The simple act of paying attention
By Amanda Barton
A beautiful grey gelding rode into the arena for the next session of a clinic I was teaching. The horse was immaculately presented and the rider was clearly really experienced. In short, everything about the partnership looked great. But despite this all was not well. After just a few circuits around the arena it was clear that the horse was paying absolutely no attention to the rider and was totally absorbed by the new environment around him. He was swinging his neck to the outside of the circle and sometimes tripping over his own feet as he was so busy looking at his surroundings. His movement was crooked and lacked rhythm as he ‘rubber necked’ here and there, jumping at his shadow on the arena surface.
The solution in this case was extraordinarily simple. Once the rider realised that her priority was to change the horse’s focus away from the environment and onto her everything started to improve. The problems she and her horse were having were simply symptoms of both of their attention being on everything except what they wanted to do. In this example, simply changing the horse’s focus was all that was needed to transform the relationship very quickly and to help the horse to feel better both physically and mentally.
Its very, very common for this sort of focus problem to be at the heart of many behaviour problems. Its human nature to look for what’s going wrong and then to do more and more to try to solve the problem but often the answer is very simple and right in front of us.
This blog is all about what horses pay attention to, what this looks like when the horse is relaxed and when he is not and how you can change his focus to get better results.
The flowchart below gives an outline of this blog.
What are we paying attention to?
If we are not in the present moment and instead worrying about something in the past or future (or nothing to do with riding) then we are not paying attention to the thing that we want to be doing. We can’t expect the horse to be focused if we aren’t.
Is my horse paying attention to what I want him to be doing right now?
This breaks down into three questions:
- What is my horse paying attention to right now?
- Is he confident or unconfident?
- What do I want him to be paying attention to and can I influence this?
What is my horse paying attention to right now?
In order to answer this question we need to be able to read the horse’s body language to know what he is actually paying attention to. The idea to break down focus into different categories and to think about confidence and lack of confidence within that focus comes from Elsa Sinclair’s work and especially her online courses (see https://www.tamingwild.com). There is an excellent clip about reading your horse in Elsa Sinclair’s free YouTube tutorial, Freedom Based Training 101
The key concepts from this clip are:
- Rhythmical movement in the horse’s ears, eyes, facial expression, tail and body posture all demonstrate confidence. A lack of rhythm demonstrates a lack of confidence.
- “The happiest and most emotionally stable horses change focus often.” This is most immediately obvious for us see from the movement of their ears. Elsa equates the horse’s frequent focus changes with thinking. In general, thinking is good and a shut down horse is not good.
In very general terms your horse can be paying attention to:
- The environment
- Him/herself (self-focus)
- Others: Herd or Leader focus on either human or other horses
The horse’s focus may be changing second by second or may be reasonably fixed depending on the horse’s temperament, the situation and your training style.
Its important for you to be able to read where the horse’s attention is because:
- Problems and dangerous situations are more likely to arise from certain focus categories, especially if a horse gets stuck or frozen in one category.
- The horse can perform and learn better if you can influence his focus and draw his attention to whatever is going to help him with the job he is doing. Teaching cues to help him to change focus can be extremely helpful.
- Horses think and learn better when they can move easily between these different categories of attention. Horses that are described as having ‘behaviour problems’ generally don’t do this well.
- Building your skills to read your horse will massively improve your relationship.
Horses and humans tend to learn to follow familiar patterns so if we put a lot of practice into paying attention to just one of these categories we will tend to get really good at thinking about that, often to the detriment of the others. A healthy mind focuses on different categories equally and is able to move easily between them.
Focus Categories: Self, Others and Environment
The next section looks at how the horse’s expression changes when they are more confident and less confident in each of these focus categories. The pictures above show relaxed and confident focus categories and the picture below shows unconfident focus categories.
How do I recognised when the horse is focused on the Environment?
Its usually quite easy to see when a horse is focused on something in the environment. Most horses naturally pay a lot of attention to their environment. They are prey animals and have survived for millions of years because they are so aware of what is going on around them. As a result you frequently see this focus category.
