Patterns Versus Focus

I have noticed at my clinics that there is a growing appreciation of the importance of capturing a horse’s focus and being able to then direct that focus. It seems people are beginning to really appreciate the concept and are becoming more aware about the elusive nature of focus. Yet even so, there remains some lack of understanding about what that means in a practical sense. The awareness of people about a horse’s level of attentiveness is still at the level of examining the question of whether a horse is doing what it is asked. For many people, if a horse is performing the task it must therefore be focused. However, this is not necessarily true and the issue of focus goes much deeper than a horse’s submission.


I see at clinics horses that do everything asked of them. I see horses that follow their owners on the lead rope like puppies. There is no sign of needing to be dragged along or hesitation to walk with their owner. Many will even follow through puddles, across tarps and poles, around obstacles and through narrow gateways. They will trot or canter with the handler, stop turn and backup. It looks like there is a secret and magical communication passing from horse to human. Yet, in my observations I see only a small amount of focus and brainpower being used by the horse. How can this be? How can so much get done with poor focus?


The answer comes from the horse’s tremendous capacity to form patterns. Horses receive comfort from knowing the answer to a question. If we ask a horse to do something, there is no problem if the horse already knows what it is we want it to do. However, if the answer of how to respond to our request is unclear a horse can experience considerable stress and anxiety. For this reason, many horses will very quickly recognize a pattern of response that they believe helps them avoid pressure. For instance, if I ride into the arena and every day my first request is to turn right, it will take almost no time at all before the horse recognizes the pattern of turning right and begin to turn right immediately I enter the arena, even before I get a chance to ask.


It’s because they get comfort from predictability and routines that they often form habits or patterns of responses. The greater the predictability or reliability of the routine, the more comfort a horse receives. So the incentive for a horse to look for recognizable patterns in the work is very strong. However, the problem becomes that as the pattern becomes more established, there is less focus required for the horse to perform the task. In fact, lots of horses can perform quite complex patterns with very little focus if the pattern is strong enough. I refer to horses that can do this as working on autopilot.


How can you tell if your horse is just following a routine?


The easiest way to know if your horse is with you or just going through the motions is to do something out of the ordinary. Try something that is not part of the normal pattern. For example, if your horse follows you around on the lead rope quite happily, but you want to check if they are mentally engaged in the job or just blindly following you around, try taking off at high speed and see if your horse is following just as closely or with just as much ‘okay-ness’ as when you were leading in the normal way. Don’t be abrupt about getting your feet moving because they would be unfair, but try asking your horse to trot fast or walk extremely slowly or make a sharp turn or back in a circle or side pass, etc. Anything that breaks the normal pattern is a good test of whether or not a horse is working on autopilot.


Imagine driving to work the same way everyday and how little attention is needed to drive. But then you are told that the road rules have changed and you have to drive on the opposite side of the road. Then notice how much more attention you need to pay to driving.


If a horse is doing what we want, why is it important that it is not working on autopilot?


It’s because horses working to a pattern are prone to have a melt down when the pattern is broken. One of the most common causes of horses shying at things they have seen a million times is a lack of focus. Horses that suffer separation anxiety lack focus. Horses that don’t follow the feel of the reins or the rider’s seat and legs, lack focus. In fact, there is no aspect of horsemanship and riding where we don’t require a high degree of focus in order to achieve clarity and softness.


It is easy to be convinced that everything is rosy with our horses when they don’t protest and do what they are told. Nevertheless, it is naïve to assume that just because you have obedience that you have a high degree of focus.


I’ve been reading a book while on my travels through the USA called “Before I Go To Sleep” by S.J. Watson. It is a thriller that tells the tale of a middle-aged woman that through a mysterious accident loses her memory each night. She wakes each morning not knowing who she is or anything about her past life and relies on her husband and others to re-tell her life story each day. Each day is the beginning of her life in terms of her memory.


The book has stimulated me to think about the importance of memory in our lives. It seems that not only do we need memory to be able to function and relate to both people and circumstances, but also our memories tell us who we are. They define us. Without our memories we don’t know if we are good or evil. We don’t know if we love or hate. We don’t know if we are happy to sad. We don’t know whom we can trust and whom we can’t. If any of us woke up tomorrow with no memory we would be a blank slate – a new person. We could be molded into a completely different person by new experiences forming new memories. Memories both define who we are and shape our behaviour.


