The Obstacle Course – Focus and Follow

It’s interesting how themes sometimes develop when coaching riders and their horses. In the last several clinics I’ve taught, one of the major themes has been focus and follow.

When I explain this, you’ll probably be thinking, This is common sense !

In any leadership position, be it a supervisor in an office, the Prime Minister or a horse rider, it’s desirable that those you are leading follow you. After all, that’s what leadership is, isn’t it? We also desire that our followers emulate us. To do as we do. To think as we think. To have people or horses commit to us as leaders we need to cause them to think that following us is the best and most rewarding option. An option that produces success and relieves them of their questions and worries.

Common sense so far, right?

Let’s consider the horse as a singular thinker; he can only process one thought at a time. To make this really simple, when working with you he can only one of think of two things:

  1. You and your intention or request;
  2. Something else.

The something else could be another horse, something scary or a desire to be back with the herd. It’s not reasonable to expect a clean and concise response from a horse when he is thinking of something else. Your horse might not respond at all. Our temptation then, is to get bigger. To ask the same thing, but with more force. This temptation can lead to a variety of actions such as pulling and jerking on a rein or kicking. This is a progression down a slippery slope of negative experiences for your horse: making him dull to the aids, causing him to fight you but most importantly: showing him that you’re not a leader he should be inclined to follow.

horse leading

Ty leading the herd.

So just what does a horse follow? Consider a horse following another in a pasture. The lead horse decides it’s time to go for water. He has motivation (thirst), intent (go for water), direction (the path to the water), energy (his energetic presentation that the rest of the herd will see and feel), and focus (he’ll be focusing on where he’s going). For a horse to follow us then we need to present the same things, namely, a clear intention and an energetic focus on our desired direction or path.

So what should we do? We simply emulate a lead horse. We provide a clear and concise focus for the horse to follow and then cue him to change his thought to that of following our direction and energy. How to cue our horse to follow our thought is something we can establish in the groundwork and then take to the saddle. This is part of our style of horsemanship.

Simply put: if we want a horse to follow us then we must give him something to follow.

A common error both in groundwork and riding is that we stare at our hands or the ground in front of us. By staring at these places, we are focusing our intent on that spot. By focusing on that spot we are directing our energy at that spot. The horse picks up on this; after all, it’s how they communicate with each other. Here’s the kicker: if you are focusing on a place the horse is already at (like right in front of him), he can’t go there! He already IS there! Your request doesn’t make any sense to him. He might swing his hind end around as a guess at how to satisfy your request, or he might brace and not move at all.

Here is a common scenario we see on the obstacle course: the rider fixates on the obstacle coming up and of course, the horse stops when he gets there. He does that because  by focusing on the obstacle, the rider is very clearly directing him to stop there. The horse is following perfectly. The problem is that what the rider wants (to cross the obstacle) and where the rider is focusing (the beginning of the obstacle) are two entirely different things. What can happen next is that the rider pressures the horse into going forward, but without providing a direction to go. If the horse braces, continued pressure generally results in him rearing or jumping because he has no idea how the heck to do what he’s being asked to go to a place he’s already at.

What’s even worse is if the rider is nervous about the object they want the horse to step on or in. Now they are clearly communicating to the horse, this object is scary and we should not have anything to do with it.  But at the same time they’re urging the horse to go forward onto or into it. Doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense from the horse’s perspective, does it?

POINTER–How and where to focus. When I ride a horse in an arena, for example, my energetic focus is generally above my head height up the wall in front of us and I never allow my head to turn further than the point where my outside eye is in line with the horse’s inside eye. This achieves several important things:

  1. It allows me to keep my eyes and my chest UP and my focus on our path – thus showing the horse the path I want us to follow.
  2. I’m able to take in the entire arena environment – particularly important when riding with others or negotiating an obstacle course.
  3. My posture allows the horse to get under himself and I don’t get in his way by leaning in a turn.
  4. I don’t separate myself from the horse by turning my torso in the saddle.

 

If we do not provide clear leadership but expect the horse to respond, we have a mess. What generally ensues? You got it! Kick the horse to ask him to move and steer him like a dirtbike as he tries to avoid the very thing we told him, by our focus and energy, was dangerous. There is no communication going on at this point. This is dictatorial enforcement and not the mark of a good leader. This generally results in an upset and confused horse. Similar continued attempts teach the horse that this is how you will handle things he is unsure of. Do we really want our horses to believe that of us? Of course not!

Sharon leading her gelding, Jet. Her focus and direction is obvious and Jet is following perfectly.

Sharon leading her gelding, Jet. Her focus and direction is obvious and Jet is following perfectly.

To put this in perspective: let’s say that you and I are standing in the same aisle of a grocery store. You’re standing right in front of the product I want to toss in my cart. I don’t give you any indication that I’m interested in the product – instead I just grab your arm and yank you out of my way without any warning at all. How would you respond? You will be shocked, upset and might say, “Hey, what was that for”? And my response to your reaction is to kick you.

Wow.

So lets think of how we can do this better. We need to focus on a path we’d like our horse to follow and energetically direct him on it. When you have an obstacle in front of you, focus beyond it. When you really concentrate on sending or leading your horse properly like this, you’ll find you will be tempted to use your hands much less and your horse is much calmer because you’re communicating to him in a clear an concise way that is instinctive to him. In effect, you’re speaking horse.

Not only will the horse follow your focus, but when you have established yourself as a good herd leader, he will be looking for your direction on how to feel about things. Again, this is common sense when you think about prey animal herd behaviour. If one horse senses something scary, that is communicated to the entire herd almost instantly and they react as one. If the horse is unsure about a thing, how you react to that thing is going to dictate his response.

You can watch me go through this process several times in my video Zeus Episode 6 ??? The Trailer.

When asking Zeus to step up into the trailer, you’ll see my focus is precisely where I want the both of us to go. When he is nervous or unsure, I completely relax and cue him to do the same. When you watch the video, listen to the commentary,  there are many points in it that apply to introducing your horse to anything new.

This is your opportunity to step in and provide some positive leadership. If you feel your horse getting tense, then relax at least an equal amount. Why? Because you want him to follow you in that feeling. Horses follow each other mentally and emotionally, not just physically.

In our clinics, we use a variety of exercises and games to hone your ability to communicate with your horse in his native language. It works. It’s not a trick or a method or a tool. It’s simply clear communication and good leadership. As an instructor, it is such a great feeling to watch a fussy or nervous horse become calm and confident as his rider develops these skills. Sometimes this happens in minutes.

Not providing something clear and concise for the horse to follow is equivalent to putting him in the pasture and turning your back on him. He’ll feel left to his own devices and will take action to save himself if he feels threatened, often without your involvement. This might not be fun if you’re in the saddle on a trail ride!

When mounted or in groundwork, be very clear with your request; horses emulate their leaders in their actions and emotions. Offer your horse something to follow and show him the reward in choosing to follow you. With clarity and consistency, your horse will go forward with you and you’ll really feel what connection is all about.

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About Scott Phillips

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including backcountry/mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting horses and wildies, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and operating Amazing Horse Country. He is the proud owner of eight horses that he affectionately refers to as his "kids". Scott has and continues to study and train horses with Horseman Josh Nichol. He's taken courses in equine anatomy and biomechanics to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals and add a new dimension to his training.