May I Have Your Attention, Please: Managing the distracted horse

Jennifer Wollenberg shares an exercise that helped her get her mare’s head in the game.

From Jennifer:

I was greeted by a strange sight as I came down the driveway at the barn recently: a slew of strange cars, a gaggle of women dressed in long blue gowns, and several men in tuxedos. Not your typical farm attire, to say the least. I do have a friend who showed up at the barn in a cocktail dress and wellies to change her horse’s poultice and wrap before heading to a charity ball, but that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say that when I head to the barn, I consider myself to be dressed up if none of my clothes has stains.

The beautiful people were gathered along the fence adjacent to Val’s pasture, and by the time I parked and wandered over there to take in the spectacle, a bride and groom had joined the show. I later came to find out that the bride was a friend of the owner’s daughter, who had agreed to let them take some wedding photos in the pastoral splendor. I’m sure that their photos were lovely, with the bride’s veil blowing in the breeze. I’m sure that the two mares prancing in circles in the background, heads and tails up, nostrils flaring, made for a brilliant photographic moment. I would’ve been more enthusiastic about the photo shoot had I not been planning to ride one of those mares.

I thought for sure that when I walked out into the pasture, Val would give me a run for my money and I would spend the next 10 minutes trying to catch her. As far as she was concerned, aliens might as well have landed next to the pasture. In a surprising and somewhat sweet turn of events, when I called her name Val looked at me and then hustled right over at almost a trot, as if to say “Save me! Don’t you see what’s going on over there?!” She couldn’t get into her stall fast enough. I decided that patience was wise in this situation, and opted to leave Val to chill out in her stall with a flake of hay until the wedding party had vacated the premises.

I puttered around a little, checking water and hay for a few of the other horses, and was on my way to the tack room when the photographer approached and said “Hey, was that your horse you brought in? Do you think we could take a few pictures outside her stall with her in the background?” To which I responded, “Um, sorry, but no.”

Him: “No?”

Me: “No.”

Him: “It would only take a minute.”

Me: “Nope, sorry. My horse thinks the bride is going to eat her, and I’d like to ride today, so that’s not going to work.”

Him (looking disappointed and somehow managing to convey that he now thinks I’m a crazy person): “Well, if you’re sure….”

Me: “Sorry, but I’m sure.”

Thoroughbred meltdown averted, I proceeded to tack up and headed out to the ring as soon as the hordes had departed. After five minutes on the lunge to work out the kinks and 15 minutes of warm up, we were in business. Given the start to the day, I had been prepared to have to talk Val down off the ledge, so to speak, but she was remarkably level headed. I wanted to work some more on our turn on the haunches (recall the not-so-successful attempts I mentioned last time), so I tried the exercise described here:


While I won’t be riding Grand Prix anytime soon, there was definite improvement compared to our previous attempts. After the first few attempts, our downward transitions were crisp, and the turns were more controlled. Pleased with our initial successes, I also threw in some other transitions and changes of direction, and generally kept Val wondering what I was going to ask for next. No mindless trotting around in circles during this ride! And I just have to say WOW. I don’t think she’s ever paid such close attention to my aids. We were tuned in. I haven’t had a ride this great since before I had my daughter last fall. This once-a-week thing just might work out after all.

So Horse Nation, what flat exercises do you use to get your horse paying attention?

About Jennifer: I’m an amateur rider trying to figure out how to maximize my time at the barn while juggling the competing demands of a one year old daughter, a wonderful husband, and a challenging job. I’ve been riding for over 25 years and I’ve done a little teaching, a little training, a fair bit of showing, and a lot of just hacking around. My current project is training a wonderful Thoroughbred mare on a once-a-week riding schedule.




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