The horse might be young and eager to take in the sights and sounds of a new life under saddle, or simply have a tendency to pay attention to anything but the rider. Show jumper and coach Mac Cone of Southern Ways stable in King City, ON, offers some tips for accepting, understanding, and working with horses who are prone to letting their minds wander.
The end goal with any focus problem is to have a relaxed horse. Progress will come when the horse can think about what the rider is asking of it, instead of listening to what it’s thinking. Whatever you can do to help the horse relax before you ask it to work is beneficial to you.
A relaxed horse will think more rationally. Sometimes this means you need to give the horse a little lunge before it goes out for a flat school, and sometimes it’s something as simple as stuffing the ears, which is something that we do a lot and it really helps to dull the loud noises.
Another thing that is especially helpful for young or inexperienced horses is just to give them some time out of the stall before asking them to work. Getting the horses out and around the show grounds allows them to take in the distractions that a show can offer: golf carts, water trucks, loudspeaker systems, jumps falling down, horses coming at them from every direction, etc. If the horse is nervous, see if you can find a quiet ring on the grounds and work the horse down before you go out and expose it to the hustle and bustle.
You don’t want to try and fight the horse if it is feeling fresh, especially in an environment where there is a lot of commotion. Sometimes, not asking too much concentration and focus of the horse at first is the best thing to do. When horses are nervous, they want to put their heads up and look around, because they are animals that have to look out for predators. We shouldn’t fight this. We as horseman need to understand the way they think. If the horse is frightened or nervous, we should instead encourage them calmly to take in their surroundings and reassure them that there aren’t lions, tigers and bears hiding behind garbage cans, trees, and the grandstand. Only then can we ask them to fully give their attention to the task at hand.
My experience tells me that sometimes the horse needs to look ahead on course, so I’m not overly concerned with a horse who wants to stick its nose up and look around in the jumper ring. I had a horse, CoCu (on which Cone was the highest-placed Canadian at the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain) who would always flip her head out three strides from the jump. She was telling me something – that she wanted her head and neck, and that she was ready and had her sights on the jump.
To try and fight a natural instinct is not good horsemanship. You don’t want to fight freshness, you want to resolve it by doing whatever you need to do to get a relaxed horse. If they don’t know how to relax, you can’t really teach them anything. A relaxed horse can listen to the rider and get to work.”