Focus And Not Moving the Feet

A horse’s focus and thoughts is a subject that is discussed in detail at every one of my clinics. I talk about it; I demonstrate it and I try to teach it. I even devoted about 30 pages explaining it in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.


The reason I put so much effort into teaching the concept of focus and thoughts is not because I don’t have anything else to teach. It’s because it is a problem in 100% of the horses that I see. Even in horses that are going along pretty well, focus could be better. When people come to clinics with an issue they’d like to improve, the quality of focus is ALWAYS at the heart of the problem. Without focus there can be no clarity and without clarity there can be no softness. It’s that simple. So everything begins with improving the quality of a horse’s focus and nothing progresses without it.


There are different types of focus and if you read my book you’ll understand why and how they affect the training of a horse. So I’m not going to go into that topic here. But what I encounter when I talk to people is that most have an oversimplified understanding of what focus is. The first thing I want to say about this is that I view focus as being that same as awareness. If a horse is aware of something it has some degree of focus or attention reserved for that thing. It may be miniscule and it may be fleeting, but it is real and should not be dismissed as unimportant.


It is almost unheard of that a horse has zero focus, but a lot of people are taught that a horse’s attention is either on or it’s off. There is a belief among some that a horse only has room for one thought in its head. It is either focused on the rider and the work or its not. But in reality horses have the capacity for multiple points of awareness. The things they feel, smell, see and hear are all documented in some area of the brain. A horse can be aware of the stone it stepped on, the smell of the springtime jasmine, the sound of a spectator blowing their nose and the turn of the rider’s shoulders all at the same time. It’s unlikely that each of these inputs has equal weight in a horse’s thoughts, but they are not irrelevant.


When we are working a horse we are always competing with the world to ensure that among all those things vying for a horse’s attention, we are at the top of the heap. As part of the basic training of any horse in any discipline, we are trying to make the primary focus be the conversation we have with our horse. Everything else should be background noise and have less importance or can wait its turn for when we finish talking to our horse. A total misunderstanding of this concept is the first thing I encounter at clinics. So many people seem content to have to share an equal spot in a horse’s thoughts with half a dozen other things distracting their horse. Then they wonder why things don’t work in their favour.


The second issue that is very common is that people are aware that their horse is more interested in other things than them, and try to blast through the problem with hard work. There is a total misconception that getting a horse’s feet to move will create greater focus. It is one of my biggest peeves when I see people directing their horse’s feet to move with no clue that the horse has not made one positive mental change. They think they are getting something worthwhile done because they have been taught to make their horse perform specific exercises and told it is all about directing the feet. It gives me a metaphoric migraine.


As I have said enough times to even put myself asleep (let alone my students), the only change worth having is a change of thought. Moving the feet is only useful if it is preempted by a change of thought. If the horse’s feet are obedient, but the horse is still thinking about his mates in the paddock nothing worthwhile is learned from the exercise. So everything should begin with a change of thought, which always begins with the human being the primary focus.


In order to get a horse’s attention, a lot of people drive their horse. They drive them in circles, they drive their hindquarters to disengage, they drive them backwards, they drive them sideways, they drive them over tarpaulins and they drive them crazy. Most times this is not only unnecessary, but it can also be counterproductive. The constant pressure to move can cause a horse to deliberately choose to think about something else. We can create the distracted behaviour – even in horses that have a natural curiosity and us and what we do. We become the problem. It’s not that the horse is ignoring us, just the opposite in fact. The horse is very attentive to us, but it feels so poorly by the pressure of the constant driving that it chooses not to mentally engage. 


The most effective way to obtain a horse’s focus is to give it a reason to pay attention. That means asking for something that is not so easy the horse can do it blindfolded, but not so hard that the horse feels troubled. Sometimes this doesn’t even require a horse to move, but just feel okay being with us. I try to explain this at clinics because many people struggle with not moving their horse. It’s like, “how can you influence a horse’s focus without telling them to move their feet?” It is possible, but it is better to be seen than read about it.


To give an example of how you don’t have to drive a horse to gain their attention, a woman brought along a very fractious mare to a clinic. The horse was flying around on the end of the lead rope, calling out and desperate to find a friendly face. Its focus was bouncing around in every direction. The owner kept driving the mare to change direction every half circle or so, in the hope it might pay attention to her. But it wasn’t working because the horse knew how to change direction without thinking too much about it. It didn’t need to pay attention in order to move.


