Keeping a Horse’s Attention

There are probably as many jokes about getting a mule’s attention with a two-by-four as there are pickup trucks in Texas. When you are teaching your horse to heed, you must keep bringing its attention back to you. But you don’t want to use a two-by-four. You don’t want do a lot of exciting or loud things that will cause the horse to do a lot of exciting or loud things. You want to use body position and body language that is noticeable to the horse to keep its attention or send it in the direction you want. I call this “heeding.”

For example, stand at the horse’s front legs with your belt buckle facing its shoulder as you scratch the horse. Continue to keep the line through your shoulders parallel to the horse’s body all the time you are scratching and rubbing him. If you find a place the horse really likes being scratched, you have his attention on you. Your goal is to captivate the horse, to keep the horse heeding everything you do, paying attention to everything you do. And everything you do, you do in a perceivable pattern with a calm attitude.

Horses only pay attention to one thing at a time. Their eyes are out on the sides of their head to see any approaching attacker and their instincts tell them to constantly look out for those attackers. This superb peripheral vision is what makes it so easy to get horses to heed your body position. They can see all the way to the back of their hindquarters with just a slight tilt of their head. But what gets their attention keeps changing all the time.

When their attention goes away from you, your goal is to get it back. When something in their environment puts a question in their mind and diverts their attention, you want them to come back to you for the answer.

The younger a horse is the more it perceives anything sudden or unusual as dangerous because there is less information in its memory bank. Natural defense mechanisms and instincts are more likely to control its behavior. So if you’re teaching a really baby horse to heed, its attention just normally darts all over the place. It will shift its attention from one thing to another suddenly. It will jump quickly if it notices something it didn’t see before. It will stop to observe something carefully, to take it in completely, before it’s ready to give its attention back to you or something else and move on.

With a baby horse, your plan is to get noticed at least half of the time and eventually the horse will develop the habit of bringing its attention back to you. Which means that it will start coming back to you for the answer of how to respond to that last thing that grabbed its attention.

When your horse trusts what you are saying with your body language, heeding becomes a sort of auto pilot system. You are calm, your horse heeds the fact that you are calm, and the horse takes its cue from you. When you change positions, it indicates a change in how things should be and the horse will change position with you.

After your horse has learned to heed your body language, he will not only heed you, but also anyone who speaks the same language. Everything you do, as far as your position, should be horse logical. For example, when you have your shoulder line parallel to the horse’s side then turn so your shoulder line runs through his shoulders and step forward, the horse will automatically step with you. You don’t have to force the horse to walk and pull him along. You also won’t have to jerk on him because he’s walking too fast. He’ll just start walking at the same speed you do because you have taught him to heed your body in a horse logical manner.

There’s a corollary to having the horse pay attention to you. You must pay attention to your horse at all times and create a calm working environment. If someone comes along that you want to talk to, finish with your horse, put your horse away and then talk. Don’t take your attention off your horse.

When you are cleaning the stall, you still have to pay attention to what your horse is doing. If your horse bites, put a drop noseband around his mouth. You can also attach a lead rope to him and lead him around with you as you clean. Or you can put him in a keeper stall. You must make the horse feel like doing something you suggest without making a fight about it. That is how you gain mental dominance.

Teaching heeding builds a communication link between yourself and the horse in the horse’s language. That is why it does not require strength to take horses to the highest levels. There is a MythUnderstanding that men are the best trainers because they are stronger than women. In reality, training has nothing to do with strength. It is about mental games. Horse training is a mental game played in a physical medium.

Your primary objective as a trainer is rhythm and relaxation. What the horse needs to achieve this is steady, physical work at a mental level that you create which is alert enough to pay attention to you but not frightened and not tense. You have to be open minded and calm in order to study and understand. And it is exactly the same situation with the horse.

An awful lot of people think that if they do something to the horse that makes it act more excited, that the horse is going to learn faster or respond better. The truth is that the horse may not be responding at all. It may just be reacting. Reacting is overdoing. An aid that gets a reaction instead of a response has been avoided just as effectively as if the horse didn’t respond at all.

Never attack or punish a horse for being “disobedient.” Just put him back to work. He’s just looking to have a good time and that’s what we’re trying to teach him to do–to have a good time playing our game. There is no such thing as a disobedience if you’re not telling the horse what to do. There may be a lapse of obedience but when that happens, you simply interrupt with instructions of what the horse ought to be doing. No fighting, no loud or excited reaction, just a calm request using your horse-logical communication link.

Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his “horse logical” methods for communicating with equines for over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.

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