While teaching yesterday, the subject of distractions came up for two horses. They were very different personalities: one was an Off-the-Track-Thoroughbred (OTTB) and the other was a Canadian Horse- a little known breed similar to a rugged Morgan or Cob. So even though they were on opposite ends of hot/cold spectrum, both these individuals were more interested in "watching the movie" on the outside of the arena, than focusing on the job at hand.
The TB is not newly off the track and has had some amazing owners who have done wonders with him such that he is a real sweetheart...but he is still a TB. So he could see reflections in the windows of horses outside (we were in an indoor), he could hear conversations going on in the barn aisle and he could hear the wind blowing along the indoor walls. He thought all of these were worthy of his attention just in case he should need to go into full alarm mode and leave the scene...which he never did thanks to the patience and base that his rider has given him. Nonetheless, he rarely or never gave his full attention to his owner.
The little Canadian, on the other hand, did not seem in the least worried. Just busy! While the TB's ears swiveled around to listen in all directions, the Canadian's whole head and neck swung as he checked things out. He had been trucked in for the lesson so this was his first time at that facility and in that arena. There were lots of things to investigate- mirrors, doors, a hole in the kickboard etc. and especially that gate leading back to the barn where all those potential friends were hanging out!
So the challenge for both of these riders was and is how to get and keep your horse's attention. Every rider shares this challenge. How do we keep our horses' attention? Some people like to give a horse some time to look around first so they can then settle down and focus. Others like to "put them right to work" so that they don't have a chance to get worked up about something.
But regardless of which of these is best for each individual horse, we can use Positive Reinforcement in order to BE the distraction which the horse turns to instead of all that going on outside the arena (or off the trail or wherever). If the horse is truly worried about something (which I believe TBs often are), then we can be reassuring to them by inviting them into a positively reinforcing game or exercise. It helps to start out with a familiar exercise which you know they enjoy and then depending on the horse, you can introduce something new or keep them comfortable with what they know.
The mentally quick horses love a new challenge and with Positive Reinforcement, we know that it's the SEEKING mechanism that entices them (read about SEEKING here). So if we work on a relaxing behavior like head down in the barn and in hand until they are rock solid, they will happily respond when asked to. Then when going into a scary indoor, we can ask for head down and that behavior will have been conditioned to relax the horse. From there we can transition into perhaps walking forward with head down, building duration for the head down behavior. We need to keep the reinforcements rate high at this time in order to keep the horse's focus on us instead of the howling wind. Then we can move on to some lateral flexing exercises (the head down is a wonderful longitudinal stretch), with lots of reinforcing for nice flexions. By now, we should have the horse's attention. We have become more distracting than the noises outside. Who wants to listen to the wind when somebody keeps offering peppermints?
For the busy and curious horse, you can sometimes bypass the relaxing exercises and go straight to the fun stuff. But it's always good for a horse's anatomy and physiology to get that stretching in the neck and over the back as a warmup. But perhaps that horse would find it fun to target cones on the ground with his nose as he went around the arena. If he's focused on cones and getting clicked for touching them, he won't be looking in the mirrors or out windows. And that type of horse usually can't wait for you to tell him what the next game is going to be once you get started. All else is forgotten!
Many riders use distractions to get a horse's attention- but not necessarily in a positive way. Some use negative reinforcement- more and more pressure to make that horse pay attention...but that does not help a horse relax. Instead it can add tension to the situation. Far better to build a reputation with our horses of being far more interesting and FUN than anything else. We've already seen that horses will leave food in order to play the Clicker Game. Now we need to build trust so that they will also leave their worries behind and join us in work.
Photo above is TB mare Zoe, near and dear to our hearts, showing all the physiological signs of tension and distraction! One ear up, one cocked to the side. Tight neck, wide eye, jaw tense. This was her first time back under saddle after foaling. She hadn't been in the arena in over a year. Clicker training doesn't eliminate a horse's instincts and fears, but it does give us a way to deal with them....Zoe is doing wonderfully 6 months after this photo was taken, learning lots of new games and ways to deal with her tension.