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Change The Game - Regaining Your Horse's Focus During Training

Does anyone else have a ‘go-to’ move they use to regain their horse’s focus when a session isn’t going to plan?

As of quite recently, I do, and it works a treat!

Over the recent weeks, during lockdown, my focus has been primarily on groundwork with Dee, as opposed to riding. Since her Kissing Spine diagnosis and through her rehab, groundwork has become an invaluable part of our weekly routine and, since lockdown, an even bigger part of it, as well as an opportunity to work on both my skills and hers from the ground.

It has been an amazing way to strengthen our bond, work as a team and also have some fun together - I’ve tried my best not to make it all work and no play! I have used loads of different pole exercises, in-hand hacks, long reining outside the school and free work to keep things as varied and interesting as I can for Dee.

I think it has worked, as well, because she is definitely more attentive and loving towards me these days and 80% of the time we have a really good, productive session. I think she has enjoyed the break from ridden work in the school and, actually, the few times I have ridden, we’ve either hacked or we have schooled in one of the big fields and she has been really chirpy and cooperative, which has been pleasant for all involved. Sometimes they get a bit school sour, and due to her rehab routine and the winter months, Dee has spent a lot of time in the school prior to now.

BUT - and there is a but - that other 20% of the time I am faced with a wild, untamed beast of a horse who does not wish to cooperate, listen or play ball in the slightest! Today was one of those days and my angelic little mare had morphed into a black, raging stallion and was hurtling round on the end of the lunge line at a startling speed, with total disregard for little old me desperately gripping onto the end of the line and trying to calmly plead with her to whoaaaaaaahhhhh there.

So, back to my original point, I needed to have a diversion in place for days such as these, in order to safely and calmly shift the focus and regain the attention. A diversion that changed the game without a battle - we all know that arguments with horses are rarely won by the human and certainly arguments with Deedles are never won by Cara!

For us, and I have discovered this only during lockdown when I have been putting so much time and effort into our groundwork and different methods, such as long reining or in hand work, the thing that works to settle Dee and get her head in the game is in-hand work.

I find that if I start some lunge work and she is tense, flighty and distracted, continuing to just go round and round until she “gets tired” doesn’t work. She’ll carry on and on and get more and more worked up, well we both will, and we both end up frustrated, cross and out of breath. That is no good for anyone and certainly not productive.

Instead, I try to remain very calm and quiet and ask her to come back to walk and then stand. I then gather the line in and take her in-hand around the school, ensuring I talk to her to communicate what I want and that she is walking actively and correctly, usually working through some circles and lateral movements. All with me alongside her.

As she starts to listen and focus, I ask for some trot in-hand (be prepared to actually have to jog too - cardio! Eurgh!) and then back to walk. After a few transitions, if she has settled, I gradually move further away until she is back out on a circle around me and we recommence lunging.

I have no idea why but it works like an absolute dream for us; she connects with me in-hand and then I can keep that connection as we go back into lunging. Communication through voice aids also works very well with Dee and I try to make sure I keep talking to her regardless of whether I am in-hand, lunging, long reining or riding. She will then work beautifully and steadily through the session. I actually think I may just start every lunging or long reining session with a warm up in-hand, to prevent the need to manage any eruptions in the first place.

Now, I’m no expert and I am not writing this to suggest it will be a miracle cure for any other horses or even that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. I am just sharing something that has been an issue for us in the past, that I am delighted we have now found a resolution to. This is what works for Dee and I, and in order to find what worked I had to take the time to practise, learn, listen and engage with her.

Now, more than ever before, we all have time on our hands that we can spend with the horses without the usual social distractions, so it is a great time to get to know your horse a bit better, hang out with them and work out what makes them tick.

You can follow Cara's journey with Dee on her blog, Devine Intervention, or follow her @seekingdevineintervention on Facebook or Instagram.

Cara Winter - Devine Intervention
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 13-07-2020
Cara is a horse rider and equine blogger based in Surrey where she also keeps her horse, Dee. She has many years of experience around horses, however, a five year hiatus from riding saw Cara’s return to the saddle marred by crippling nerves, and it has been a slow road back to confidence. Her blog, 'Devine Intervention', documents her journey with Dee to regaining her brave pants and has proven popular with many, and especially relatable to the everyday rider, due to the honesty, humour and down to earth way in which Cara writes. In recent months that has also included a diagnosis of Kissing Spine for Dee, along with the subsequent treatment and rehab on her road to recovery.