I finally took the lead rope from the owner. I walked one step and stopped while at the same time asking the horse to come with me. Another step and stop. At first the horse couldn’t stop, but I kept the rope short so it couldn’t run through me and I only relaxed the rope when the horse stopped pushing forward with its thought. Then I walked another step and stopped - then another and another. It took less than 2 minutes for me to became the most important thought in the horse’s brain – I was the primary focus. Within 10 minutes the horse was mimicking my walk. When my left foot lifted from the ground, the horse lifted it’s left foot and the same with the right foot. If I stopped with my foot in the air, the horse’s foot stopped in midair. If I moved my foot back, the horse moved its foot back. She shadowed my movement.


It took 10 mins for the horse to understand the job, but it only took a couple of mins to have its attention. If I tried to teach it to shadow my walk without first becoming the primary focus, it would never have worked out well. I would be constantly chasing the horse’s attention, like a kid chasing a butterfly. The rest of the session went fantastic because the owner no long had to battle to get her horse’s focus.


Change in the horse was not because I told it to move a foot when I moved a foot. The change happened because of two things. I presented a project that the horse could not do without paying a lot of attention. And secondly, the horse only found comfort when its mind was engage on the exercise and me. It didn’t matter if the horse was ever able to shadow me – that was of secondary importance. The main goal was a change in focus. That made the rest of the work in the session possible.


A horse’s focus is almost never zero, but it is also almost never as much as it could be. Until the day comes that a person attends a clinic with a horse that exhibits maximum focus, I’ll keep talking about it.


If you watch the video clip of Warwick Schiller you’ll see a good example of a horse that chooses not to mentally engage. Warwick suggests the horse is ignoring him, but I disagree. I believe the horse is very aware of everything Warwick does; it displays a lot of focus on him. But it feels so badly about people that it chooses to try to disconnect. That’s not the same thing as ignoring a person. It’s the difference between hard thoughts and soft thoughts as explained in my book. I’m not suggesting that Warwick has caused this behaviour – it’s most likely the horse was like this long before it came to Warwick for training. This is a very common response and I’d say at least 50% of horses that I see at clinics exhibit this behaviour.


My Watch

I guess most people already know that my clinics are formatted in a way that each participant gets one-on-one attention from me for the entire session. I don’t teach people in groups (in case they gang up on me J).


As I have said before, one of the reasons for teaching on a one-on-one basis is to ensure everybody gets an equal share of my time. It’s been my observation that when clinics are run with everybody in a group there is always some people who get more of the clinician’s attention than others. Yet everybody pays the same. So teaching individually is my way of getting around the inequity that the group format inevitably creates.


However, in order to ensure that if people are all paying the same that they all get the same amount of personalized help, it becomes important that I keep track of time. My clinics are always long days, so fitting in the number of lessons that I do requires keeping to time. For the most part I do pretty well at this and if occasionally a session goes overtime, I usually cut short my lunch break or add the lost time to the end of the day. But in order to keep track of time I always wear a watch when I’m teaching.


However, when I’m playing with my own horses at home I almost never wear a watch. Time becomes irrelevant. Sometimes the sessions are 20 minutes and sometimes they are 2hr and 20 minutes. I don’t know for sure because I don’t keep track. When I’m home there is almost nowhere else I have to be, so it doesn’t matter how much time I set aside for playtime. I like it this way and it is how it should be in my opinion. I wish the clinics could be like this too, but sadly it is not a very practical way to run them.


But there is always something that tells me it’s time to quit working with my horses. Sometimes it is my stomach telling me it is time for a cuppa, but mostly it is my horse telling me it is time to quit.


How does our horse tell us time is up?


I don’t work my horses hard enough to physically exhaust them or cause muscle fatigue, so I’m mainly looking for signs of mental/emotional tiredness. For my money, the main thing I am aware of is when (without any external distractions) a horse’s focus becomes more difficult to capture and harder to maintain.


Horses have a greater capacity to focus for long periods than most people give them credit. I think the most significant limiting factor in how long a horse can be attentive is in how interesting we make our time with them. If a horse is motivated to take an interest, it can hold that interest for a long time. However, when the work becomes uninteresting or mental fatigue sets in it is already past time to stop.  But you need to be clear whether the issue is boredom or mental fatigue. How do you know which it is?


If the horse loses focus because of boredom, then changing the program to something more interesting should regain the horse’s readiness to focus. However, if you have reached the limit of the horse’s ability to take in new information (fatigue) then making a change to the work won’t make a difference to the horse’s capacity to focus. When this happens you had better quit.


