If you are to have any influence over your horse’s way of going, he must first be attentive to your aids. If your horse falls asleep, becomes easily distracted, or somehow seems to forget that you’re even on his back during competitions, then you’re going to struggle.
So, how can you get your horse to be more attentive to your aids?
Read this guide to find out!
Why do you need your horse to be attentive?
If your horse is not “on your aids,” you will have a limited ability to improve your horse’s balance, to position and prepare him sufficiently for movements and turns, and to improve his paces. You also will not get very high scores in a dressage test.
If your horse’s attention is outward on his surroundings, as opposed to what you are asking him to do, he can also be more inclined to spook and see imaginary tigers in hedges.
You need your horse to be focused on you to have any chance of him performing dressage movements accurately and correctly. If your horse is not attentive, then you do not have the ability to train him, and instead, you are a mere passenger.
In contrast, once your horse is “in the zone,” he will listen to your aids and react instantly to your instructions. Your transitions will be sharp and immediate, changes of direction will be balanced and smooth, and the harmony between you will be perfect.
So, what can you do to keep your horse attentive and prevent him from getting distracted by the other horses in the warm-up arena or turning into a giraffe the moment he spots one of his field mates returning from a hack?
How can you keep your horse attentive to your aids?
The two main reasons as to why your horse is not attentive to your aids are:
- Your horse has dropped behind your leg and has “gone to sleep”
- Your horse is distracted by something else in his environment
In both of these instances, your horse is not paying attention to you.
Here are some tips to help you regain his attention and maintain his focus.
Tip #1 – Keep him interested!
We all get bored if we’re performing the same task over and over again! Well, your horse is no different.
Make sure that you’re not riding around the outside track endlessly. Make plenty of changes of direction and pace to keep things interesting, and include lots of different exercises in your daily schooling sessions to spice things up.
Change things up by riding squares, half-circles of different sizes, serpentines, and loops. You can also use changes of pace within those exercises to keep your horse listening to you.
For example, ride a three-loop serpentine in a working trot with a transition to walk every time you cross the centerline. You could also ride the serpentine in a collected canter with a simple change every time you cross the centerline.
The aim of the game is to keep your horse guessing! If your horse doesn’t know what’s coming next, he’s more likely to stay tuned in to your aids than switch off or be distracted by something that’s happening outside of the arena.
Tip #2 – Use transitions
Transitions within the pace and from gait to gait are almost guaranteed to keep your horse’s attention on you.
For example, try riding transitions from medium trot to extended trot to collected trot. Then ask your horse to halt, rein back a few steps, and continue in collected canter. If your horse is slow to respond, back up your leg with a tap behind the girth from your schooling whip.
Lazy horses that drop off your forward aids can be sharpened up by using upward transitions. For example, ride a transition from a collected canter into an extended canter and back again, or from halt directly into medium trot.
Tip #3 – Lifestyle management
If you have a horse that tends to “go to sleep” when you’re schooling or riding at a show, try keeping him inside the night before the event. It might be that your equine chum has spent the night partying with his pals in the field or has stuffed himself so full of grass so that all he wants to do is sleep all day, when you need him to pay attention and work!
Also, make sure that his weekly training plan includes a variety of activities and that he’s not spending every day trotting around the outside of an arena. Lunging, long-reining, groundwork, hacking, polework, cavaletti, and jumping are all great ways to prevent your horse from getting stale and bored.
Tip #4 – Desensitize Your Horse
Many horses are distracted when out and about at competitions.
That’s not surprising given that the location is different, there are lots of strange sights, smells, and sounds for the horse to experience. You might be working indoors when you always ride outside at home, or vice versa. Also, you will probably be working in with many other horses, whereas you always work solo at home.
So, try hiring different arenas or ask a friend if you can join them at their home arena for a schooling session. Try taking your horse on a beach or trail ride and incorporate some schooling into that. Add a few pots of flowers, tie some balloons to the arena fence, or randomly place some traffic cones in your arena and school your horse in there. If your horse is always distracted by people walking around at competition venues, ask a friend to stroll past the arena chatting on their phone while you’re schooling.
Basically, you need to find as many potential distractions as possible and challenge your horse to remain attentive on your aids! The more your horse is exposed to, the more likely these outside distractions will become “normal,” and therefore, no longer a distraction.
If you struggle to keep your horse attentive to your aids, you will not be able to influence his way of going, limiting your progression.
Your horse may be bored with doing the same thing over and over again in the same place, or he may be distracted by what’s going on in his surroundings.
To help combat the loss of attention, shake up your training schedule to include lots of different activities, and during your schooling sessions make sure to ride lots of transitions and movements to keep your horse fully focused on you.
Lastly, some desensitizing work may be useful if your horse is easily distracted by strange sights and sounds, especially at competitions. Eventually, those outside interferences will fade into the background.