The Value of Adding Distractions To Your Training

Distractions: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now.

For years, Rose strug­gled with get­ting her horse’s focus at com­pe­ti­tions, clin­ics and lessons off the farm.  Any time that some­thing was just slight­ly dif­fer­ent, he would get tense, anx­ious and dis­tract­ed.  Rose was giv­en lots of advice.

  • Try calm­ing sup­ple­ments”
  • Why don’t you give him a lit­tle seda­tion”
  • Have you tried ____________ (fill in any num­ber of ideas).
  • Put him right to work”
  • Let him stop and see what’s mak­ing him ner­vous”
  • Lunge him first”
  • Make him focus on you”
  • You just got­ta get out and do it more”
  • Half halt and put him on your aids”

Well, she tried them all and NONE of them worked.  How­ev­er, NEVER did any­one sug­gest that she should start train­ing with dis­trac­tions at home.  Teach the horse at home how to han­dle dis­trac­tions in a train­ing envi­ron­ment where you can set the horse up for suc­cess and train through the prob­lems.

We are always try­ing to have the per­fect envi­ron­ment for train­ing.  Noth­ing to spook the horse, noth­ing to dis­tract it, no loud out­side nois­es, no new hors­es, no deliv­er­ies etc, etc, etc.   So what hap­pens?  You head to a show and your per­for­mance falls apart.  Why?  If the horse can’t han­dle dis­trac­tions at home how will he ever tol­er­ate them at a show?

We seem to think there are those hors­es who can focus no mat­ter what and those who can’t.  No.  You have to train at home to teach your horse how to han­dle nois­es and dis­trac­tions or any­thing that will stim­u­late the horse so much that his per­for­mance suf­fers.  You have to set him up for fail­ure at home and learn how to train through it.  I don’t mean over fac­ing him and mak­ing him scared out of his mind.  I do mean slow­ly intro­duc­ing dis­trac­tions and show him how to han­dle it.

Here’s how to add dis­trac­tions.

First you got­ta start real­ly small.  Ide­al­ly start this work when the horse is young.  If you have a 10 year old that still can’t han­dle the stress of dis­trac­tions you just have to back up a bunch for now both in his train­ing and in your expec­ta­tion.  For instance, you first might have to just work on halt or walk.  Not piaffe or fly­ing changes.  Then start intro­duc­ing things that may make him lose focus.  Maybe get your friend to ride around on a bike or lead hors­es in the are­na.  Play music soft­ly and if he’s ok turn up the vol­ume.  Get a loud speak­er and work with that.   Oth­er dis­trac­tions might be bal­loons, flags, umbrel­las, bad windy weath­er and peo­ple and dogs run­ning around.  The premise is to start with some­thing that may just slight­ly dis­tract him and when you can halt him at X and he stands still, reward, reward, reward.  If he’s so ner­vous that he won’t halt take some steps back and either work on the ground first or have the dis­trac­tion be fur­ther away.  Maybe you just ask him to focus on you while you give him rewards for not mov­ing and keep­ing his atten­tion on you.  You can always make it hard­er after he learns the cor­rect response of stay­ing calm and focused.  The key is to build the behav­ior and then try it with the dis­trac­tions loud­er or slight­ly clos­er.

Even­tu­al­ly you can build up to big­ger and hard­er move­ments like can­ter­ing or fly­ing changes but have suc­cess at the sim­ple stuff first.  Some­times school­ing at a show helps this but not if the horse is already over thresh­old.  The impor­tant part of this exer­cise is to keep it below thresh­old so the horse stays relaxed and calm.  Then slow­ly build his thresh­old to be high­er.  Don’t just throw him in the mix and then demand he focus.  YOU WILL NOT have any­thing to reward and you will be set­ting him up for a huge fail­ure.  It’s ok to have a minor fail­ure, it’s a learn­ing expe­ri­ence but only after your horse can han­dle some small stuff.

Susan Gar­rett shows this con­cept so well with her agili­ty train­ing for dogs.  She teach­es them a les­son and once they can per­form it real­ly well she starts adding in things that will make them loose focus.  Toys, oth­er dogs, bark­ing, loud nois­es and even oth­er activ­i­ties they will be drawn to.  All so she can teach them and reward them for stay­ing focused and doing a good job.

The rea­son why all the advice didn’t work with Rose’s horse is because he was already com­plete­ly over­whelmed and over thresh­old at the show.  In that moment, you can’t train.  The horse has to have a basic lev­el of con­fi­dence taught before hand to be able to focus, train and show.  If that doesn’t exist, your show­ing will nev­er get bet­ter just because you do it more.  If every time your horse goes to a show he’s unnerved and crazy, he’s not learn­ing to be qui­et, focused and relaxed.  He’s teach­ing him­self to be ner­vous.  In that moment, you can’t make him relax.  You have to add dis­trac­tions first at home and teach him how to han­dle it.