I know some people like to spend a certain amount of time warming up their horses before the real work begins. I’m not a huge fan of spending much time warming up a horse. For me, warming up is preparing a horse mentally for the work ahead, and that begins the moment I walk into the paddock with a halter. They are already warmed up by the time I’m ready to step into the stirrup. Yet some people like to ensure they exercise their horses for 20 minutes or so before the real work begins. Again, I would urge people not to work their horse by the clock, but when it feels ready. If you are in tune with the horse, there is no need to wear a watch. The watch does not know when your horse is ready, but a rider who is listening to their horse does. It’s another reason why wearing a watch is unimportant.


The other aspect of using time wisely when working with a horse relates to how we use the time in each session.


I know a lot of people who always leave the new lessons or the hard lessons to the very end of a session. The theory seems to be that it is more conducive to learning if we work on the things that are hard for a horse just before the work ends for the day. It’s like the horse views the ending of the session as a reward for his good efforts with the difficult stuff. I have to say this concept doesn’t seem logical to me and my experience doesn’t support it. To me it’s more likely that it would discourage a horse to try harder when the work gets difficult because we have taught it that the session will finish soon. It might start to anticipate going back to the paddock just at the time we need its maximum attention on the work.


Instead, I prefer to organize the sessions with my horses with a short bit of work they already know that is designed to get their minds engaged in the work. When their brains are in the arena, then I usually follow this with a period of working on new things or difficult exercises. Next I spend some time refining some of the work that is already established. This is often followed by stuff that is not new, but not established either and then end with something new or something old hat or maybe just hanging out with nothing to do – it will depend. One thing for sure is that I never spend much time on one thing. And I always add a liberal amount of doing nothing between projects. This approach ensures the work is very mixed and constantly changing.  As soon as I get what I am looking for or a slight improvement, it’s a short break and onto the next thing. It would be a rare occasion that I ask my horse for more than 5 minutes of any one exercise before moving to the next thing I want to play with.


I don’t need a watch to tell me when it’s time to move to the next item on the program. I don’t need a watch to tell me when my horse is warmed up and ready for work. I don’t need a watch to tell me when my horse is getting close to the limit and it’s time to finish the session. For all these things to work to our mutual benefit I just need to listen to my horse.


As the photo shows, I only need my pocket watch when I’m teaching.

The Thinking Horseman

“We have the aspiration of creators and the propensity of quadrupeds” – W. Winwood Read.


That quote was on the first page of my PhD thesis looking into the causes and characteristics of growth retardation in full term fetuses. It summed up how I felt at the time. I began my postgraduate studies thinking that singlehandedly I was going to solve the problem of why babies are born small and unhealthy and how we could prevent it. I finished my degree feeling a lifetime was not long enough to answer all the questions. The aspirations of a creator and the propensity of a quadruped – that was me.


A small number of people that knew me back in those days as a young scientist have said what a pity all that knowledge has gone to waste. They felt the potential that began with the many years of study and work focused on our understanding of birth and its many problems, was lost when I left research and became a professional horseman.


However, I believe the most important skill I learned from my years in science was an appreciation of an enquiring mind and how to use it. It has shaped my life in almost every way. It has underpinned almost all of the important decision of my life. And it forms the framework of my horsemanship. It’s skill that I value and give credit to my scientific mentors for developing.


Some years ago I attended a demonstration of starting a horse by a trainer who had apprenticed with one of the leading American lights of horsemanship at the time. He was certified by the American guru to be his representative down under. At the demonstration I watched the trainer drive a young 3 year old around a round yard. He was looking for the horse to change direction by turning both to the inside of the yard and the outside of the yard when requested. Despite having been imprint trained as a foal and been shown in hand for the past 2 years, the horse was clearly overwhelmed with stress at being chased around the yard. It’s ability to think unravelled before my eyes as the trainer chased the horse around the yard. The horse didn’t know what was going on. It only knew to run.


The exercise had been going for some 20 minutes. Things were not going according to plan because the horse kept making outside turns when asked to perform an inside turn and visa versa. After a lot of sweating by both horse and human the trainer was finally satisfied that the turns were good enough. He stopped driving the horse and told us that he was now going to walk up and pat the horse. He raised his hand and walked quietly to the horse’s face. When the fellow got about 3 metres away, it spun around and took off again. The trainer immediately began driving the horse around the yard. After a few minutes the driving stopped and he once again tried to approach the horse. But again it took off as he got close to its head. This was repeated several times. Both horse and trainer were close to exhaustion. But still, he could not pat the horse.


Out of sheer frustration I got out of my chair and said, “Excuse me, but can I ask a question?”


‘Sure, what is it?” he said.


“Well, the horse is clearly worried about you approaching its head. So I was wondering if it might not be better to try to touch him somewhere else like the shoulder and work your way up to his head as he relaxed more?”


