I have noticed at my clinics that there is a growing appreciation of the importance of capturing a horse’s focus and being able to then direct that focus. It seems people are beginning to really appreciate the concept and are becoming more aware about the elusive nature of focus. Yet even so, there remains some lack of understanding about what that means in a practical sense. The awareness of people about a horse’s level of attentiveness is still at the level of examining the question of whether a horse is doing what it is asked. For many people, if a horse is performing the task it must therefore be focused. However, this is not necessarily true and the issue of focus goes much deeper than a horse’s submission.
I see at clinics horses that do everything asked of them. I see horses that follow their owners on the lead rope like puppies. There is no sign of needing to be dragged along or hesitation to walk with their owner. Many will even follow through puddles, across tarps and poles, around obstacles and through narrow gateways. They will trot or canter with the handler, stop turn and backup. It looks like there is a secret and magical communication passing from horse to human. Yet, in my observations I see only a small amount of focus and brainpower being used by the horse. How can this be? How can so much get done with poor focus?
The answer comes from the horse’s tremendous capacity to form patterns. Horses receive comfort from knowing the answer to a question. If we ask a horse to do something, there is no problem if the horse already knows what it is we want it to do. However, if the answer of how to respond to our request is unclear a horse can experience considerable stress and anxiety. For this reason, many horses will very quickly recognize a pattern of response that they believe helps them avoid pressure. For instance, if I ride into the arena and every day my first request is to turn right, it will take almost no time at all before the horse recognizes the pattern of turning right and begin to turn right immediately I enter the arena, even before I get a chance to ask.
It’s because they get comfort from predictability and routines that they often form habits or patterns of responses. The greater the predictability or reliability of the routine, the more comfort a horse receives. So the incentive for a horse to look for recognizable patterns in the work is very strong. However, the problem becomes that as the pattern becomes more established, there is less focus required for the horse to perform the task. In fact, lots of horses can perform quite complex patterns with very little focus if the pattern is strong enough. I refer to horses that can do this as working on autopilot.
How can you tell if your horse is just following a routine?
The easiest way to know if your horse is with you or just going through the motions is to do something out of the ordinary. Try something that is not part of the normal pattern. For example, if your horse follows you around on the lead rope quite happily, but you want to check if they are mentally engaged in the job or just blindly following you around, try taking off at high speed and see if your horse is following just as closely or with just as much ‘okay-ness’ as when you were leading in the normal way. Don’t be abrupt about getting your feet moving because they would be unfair, but try asking your horse to trot fast or walk extremely slowly or make a sharp turn or back in a circle or side pass, etc. Anything that breaks the normal pattern is a good test of whether or not a horse is working on autopilot.
Imagine driving to work the same way everyday and how little attention is needed to drive. But then you are told that the road rules have changed and you have to drive on the opposite side of the road. Then notice how much more attention you need to pay to driving.
If a horse is doing what we want, why is it important that it is not working on autopilot?
It’s because horses working to a pattern are prone to have a melt down when the pattern is broken. One of the most common causes of horses shying at things they have seen a million times is a lack of focus. Horses that suffer separation anxiety lack focus. Horses that don’t follow the feel of the reins or the rider’s seat and legs, lack focus. In fact, there is no aspect of horsemanship and riding where we don’t require a high degree of focus in order to achieve clarity and softness.
It is easy to be convinced that everything is rosy with our horses when they don’t protest and do what they are told. Nevertheless, it is naïve to assume that just because you have obedience that you have a high degree of focus.