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.