So what role does memory play in a horse’s life and in the process of shaping its behaviour? The short answer is I don’t know and possibly nobody knows, but it is interesting to speculate to me. So here is what I think (but I don’t know for sure).


People have the capacity to call up memories spontaneously. We can recollect things from our past without prompting.  For example, while I’m away from home doing clinics I miss my wife. I can spontaneously remember the day we met and how nervous I was to talk to her. I remember our first kiss and I can remember how teary she was when she dropped me off at the airport a few weeks ago. These things I can recall at will.


However, I don’t think horses have the capacity to recall memories at will. I do believe that horses have good memories, but I think those memories have to be triggered by an outside stimulus rather than being extracted from inside the horse’s central nervous system. It seems dubious to me that a horse sits under a tree and dreams of the days of frolicking beside its mother when it was young. Or the time it was inside the trailer when it was rear-ended by a blue sedan.


The evidence seems to show that a horse’s memory is largely pictorial. A horse thinks in pictures and has an amazing capacity for detail. It could walk into a room and leave again and if it could talk it would be able to tell you everything that was in the room, its colour and where it was placed. Their capacity to memorize detail far exceeds the human’s. When a memory is triggered for a horse it is because of an association that an image or smell or sound has with a picture stored in its memory. Humans have this capacity too, but the difference being that people don’t need a trigger to recall a memory. This has important implications for the training of horses.


Because horses need a trigger or association to remember, unlike people, horses don’t dwell on memories. They are a little like the character in my novel in that each day is like the beginning of their life. They are not defined by their past or their memories. With each new encounter with a person, a horse can become a new horse. Whether or not that happens depends on the handler’s ability to either avoid or suppress the triggers of unwanted associations, or their skill at shaping new associations with old, unwanted triggers (memories, habits or however you want to describe it).


For example, if a horse has developed the habit of pushing into the reins when a rider adds contact, we can build a new habit by either avoiding the trigger and not add contact or we can add a new habit of softening to the reins when we add contact. Either way, we are re-defining the trigger or association that a horse has about rein contact. We can do this much easier with horses (and other species) than we can with people, which I suspect is in large part due to the fact they horses do not dwell on past events. Their store of memories is not something that defines them in the same way it define humans.


If you doubt this is true, think about how most of us are intransigent in our views. Most of us are dogmatic about some aspects of our life and belief systems even in the face of the irrefutable truth of an opposing view. Some people continue to believe the earth is flat and some believe that other races are inferior. Horses do not hold such dogmatic opinions. They may need quite a bit of convincing before they change their view, but they are ready to change if they can be shown a better way. I believe this is because horses don’t live in their memories and don’t hang onto them for dear life in the way that cause people to have an emotional tie to something that they can’t let go of.


I do believe you can teach old horses new tricks. If memories were a stronger influence on a horse’s personality I think we would probably find it easier to ride tigers.


Here is a horse with some good thoughts.

Do You Have The Stomach To Win?

I really don't like this video because it dismisses the importance of the horse's opinion in the rider's ambition to be competitive.


Stirrups Safety

This is a plea. It’s a plea to everyone who rides and especially to everyone who comes to one of my clinics and wants me to ride their horse.


Please. Please stop using stirrups that barely fit your boot.


 I sit in so many saddles where the stirrups are only fractionally wider than the rider’s boot that I end up having to ride with only my toe in the stirrup.


The two most dangerous things that can happen to a person happen because a rider’s foot gets caught in the stirrup. The first is that a rider becomes unseated (due to things like bucking, loss of balance or the horse falls) and then is dragged by the foot as the horse flees. The second is to have a horse rear and flip over and the rider is squashed underneath because they couldn’t remove their feet from the stirrups to leap to the side. Almost nobody escapes these situations without serious injury. And it is so avoidable by ensuring either the stirrups are much wider than the rider’s boot or the stirrups are the breakaway type that ensures separation of stirrup from the leather in the event of an accident.


