Keeping Rocky’s Attention...
By Betsy Kelleher
Several past columns have touched on de-spooking and fearfulness in riders and horses, but I just have to share one more experience in this realm of training thought! After two years of dealing with my own fearfulness (after Lady’s first ride down the road, meeting a big noisy dumpster truck and surviving her fast spin), I feel I’m finally starting to “come back” to more normal levels of caution and courage!
Before last September, Rocky was a good trail horse for my husband, just spooky around tarps. Russ bought him when he was almost five, and I rode him a few times, working with de-spooking stuff. He is a gorgeous tri-color Tennessee Walker/Spotted Saddle Horse, sorrel and white with thick black and white mane and tail. He has a friendly personality and is calm and sensible and willing.
Last September, however, while Rocky was enjoying an alfalfa “high,” he actually bucked Russ off during a clash of wills. Since then, he is back on grass hay and I’ve ridden him more, gradually regaining confidence in this young horse. The turning point came one day while I was demonstrating Rocky’s abilities to a prospective buyer, and he gave me an easy canter in the indoor arena. I enjoyed it so much, Russ has given him to me and bought himself another horse.
I have decided that Rocky’s main problem is a youthful attention span! If the rider just sits there enjoying the ride, Rocky’s mind wanders off into his own little world. That’s fine on the trail, since Rocky is a laid back fellow. But around the barn, there are strange things to catch his attention. Like the tarp over a pile of hay when the wind lifts up the corners or the sudden loud burst of noise from the radio at the doorway to the arena. And Rocky is caught up in his own world again, making his own decisions. Most horses will do this, if the rider doesn’t keep their attention, by the way.
Rocky is now seven. He likes to run and buck in the pasture, but is usually good under saddle. I see his ability growing as I ask more of him. During one ride, walking Rocky past a big open door, I noticed a blue tarp over a pile of boards just on the other side. The wind lifted up the edges as we walked by and it waved at us, and Rocky’s head went up suddenly. I tugged gently on the opposite rein and squeezed my legs, and Rocky walked on with no reaction. Wow! That was neat! I was able to take his attention away from the tarp and back on me that easily! One small victory gave me the confidence to venture further with this issue.
As a horse focuses on a scary object, he forgets his rider. A horse can’t think about two things at once, I’m told. So if you get his attention on doing something, then the scary thing becomes less important. I can’t say that it’s always that simple. If you see a situation coming, however, you can plan ahead to keep your horse’s attention by asking him to do something and keep his mind busy enough that the scary object doesn’t become the center of his attention.
“Back Yard Walkin’ Training Tips” by Allanna Lea Jackson is a book I’ve owned for a long time but only recently have started to read seriously. That in itself verifies the old saying: when the student is ready, the teacher will come. Though I’ve “studied” the subject of de-spooking for a couple years, I was ready for this author’s simple words of advice. She says on page 23, “A few seconds of intent looking at the unfamiliar thing should be sufficient. You tell the horse you do not consider the object dangerous before he has decided what he thinks of it. If you do not, he may spook himself further worrying about it.” In summary, she is saying the herd leader must give guidance BEFORE the horse decides on his own. Let him look, then quickly ask him to move on or do something else. It’s the TIMING that counts! Your behavior and attitude tells the horse you are in charge and everything is under your control and he should submit and obey. A horse must trust his rider fully to be obedient, however.
A knowledgeable friend told me I was causing more harm than good by all my de-spooking efforts. I thought about it, but decided that de-spooking was a good thing. Since then, I have realized that de-spooking can be carried too far, perhaps magnifying the horse’s fears. Knowledge comes with experience, you know. I’m learning that making less of a scary thing sometimes is better, rather than forcing a horse to face his fears all at once. Even with a solid basis of trust, fear is a major stress that we must deal with properly for the sake of our horse as well as our own safety. Now, while leading Rocky past tarp-covered piles of hay, when he stops suddenly to look wide-eyed at the scary thing that is nothing new by the way, I quickly tug on his lead rope or halter, talk to him and get his attention back on what we are doing. It seems to be working.
You EARN a horse’s trust and respect from experience, from time together, and from your calm confident influence. It comes from taking charge at the right moment, asking for and keeping your horse’s attention. Cindy Medina (retired jockey and riding instructor) often reminds me as we ride together, don’t look at the scary object or let your mind focus on it, but look where you are going and ask for forward motion with quiet confidence. She’s been riding Lady and she knows how to handle her!
Not all horses are the same. With Rocky, I have to work to get his attention at the beginning of every ride and then keep on working to hold his attention. Lady, on the other hand, seems very intent on whatever I ask until she encounters something big and noisy. From working to keep Rocky’s attention (and seeing results), I am feeling more confident in the saddle when riding Lady as well. I recently was able to ride her close to a diesel truck as it was parked, running, near the barn. After the first scary trip around the truck, she calmed down and even stood quietly beside it for a minute. That may not sound like much, but believe me, it was a great step forward for both of us!
We learn to guide our horses with leg and seat and rein and voice (add confident attitude here), to take control for both safety and enjoyment of our riding experience. Horses are smart, but they don’t reason the same as humans. It’s up to us to be a confident leader for our equine partners. They need our calm strength and wisdom to keep them safe as much as they need our care and understanding. They just have to be reminded often that we are still in control. Otherwise, they will take charge and make their own decisions!
Thinking about Rocky, I can’t help but see myself. It’s so easy to let my attention wander away from my dependence on God. I think about what I want and I make wonderful plans and I am in my own little world. Or I see a fearful situation and I forget that He is always right there with me. I don’t take time to listen for His gentle guidance or seek His will. My vision becomes clouded with problems and worries and troubles and I become self-centered.
But Christians are called upon to be Christ-centered, to keep our attention focused on what He wants. As we learn to focus on God more than self, we mature and grow and find new strength and purpose in life. When fearful things appear before us, we should learn to quickly get our attention back on the One who is able to guide us through any situation. The faster we can do that, the less time we will spend in anxious worry going down the wrong paths in life!
I have good intentions of starting every day alone with God, seeking His will and finding courage and strength from His Presence; but I often get up, see things that need to be done, and I’m well into another project before I realize it. I know better, and it’s simply a matter of self discipline.
Remember that God is always with us, even when our attention shifts to something else! He tells us, in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” There is peace within only when we know in our hearts that all is well. We can have that peace through our trust in God, even when circumstances are uncertain. If we are trusting in Him, we have His resources at work within us.
Psalm 63:8 is a precious thought: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” We may rebel at the thought of total submission, total dependence, or total obedience to a God we don’t totally understand. But the more we hold back from complete reliance on Him, the more difficult it is to find real peace and security within His complete care. He is not a forceful master. His gentle spirit offers guidance and we must only ask and accept. True, He has been known to take charge of circumstances when needed. Sometimes He allows misery or sickness or hardship in order to get our attention back on Him. He is less concerned with our comfort than our need to find an intimate relationship with our Savior.
Learning to trust God fully, we find peace and freedom from past guilt, strength to face a new direction in life, and the joyful courage to follow a loving Master.
(Originally published in the June 2007 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)