Focus, Clarity and Softness – What Do They Mean?
I’ve had a lot of e-mails regarding the training scale I proposed to replace or at least add to the German Training Scale. Nearly all the responses have been very positive – which is what you’d expect from folks who read this site regularly. But there have been a couple of e-mails expressing confusion about the elements of focus, clarity and softness and asking for some expansion on those concepts.
Firstly, let me say that they are all encompassing in everything we do with a horse. They are not confined to the dressage arena or even just to riding. When the horsemanship is good, focus, clarity and softness becomes part of everything we do with a horse from the way we catch it to the way we ride the most difficult movements of any discipline.
The reason I say this is because when we have a high degree of focus, clarity and softness the everyday problems we face in handling and riding our horses melt away. As an example consider my own horses. All my horses load onto a float really well, tie up with no problem, stand quietly for the farrier, are comfortable riding in a group or on their own, can be ridden at the front or the rear or middle of a large group of horses, don’t suffer from separation anxiety or are home bound on rides. Yet, I have not spent anytime working specifically on any of those issues. Any problems in those areas are taken care of because I am always trying to improve the focus, clarity and softness of my horses. Most people have to train their horse to go into a float. This is because the focus, clarity and softness they have put into their work is not yet good enough to make float loading a non-issue.
I’m not saying my horses don’t have problems – they have plenty for me to work on. But those problems will only be truly a thing of the past forever if I improve the level of focus, clarity and softness in everything I present to my horses. If I don’t make improvement in those training elements, the problems will continue to rear their head every time the level of difficulty in the work is ramped up a notch.
So even if you strictly adhere to the GTS, the benefit will only be felt if you are working on focus, clarity and softness. Without it, your horse is just going through the motions of being submissive. The quality of the performance will suffer because it depends on your ability to maintain the submissiveness without killing the spirit of the horse.
So what do I mean by focus, clarity and softness? Today I will just talk about focus and the next couple of blogs I will give some detail about clarity and softness.
Focus at first appears to have an obvious meaning, but to me in the context of good horsemanship focus embraces several concepts. Firstly, a horse needs to be attentive to the rider/handler. But no horse will give 100% attention – he can’t. He must have some focus on the world around him to be sure that the lion behind the tree doesn’t kill him or even that he sees the tree before he crashes into it. I want my horse to be aware of his surrounds and what is going on around him.
I want my horse to have a calm and relaxed focus on me rather than a concentration that comes from not daring to check out anything else in case the world caves in on him. I don’t want him to be afraid of me or afraid to look elsewhere. I want his attentiveness to be an interest in me rather than wariness. When I present an idea to him I want it to be important to him. It should matter to him that I have changed something. I shouldn’t be interrupting him in any big way when I speak to my horse.
But just as important as my horse being attentive to me is that I can direct his focus elsewhere. I would like to be able to get him to think about going forward and send his thought forward first for his feet to catch up. By being able to send his thought forward it means that when he goes forward he is not fleeing from what’s behind him. When you kick a horse that won’t go and he suddenly starts moving forward, he is running away from your pressure. But when you send his thought forward first he is running to something. There is far more freedom in his forwardness when this happens than when he is escaping from something.
So focus means having a horse calm and quiet attention and being able to direct his attention too.
Like most everything else, focus is never an all or nothing. You get degrees of focus. The level of focus you might need from a horse for something simple like brushing his tail, may not be enough when you want to control his speed around a cross country course or ask for one time flying changes. The greater the demands you place on a horse, the harder his brain should be working, the more focus you require. Sometimes you start with only 10% of a horse’s attention, say at his first competition. But you are always working to build that up to 20%, then 50%, and 70% and maybe one day you’ll get 90%.
Without a good degree of focus, clarity and softness are not possible. These things are interdependent any results you achieve with a horse will depend on all three elements being of sufficient quality to perform at the level you require.
Don't know if you saw this one, but I'm willing to bet it will make you as angry as it makes me: http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/news/397/309300.html
I can sort of see a potential use for a dummy once you had a horse working in getting a horse accustomed to people falling off it, which might be necessary if you were working with kids ponies or in other cases where frequent falls are fairly probable, but that doesn't seem to be what the creators of that particular tool have in mind. It's depressingly representative of the state of horse training here.
I live in a country where the state of horsemanship is so lamentable that this is considered acceptable and, indeed, a good idea.
Thanks Ben. It looks alot like the dummy Monty Roberts use to use in his colt starting demonstrations. It leaves me wondering why somebody who would want to use something like that is even thinking about starting a horse. There are so many things wrong with that concept. What idiot thinks that breaking in a horse is about teaching a horse to ignore a dummy flopping around on his back? What relevance does that have to teaching him to be a good riding horse?