There are so many different designs of stirrups that minimize the risk of a rider becoming hung up in the stirrups, that there is no reason why a person can’t find a stirrup that is both safe and looks good on their saddle or is suitable for their discipline.


So please give serious consideration to the safety factor when choosing the stirrups for your riding.


Pushy Horses

Over the years I have seen many problems that people and horses have with their relationship. There are probably few relationship issues that I haven’t seen. Perhaps the most common thing I see that comes up time and time again are when horses creep up and crowd people. It seems an almost universal issue and is the same no matter what level of education a horse or person has, or performance discipline or age group or what country I’m in.  A bloke could make a living just out of teaching people how to stop their horse walk all over them.


So let’s look at why this happens and why it is such a common relationship problem.


People often refer to a horse trespassing into their space as being disrespectful. This is invariably not true. It has nothing to do with respect or disrespect. To understand what is going on we have to examine why a horse moves into the space occupied by another.


In a herd (wild or domestic) there is no democracy. No horse has equal rights or the same voting power as any other horse. They all occupy a specific place in a herd that is determined by which horse they can dominate and which horse dominates them. Horse A dominates horse B, and horse B dominates horse C. This can be complicated further when horse C dominates horse A. Nevertheless, this order of hierarchy determines each horse’s place in the herd and where the leadership lies.


The importance of this should not be underestimated. It shows that horses seek leadership. Leadership in any gathering is a must for a horse to feel safe and comfortable. Evolution has shaped horses to seek where the leadership exists. They need to know which horses they can lord over and which horses rule over them to feel safe and comfortable. Having an equal is not an option for a horse. The horse world is not an equal opportunity world.


How do horses determine who they are in charge of and who is in charge of them? The answer is that the one who directs the feet of the other is the one in charge. It is that simple.


When a horse enters a herd, they very quickly try to establish which horses they can direct and which horses can direct them. Initially, there may be some shuffling of position and instability, but fairly quickly order descends and stability is re-established by each horse knowing their place in the group.


Knowing this very simple principle of horse behaviour, one has to ask why so many people have trouble with horses invading their space?


Again, I think the answer is very simple. Consistency!


When a horse and a human come together, neither knows which is the leader. It is the nature of horses to ask the question of the human, “Are you in charge of me or am I in charge of you?” They do this by trying to move the feet of the human. There is nothing wrong with this. It is perfect natural and should never be thought of as disrespectful. Instead it should be looked at as the horse trying to establish the rules of leadership of this new relationship. The horse is just asking the question in the same way it would ask it of another horse.


Some human answers the question by giving up space to the horse. Instantly, the human has told the horse that it is the horse that is the leader. Other times, the human does not yield up space and may even convince the horse to give up some of its own space. In this instance the human has told the horse that it is not the one in charge, but the person is the leader. Again, the horse is perfectly fine with that too, because it just wanted an answer to its very simple, but essential question.


However, when the relationship is new and the rules are not established in concrete, sometimes a horse will ask several times, “Are you in charge of me or am I in charge of you?” It may get asked over and over until the answer is clear and believable in the horse’s mind. This is where people get into trouble.


Good horse people never have a problem with offering a clear and consistent answer to the question their horse asks. As a result, in a fairly short time their horse understands with crystal clarity the relationship and stops asking the question. However, a reasonably large proportion of owners do not answer their horse’s question with clarity and consistently. Sometimes, their reply to Flossy’s question is “I’m in charge of you,” and sometimes it is “You’re in charge of me.”


This lack of clarity and consistency leaves Flossy confused and stressed and without an answer that they can rely on or believe. The relationship with their owner is in jeopardy because they do not know who is in charge and offer leadership. As I have already said, leadership and knowing who is in charge is a vital component of a horse feeling safe and comfortable.


The outcome is a horse who either keeps asking the question all the time in an effort to have a final resolution they can rely upon or they shut down and becomes much more unresponsive. Either way, the human has filled their horse’s life with stress.


At clinics I see a lot of horses that have resulted from owners not providing clear and consistent answers and leaving their horses in limbo as to their role in the relationship. It’s not disrespect. It’s not rudeness. It’s not wilfulness. It’s simple people being unclear as to who is leading the dance.