Horses may scan the environment or they may become very interested in one particular thing. Its common that the horse turns to face whatever it is that has caught his attention and his ears will be pricked and facing forwards (of course this would be different if he was interested in something behind him).
Horses may be interested in things in the far, medium or close distance and will hold their head at different heights depending on what it is that they need to focus on. When something unfamiliar is close by horses can use all their senses to investigate. If they are given time and the object does not take them by surprise then investigation generally helps horses to find a positive, thinking and learning frame of mind. This is particularly true if they sniff it with alternate nostrils and look at it from different angles.
- Fixed focus on one thing, stationary ears and unblinking eyes
- Tight and rigid muscles
- Dilated nostrils
- High head position
- Frequent abrupt changes in focus to different things in the environment
- Other signs that the horse is in flight or fight (sympathetic nervous system) such as high heart rate or snorting
This photo shows a very typical environmental focus in high alert where the horse has become frozen on something that worries him.
The video below gives you a clear picture of what a freeze looks like when the focus is on the environment. This is one of my least favourite focus categories from a training point of view becuase what happens next can be unpredictable and often horses are quite troubled when they come out of the freeze. From a safely point of view it would be much better if we could teach our horses to think more and avoid freezing like this.
While freezing is a natural behaviour and comes from one of the oldest parts of our nervous system that has evolved from reptiles, its not a very effective way for mammals to deal with the world around them. Usually some sort of trauma teaches horses to freeze in the first place and while its a natural response I would argue that it should not be normal except in exceptional situations. However, once horses have resorted to shutting down they may do it frequently so its important to help them to use the focus categories discussed above more flexibly; the environment, themselves and others.
There is a scientific theory to explain the process of shut down called Polyvagal Theory which is discussed in detail in one of my webinars; Brain and Behaviour (Part 2).
How do we recognise when the horse is focused on himself (self-focus)?1. Confident self-focus
This photo is a great example of a relaxed self-focus. This horse’s ears are relaxed and out to the side, his eyes are slightly glazed over. His attention is internally focused onto himself and how he feels in the present moment. At the time this photo was taken this horse was standing alone with no horses or humans close by. He is confident, relaxed, he had just worked really well and licked and chewed shortly after this photo was taken.
In ridden work we also see relaxed ears turned out to the side when the horse is in self focus. His eyes, muscles of the face and mouth are also relaxed. Perhaps this horse’s focus is on his rider rather than on himself and the interpretation of body language is subjective, but on balance I feel that this horse’s attention is internally focused.
Compare this photo (below) with the one of the same horse above. He is still in self focus with his expression a little glazed but you can see that his ears are further back, his mouth, nostrils and face musculature all look tighter. At first glance you may think that this horse looks really relaxed but from knowledge of this horse, the situation in which this was taken and observation of similar expressions in others, I believe that he is less confident and more defensive in the lower photo than the one above.
Its very, very easy to find examples of horses that I would describe as being stuck in an unconfident self-focus. This means that their ears are pretty unmoving and in this position.
When I am working with a horse I would ideally like to see them make a focus change at least every 4 or 5 seconds, all be it something really small. When focus changes are quite infrequent I would describe the horse as ‘frozen’.
The video below shows an example of a horse in the moment that’s he’s quite frozen in self-focus. Because of the position of the ears slightly back and the tension in the mouth, nostrils and muscles of the face I would say that he is less confident and quite defensive.
How do we recognised when the horse is focused on others (herd and leader focus)?
The high heads, facial expressions and varying degrees of pinned ears suggest that the horses are working out their relative positions within a confined space. The horses are certainly in ‘flight or fight’ mode rather than relaxation. Sometimes horses worked at liberty take this expression in relation to their human handlers and to me that raises questions about the relationship between horse and human.
This horse’s attention is focused behind him, you can clearly see the position of the ears. I think that this horse is paying attention to his rider as a leader or a herd member but is unconfident about the situation. Note that he does not have the slightly glazed expression of the horses in self-focus.
This is an interesting photo as the horses both have a herd focus. The bay looks to be confident but the chestnut less confident.
Video Example of focus changes
So far we have only looked at focus changes in static photos so its hard to capture the speed and fluency with which most horses make focus changes, and just how hard it is to spot some of them. This is especially true if the horse is thinking and there are a lot of changes.
