by noticing the horse and acknowledging his utter perfection. Settle yourself. Listen for the answer he gives and learn from that. Let it inform your next question. Maintain politeness, release anxiety when it rises. Feel good about the process.

Your horse might not join in right away. He may have history in the way or he may need to build some trust. He may be waiting for an accelerating cue, braced for the “make” part of the request. You can’t do this part for him but trust him to work it out. Your horse wants to get along. While you are patient, expect the best.

Is there a more committed, enthusiastic, try-hard, well-intentioned, and just plain kind-hearted animal than a human? No. We can be pretty great.

 Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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36 thoughts on “Is Your Horse Distracted?”

    • We all started in ways we were taught, no guilt needed. I wasn’t born knowing this either. Take care, Chaz. The herd says hay.

  1. Boom! And drop the mike.
    Thanks Anna – because we humans have so much to learn and practice to be on the same playing field as a horse. If we ever can be. But we can try and with coaches like you, we have a chance.

    • If domination and fear bases methods aren’t what we want, yes, we have to practice. But it isn’t like we can give them up, so why not?

  2. Another truly insightful piece. Less is more works everywhere. In our distracted daily lives, in what we expect of ourselves and others, in having a lighter impact on the planet. One thing at a time, focus means noticing not making. There’s a reason we live horses, they make us better. Awesome creatures.

    • If you mean love… sometimes love works and sometimes love hurts. If it was as simple as loving horses, there wouldn’t be so many training issues or rescue horses. Thanks Ann

  3. Thank you Anna for another great blog. I have taken your suggestions and applied them, and my relationship and connection with Buddy has flourished.

    And this sentence is pure gold. “We have to learn to not interrupt our horses when they are thinking.” And we must not interrupt their calming signals. It is so true and makes all the difference.

  4. Ahhh Yesss, “ let’s start again”. The theme this week for Tisto’s conversation with me about trailer loading. He had a lot to say and reminded me that I can be a little LOUD!

  5. Another “knock it out of the ballpark home run” essay, Anna ! I was just having a conversation, or more accurately, I was listening with clinched teeth & grimace while a friend described how her farrier got her horse’s attention.

    We just can’t ponder and chew on matters such as” focus” too much and your words support and encourage that. Horsemanship is such an “art” as you often say. I think there are times when I lack clarity with my horse because I listen TOO long, and he maybe thinks I left the conversation? For sure it is a dance.

    As I type this I am looking out my back door and seeing my horse Cash display persistant curiosity about an “enrichment” box I put in the horse pen earlier. Typically, he displays no interest in the box. I believe his emerging curiosity comes from a place of growing confidence. And his confidence is surely correlated with the “affirmative,” methods I have tried to always use around him for last 4 years or so, even though he is a retired , companion horse.

    Anyhow, just saying Anna’s wisdom works !!!!

    • Hi Sarah! I’ve never heard of the “enrichment” box, what do you put in it? does it have a lid? Please tell me more – it sounds delightful and I would love to introduce it to a couple of my guys! -SA [email protected]

      • When I emailed you at the address you mention, it kicks back. My enrichment box will probably be a disappointment .. just cardboard boxes from Amazon , or the cartons that 12 pack of sodas might come in, with a carrot or alfalfa pellets inside. I would have thought they would smash the box and grab the treat, but my horses seem to prefer to shake and turn the box until the treat falls out. I like to experiment with different size boxes.

        • Odd email behavior but not surprising – it’s company so it probably got blocked but thank you for responding! I’m not disappointed at all in fact, I’m glad it is so simple! I’m totally going to do it!!

    • “Listening with clenched teeth” I know that one. Good boy, Cash. Yay!! It’s a tightrope, that’s for sure. Never the same day to day. Thanks Sarah.

  6. I had THAT day yesterday. I was trying too hard. I was split in too many directions mentally and emotionally to stay in focus. Boy do I appreciate the reminder. I swear I spent half the day in self imposed time out, started after horse #5 said “Jane, settle”. Why is it so difficult to remember my schedule is not the worlds schedule, the barns schedule, or the horses schedule. The day has its own rhythm, and fighting that is not only useless it’s not even remotely productive. Horses and barns need what they need, and that changes from day to day. Today I am thankful I started slowed down, and looking to fit into the rhythm instead of fighting it!

    • Great comment, Jane. It’s when passion has a runaway. I am prone to trying too hard. I think horses do, too. Until a point. Thanks for commenting. Anna, settle!

  7. Confession: I have a neuroses concerning horse eye boogers. I see one, I remove one. If I fail to observe my horse’s reaction to my approach for booger removal, the removal is a protracted adventure with multiple evasive horse moves. If I manage to be in a more evolved human state, and observe my horse’s reaction to my approach and politely give him time to be ready, we’re are done in a heartbeat with no objection and maybe an interest in further conversation. My evolution is slow with a focus on observing vs doing. Thanks Anna, for the eloquent guidance and essential reminders.

  8. So you’ve been in my barn again, Anna. Someday I will find the camera! Yesterday I asked my mare quietly and she answered “yes!” Today I asked the same question and she said, “what?!” so I got a bit frustrated in my mind and said, “but you KNEW this yesterday!” I will remember your words and say, “ok, my girl, let’s do it again from the beginning… again…” And hope tomorrow she will say, “Ok! I have it now!” You are delight to horses and horse people the world over and I can’t wait to meet you. Virginia in the Spring is a pretty place… just sayin’…

  9. Perfection, Anna! Thank you.
    A few days ago, while in the arena, Jack kept turning away from me (I was walking him quietly on the lead rope). He was trying to look at something. So, instead of the usual “walk on” request, I set the lead gently over his back and said, “OK, what?” He turned back, walked several steps toward a little manure (a mare had been there before him), sniffed and then lifted his head, looked around at me, (I was patiently waiting, as you suggest), and calmly walked back with a low head. He stopped beside me — clearly, a “thank you”.

    I think, perhaps, this hits the spot?


    • Thanks, Nuala. And obviously better to let him look than pull his head. We tend to anthropomorphize moments like this in descriptions, and without seeing the interchange, I can’t say. I never substitute another’s eyes for my own. I recommend the Calming Signals class because it gives us so much insight into subtle messages. I’m glad you are allowing the conversation on Jack’s side.

  10. I had a situation yesterday at a working equitation training day. My horse was very unsettled by the seagulls on the roof of the arena. They were making so much noise. She was startled often and couldn’t focus. We had moments of calm but then self preservation set in and she was running around and dropping her shoulder into me as if I wasn’t even there. I think she had exceeded her threshold. How do you deal with a horse that has these moments when on different outings?

    • Nature happens. I give up on the event and focus on getting my horse calm again. Meaning prioritizing my horse over the event. I hate to say it (I’m a clinician and would help you, but it changes the day). Horses get more confidence the more they are hauled, even to friends or trails, so going forward getting out more, but this is something you can’t train for. Affirmative Training builds confidence, so that’s a good idea. But once a horse is in their flight mode, the sympathetic system, it isn’t possible for them to learn, or at least learn something we want them to learn. I definitely wouldn’t try to “desensitize” her the birds. I hate to say it, but best to kick back and relax so your horse gets that cue. I’m sorry.


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