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.