If you wear glasses, it’s because your eyes don’t focus efficiently and you can’t see clearly. If your camera lens is out of focus, whatever you want to emphasize in your photographs probably isn’t sharp. When working with horses-on the ground or in the saddle-focus determines both safety and efficiency.
The Big Picture
It’s natural to see, hear, and anticipate what’s going on around you-to get the big picture. It’s important if you’re driving a car or crossing a busy street to be observant of seemingly little details to avoid possible wrecks. If you do this while you’re on your horse, however, you actually reinforce things you don’t want your horse to react to or think about.
Our world changes constantly, for good and for bad. If we watch the news on television, the view presented concentrates on all the negative developments in the world, because that catches people’s attention and they want to know about it. But if that’s all we watch, we can focus obsessively on the negatives of the world and even carry this over into our own lives. In that case, enlarging our view isn’t a positive addition to our lives. We have to balance it with the positives of the here and now to accomplish good things.
The same is true when you’re working with your horse. Too much awareness of what is going on around you isn’t good for either of you. Awareness is another way of saying attention. Your horse’s attention is either following or leading yours, and yours is either following or leading his. In this case, learning how to make both his world and yours smaller is good.
Every time you’re with your horse, you’re training him for good or for bad. You want his attention to be on what you’re doing. If you are easily distracted, then you don’t help him stay focused on what you want him to do. In fact, you actually cause him to become more distracted and encourage him to focus on something else.
Most of us turn our horses into pointing dogs, but we do it much more easily and quickly than any bird dog trainer. Think of a good bird dog on a hunt. First, the dog finds the bird because he is more aware of the bird’s scent than is the hunter. The dog points to the bird. The hunter looks to where the dog is pointing and sees the bird. The bird flies and the hunter shoots it (or at least shoots at it). Our horses point out not just birds, but a thousand other objects as well.
Your horse points out the car coming down the road by swinging his head, pricking his ears, possibly stopping and/or shying. It has his whole attention. You momentarily look up, see the car, mentally tell yourself, “I see it!” You have now completely removed your thoughts from the circle, serpentine, spot, or cue you were working on with your horse. For at least a second-possibly even for minutes-you’re focused on what your horse pointed out. Your world and your horse’s world immediately became larger either for good, or more often, for bad.
With this reinforcement, he learns that what he looks at is important and is soon spotting gum wrappers a hundred feet away, and you now notice them, too. The horse says, “Did you see that?” Your natural response is, “What?” If your horse spooks at something-even before you get him back under control-you’re looking for the “what” that he spooked at. Even worse for the training of your horse, you then begin working at “getting him over the fear” of the spooky object.
By working on the spooky object rather than the basic cues, you encourage the larger world concept. You take your horse’s thoughts and attention even further off what you were working on before the distraction showed up.
Dedicated to Distracting
When you’re working with your horse, you seem to become the most important person in the world. Everything and every person in existence clamors for your attention like a little kid on the playground yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” The car coming down the road says to you, “Look at me!” The fence post getting closer to your knee says, “Look at me!” The spot on the trail where your horse spooked last month begins to say “Think about me!” as you get closer. The paper on the ground, the gate in the arena, the bird flying half a mile away-the list goes on forever, right down to that gum wrapper.
It can even seem as if the rest of the world has entered into a sort of conspiracy to get your attention off your horse and onto them. Trucks blow their horns just to make you quit concentrating on your exercise. People ride their bicycles too close to you, come up suddenly behind you, or ride straight at you on the trail just to distract you from working on your side pass. Through some weird process known only to themselves, sometimes people even manage to get their horses to bump into yours in the arena just to stop you from working on your serpentines. Unbelievably, others are even willing to cause themselves bodily harm by getting bucked off so they can turn their horse loose in the arena, making you focus on them-apparently for the sole purpose of getting you to stop teaching your horse to move his hips over.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, your horse does the same thing to you. He points out the barn as you come back from a ride, his buddy horse hollering back in the paddock, a loose horse in the next pasture, a new jump, a ripple in the creek, and so on and on and on.
“EEEK!” you finally scream. What are you-as a rider or as a person working on the ground-to do about all the things in the world that seem to be dedicating themselves to distracting you and your horse?
Well, have fun and play a game, of course!
The Focus Game
The game is called “Who Can Stay Focused the Longest on What They Want?” In other words, can you keep your focus (attention) on the exercise you’re working on when something or someone (even your horse) wants you to think about something else?
Whenever you ride or work around your horse, there are always two minds involved-his and yours. You each begin with what you want to focus on. Your goal is to control your own and your horse’s attention. Every time you work with your horse, one of you is going to win this game and one is going to lose. It’s always the weakest mind that loses, the mind that is most easily distracted. You don’t have to tell the rules to your horse because it’s also more fun if you can win, at least occasionally.
If-actually, when-you find yourself thinking about what the horse is thinking about, you’ve just lost the game. Your mind has become the weakest; the one that cannot stay focused as long and keep your attention on what you want.
To become good at anything takes practice, discipline, and a strong work ethic, but you can get there. Learning how to tune out the rest of the world as you concentrate on your horse takes both knowledge and practice. You need the knowledge that this is important to do for your safety, for your horse’s safety, and to develop a great riding and performance horse. You also need the knowledge to recognize what constitutes a distraction and how to deal with it.
It may help to play a game with your own mind when a distraction comes up. Picture your mind as a funnel just like you use to help pour liquid into a bottle. This funnel is large at the top and drops down to a small spout that gets even smaller as it comes out the bottom. The bigger or louder the distraction is, your focus must begin to drop down the funnel, toward that narrow spout, which is the spot you’re working with on your horse. Focus on the detailed part of the exercise you’re working on. Don’t see or think about anything else than the exercise you’re working on at that particular second.
What if your horse says, “Did you see that?” Your answer: “Don’t think about that. We’re doing this.” It may be one of the most important lessons you can teach your horse. Pretty soon, he’ll become less and less distracted by the rest of the world. He won’t even notice his buddy horse, the horse that bumped into him, the car, the barn, or whatever. It’s just you and he. The rest of the world goes away. Your world has become smaller and smaller, which is what you need and want it to do when you’re both concentrating.
It’s a Small World After All
Riding and working with your horse becomes a miniature vacation because you learn you cannot think about anything else in the world except your horse and your exercise. You learn to focus. You learn to give 100% of your attention to the moment at hand, whether that moment is with your horse, your spouse, your children, your co-workers, or to a job you need to do.
Learning how to give your horse all your attention teaches him how to give you all his attention. Your horse is always a mirror image of you. If you have trouble keeping your attention on what you’re doing, so will he. If you’re easily distracted, he will be, too. So you can’t point at him any longer and say it’s all his fault. His attention is going to follow yours.
Not being perfect at this focus game is not a bad thing. It’s not something you have to fight over or beat yourself up about. Remember, it’s a game. So play. Play the game. You’ll win some, you’ll lose some, just like I do every time I ride. Smile when you lose. Play harder the next time not to become distracted. Learn to say to your horse, “Don’t think about that. We’re doing this.”
Remember, we’re never perfect. We only strive to become better little by little.