The trainer replied, “That would just teach him that he gets to choose where I can touch him. He would then learn he runs the show and not me.”


The fellow never was able to rub the horse on the face.


But the reason I bring this story up is that the trainer did not think through the problem. He had a program that he learned through an established training scheme, but the program did not teach him to think. It only taught him how to do exercises. He was stuck in a system that did not allow him to try ideas that were outside of the system.


This is a massive problem in the horse world. It’s everywhere from local instructors at pony club to Olympic coaches. Every book or video on how to train a horse is guilty of perpetuating single-track thinking. Every instructor who tells a student how to do something rather than tell them to play around with an idea and experiment is guilty. Every rider who does what they are told without thought or question is guilty. Every instructor who instructs, but does not explain is guilty. Every trainer who uses their qualifications or fame and popularity as proof of their brilliance is guilty.


I’m not suggesting that enrolling in a certified program or subscribing to an online video course or receiving ‘how-to’ instruction from your favourite guru or coach is wrong or lacks merit. This is not the case at all. We all need help with the exercises. We all need guidance in how to do things. For most of us, a little handholding is essential from time to time. But alongside the exercises, we also need encouragement to question our instruction and think about why we do things and why we don’t do other things. To me, this seems to be the part that is missing from most of the help that is available to people. So often the attitude from our mentors is “its my way or the highway.”


I’ve had a few mentors in my life that have both influenced my actions and my thinking when it comes to horses. But despite the esteem I hold for them in, I cannot mimic them. I can’t be a clone of them.  I have had to find my own horsemanship.


If you examine the work of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt you would be hard pressed to find two horsemen that approached things more differently. Tom was Ray’s mentor, but Ray was not a clone. Both men were brilliantly talented, but very different. I believe this was because Ray developed ideas and experimented with concepts independently of what Tom taught. I have no doubt that was in large part because Tom encouraged Ray in this process, rather than just instruct him how to do things.


I believe the same is true of my experience of Harry Whitney. In my view, Harry is the best horseman around these days and the closest we now have to Tom Dorrance’s thinking. Yet, the most value I receive from Harry is not from trying to copy him, but from discussing and swapping ideas with him. We agree and we disagree. Yet, either way it always adds another dimension to my understanding. Harry has encouraged me to be different from him and I believe he would disappointed if just tried to be a carbon copy.


As a teacher, I try to encourage others to figure out their own path. It’s important that people establish their own set of principles that they use to judge the methods they (and others) use. That’s the only reason the books I have written are about ideas and not exercises. It’s the reason why my posts on Facebook or my blog are predominantly discussions about principles, not procedures. 


In the photo Harry and I are discussing some fundamentally important points of horsemanship While I accept that it is Harry’s right to be wrong, I am using my usual brilliant deductive logic (a slap across the chops) to help him see the light. That’s what friends are for!


Using Seat and Legs

This post is prompted from watching the Robert Dover video I posted a few days ago.


In the video clip Mr Dover discusses the way a rider should apply their legs when asking a horse to negotiate a turn with a lateral bend.


One of the things I come across on a regular basis is the idea that a horse should be ridden more from a rider’s seat and legs than from use of the reins. As many of you who have attended my clinics will already know I am a big believer in teaching a horse to be brilliant off the reins before worrying about teaching them to be brilliant from the seat and legs. But from time to time I come across people who are uncomfortable with this idea because it contradicts years of education in a more European style of training. I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t want my horse to work from my seat and legs alone as the training becomes more refined and it is ready. However, this is not important to me until my horse can be soft and responsive to my reins. And there is a reason for this.


In the early stages of training we teach a horse that contact with our legs means get some life in your feet. Usually this translate into going forward because (i) the flight instinct of a horse often creates a ‘go forward’ reaction, and (ii) we normally start a horse’s education with teaching that the correct response to application of a rider’s leg is to go forward.


But then comes the day when we get all excited about teaching our horse to turn when we rotate our body and apply inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth. To many this moment signifies the transition from a green horse to an educated horse. It is the leaving behind of the basics and the beginning of a new era of partnership, harmony and togetherness.


However, if the ‘go forward’ lesson is well established (which it should be) in the beginning virtually every horse will see the application of inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth as a cue to speed up – not a signal to turn. There is nothing built into a horse to know the magic power of inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth.