This short video clip shows just 44 seconds of a horse walking and you will see at least 21 focus changes in that time. Hopefully the clip helps to bring these changes to life a bit more than looking at still photos.
Helping this particular horse to learn to alter his focus like this was the pivital change which allowed him to be able to go out into large open spaces with any sort of relaxation. When he was frozen, as show in the pervious videos (which were both taken 6 months or more earlier), he found it very difficult to cope with anything that moved when he was outside of his immediate comfort zone at home. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that focus changes are a interesting curiosity for enthusiasts of equine behaviour, in fact they are fundamental to help horses to think and feel better about the time they spend with us.
Sometimes the process of bringing about focus changes is really rapid once you understand the concept but if the horse has experienced trauma it can be a slow process requiring a lot of patience. With this particular horse what I would like to see next is the focus flicking onto me more often, this is something that he finds difficult.
Exercise: Looking out for focus changes
Spend at least 10 minutes watching one horse. This will work best if they are out in the field with their usual field companions. Try not to influence them but be close enough so that you can observe their behaviour, see their ears move and watch their body language.
There are a couple of ways to observe behaviour. You can either note down every time you see a change or you could set a timer on your phone to ping quietly or vibrate every 15 seconds and make a note on a piece of paper as to which focus category your chosen horse is showing at that time. Don’t worry if you are not sure, just the process of observing and thinking about this is useful. You should end up with a tally of your observations, for example something like this:
Some general thoughts about unconfident focus categories
I have spent the last 15 years teaching for the US trainer, Mark Rashid who has made a huge contribution to the discussion of softness in horses. He talks about the benefits of working through connection with horses that are mentally and physical available. In other words softness means that they are happy to give “yes” answers to what we ask them to do. The contrast to this is a horse that is ‘bracey’ and answers our questions with some degree of mental and physical resistance. Being ‘bracey’ is like saying “yes, but actually no”.
In the photos of the unconfident focus categories above there are many examples of horses with tight faces and ears slightly (but not fully) back. When you see this sort of defensive expression, its also really common to feel muscular tension resisting your request so that the horse may physically do what we have asked on the outside but with reluctance expressed by tension on the inside. This is often seen as reluctance to move freely forward when ridden and poor leading when on the ground. This can become a habit so that the horse becomes used to responding to cues with tension every time we ask. This could easily come about if you reward a horse for correctly performing a movement but don’t wait for him to also feel better about having done that movement. Then every time he performs that same movement he puts his ears back a little and feels a bit defensive about it. If it happens like this every time he has no reason to change and the negative attitude sticks. The first step to break this pattern is to become more aware of it.
I often think that the horse is mirroring our own defensive behaviour and muscular tension back to us. Horses will readily push into pressure and if we push on them they will push back on us. If we are quick to get frustrated and escalate with our pressure then the horse will too. Horses can’t make a change until we do.
What do we want our horses to be paying attention to? This is down to personal preference. If you want a very obedient horse you may wish to teach him to maintain focus on you or on one focus category.
If your preference is for a horse that is thinking and potentially more of a partner then you may wish to teach him to use all focus categories more equally and reward ear flicks as his focus changes.
Its worth remembering that sometimes horses that have been taught to work in just one focus category may be unable to deal with new or stressful situations as well as horses that have been encouraged to think.
Your horse pays attention to different things: these are the environment, others (the herd or leader) and himself (self-focus). There are a lot of benefits of being able to read focus categories. Most particular safely, to fix problems and help the horse to learn and perform effectively.
Emotionally stable horses change focus often and focus changes can happen very frequently. Sometimes it takes a high level of awareness from us to spot them.
Some focus categories can be really beneficial to your training and help performance; these are confident focus categories and curiosity.
Some focus categories can be problematic for learning especially frozen focus categories such as a freeze while focusing on the environment. I also don’t observe the best performance when horse is stuck in an unconfident self-focus.
The first step to making a change is to recognise what the horse is thinking about. Only once you can do that can you start to think about how to influence focus so that you can help the horse and your connection with him as much as possible.