This is where the importance of a brilliant response to the reins comes into the equation. If we have already taught our horse to follow the turn with the inside rein, it is a relatively simple transition to convert the feel of our seat and legs from the ‘go forward’ cue to the ‘turn’ cue. Start by offering a feel of your legs to indicate a turn and follow a half a second with the inside rein. Repeat it over and over with seat/legs first and back it up with inside rein to give meaning to the seat and leg cues. It won’t take very long before the horse will being to turn the moment it feels the seat and legs come into play.


Overwhelmingly what I see as the biggest sin in this process occurs at the beginning of the training when a horse tries to go forward instead of turning. A lot of people try to get bigger with their legs in an attempt to make the horse obedient to turning. Don’t do this. It will build a fight in your horse. He believes that the rider is asking him to go more forward the more pressure the rider applies with their legs. When a horse tries to go forward when the legs are applied, just hinder an increase in the forward response with the outside rein and use the inside rein to indicate a turn. The seat and legs should ONLY be used with enough energy that a horse can feel them being applied. They should not be used firmer to make the horse turn.


Now that I have said all that, I’m going to tell you that I don’t do it that way. I’ve mentioned those tips for those that are taught to ride their horse through turns in a very orthodox European style. But it’s not what I do with my horses.


As it was discussed in the comments about the Robert Dover video clip, riding like that is an attempt to trap a horse between the rider’s legs. It’s a mechanical approach to riding and has little to do with being in harmony with a horse.


When I begin riding a horse I spend a lot of time teaching its thoughts to follow the feel of the inside rein. The rein indicates to the horse it should think in that direction. When a horse’s thought is directed to where the rein is indicating, its feet will follow because everything a horse tries to do is preceded by what it is thinking about trying to do.


We don’t control the horse’s body; we only converse with its mind to try to influence its thoughts in order for the horse to tell its body to go along with our ideas. So when the reins ask a horse to think about going in a certain direction, and the horse says “okay”, it will be the nicest turn you could get because there will be no resistance and no competing thoughts to draw the horse somewhere else. I don’t have to use my inside leg to try to get the horse to bend around it and outside leg to try to block the hindquarters from drifting. The horse’s thoughts will take care of all those issues for me.


What I haven’t yet mentioned is using my seat and legs. I’ve been using them from day 1, but not working at using them. From the first ride when I want to ask my horse to turn, I rotate my shoulders and hips to the inside and put a feel in the inside rein. When I rotate my body to the line of the turn, it has the cascading effect of adding a slightly differnt feel to my outside and inside thighs. My outside thigh squeezes closer to the horse’s shoulder just a fraction more, while my inside thigh relaxes a fraction less. At the same time my outside seat bone moves marginally forward and my inside seat bone moves marginally backwards.


I don’t try to make the changes in my seat bones or my legs happen. They just occur because I rotate my body slight in the direction of the turn. The action of my seat and legs is passive, not active. With repetition, soon a horse picks up on the changes in my body as precursors to making a turn. As the horse gets better at following the feel of the inside rein with its mind, it starts to follow the feel of my seat and legs too. In time the inside rein takes a less active role until the day comes when it seems like you don’t need to use it anymore.


Notice that the way my legs come into play is very different to the traditional inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth. This is because I’m not trying to use my legs to control the horse’s bend. I try to influence the thought of the horse and when that is right I let the horse balance itself around the turn.


To me this is what riding in partnership means. I play my role of talking to my horse’s mind and it plays it’s role of carrying itself. I do my part and let my horse to its part without interference.


The photo shows a rider that is using a lot of outside leg and rein. There is nothing passive about those aids.

Check This Out

This is a short video of a talk given by Robert Dover.


After watching the video I found myself disagreeing with almost everything Mr Dover had to say about bending.


It is the teaching of concepts like these that I am constantly battling against in my clinics because I believe they contribute to the state of dressage (and riding in general) in the world.


As you watch this clip keep in mind the following points, which I find contradict my own ideas.


1. Definition of straightness.

2. That there are three bending aids

3. The use of the inside leg and why it is used.

4. The placement of the horse’s centre of gravity.

5. The placement of the outside leg, why it is used and its effect on the horse.

6.  What a correct lateral bend looks like.


Robert Dover is a horseman with an enormously impressive resumé. He is a multiple Olympian and bronze medal winner in dressage. He has been technical advisor for both the Canadian and USA national dressage teams. He has been inducted in the US Dressage Federation Hall of Fame.


On the other hand, my mum thinks I ride pretty well.


So what gives me the credibility to disagree with such an esteemed horseman? The answer is found in my reasons for disagreeing.


If you want to understand why I disagree with most of the points in the video, I recommend you read my book The Essence Of Good Horsemanship or come to a clinic to ask your question or do both if you can.