Thoroughbred Logic: Focus!

“Despite all they have seen at the track, big atmospheres can be challenging for baby Thoroughbreds and so many others. Besides getting them out as often as possible into similar spaces, I need a better plan next time. I need to bring normal with me as a way to create focus and the relaxation that comes with the familiar.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses how she works to get her green horses to focus when hauling off property.

This past weekend, I took two very different but very talented Thoroughbred mares to Chattahoochee Hills Eventing to get some experience and take a read on their eventing abilities. One mare, Prada (JC: On The Move) is a 10-year old who has ample show experience in the world of Show Hunters and needed to prove her Eventing potential. The other is my giant 17hh four-year-old, Rikki (JC: Tiz So Fine), who has been to one low-key local show and needs some additional off-site experience before heading to compete in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover in October.

Prada (On the Move) being foot perfect on the Beginner Novice XC course at Chatt Hills. Photo by Greta Colley

The two could not have been more different. Poised and focused, one made the job easy and thoroughly enjoyable. One, goofy and suffering from an equine version of ADHD, just made me laugh. To be fair, this was totally what I expected. In fact, both horses actually performed better than I had hoped. Hell, Prada made it look like she had been clicking around cross country courses her whole life. Rikki successfully did all the things asked: She got her leads in dressage, albeit, the right was begrudged. She bravely went over (or through) all her stadium jumps. And importantly, she stayed (mostly) in her skin with the huge atmosphere and new things to see and experience.

We were perhaps a little too animated on the right lead transition. Whoops. Photo by Greta Colley

My dressage test on Rikki, however, shows what I knew to be the biggest challenge of the day;: “Lacks Attention” was the most common comment. In fact, it showed up in about every other comment box. So, this is what we’re dealing with today — the idea of focus.

Green horses often are easily distracted. And of course some, like Rikki, are simply more distracted than others. At home she’s pretty good. She’s used to the geese in the pond and the pigeons making annoying flight circles around their arena. The horses in the nearby dry lots have become normalized as have the cars rolling down the driveway or the noises of the horses in their stalls. She’ll still pop her head up out of contact from time to time, but she’s gotten better and better about paying attention to her ride until the reins are softened and she’s allowed to look around.

Heading down center line with a baby Thoroughbred who was intent on focusing on any thing but the ride at hand made for a challenging, but still worthwhile test. Photo by Greta Colley

Off property though, this baby-brained 1200lb toddler has other ideas. ALL she wants to do is look. And on one hand that is OK. But here’s how I tend to handle it: Clear boundaries, added rider focus, and some homework to ‘normalize the new.’ What I don’t do is medicate for focus. I’m sure that there are points where some “better living by chemistry” might be helpful, but I’m a bit old-school in that I want to ground work the horses and ride through the issues, not dull them down to cope.

Boundaries, in this case, entail defined moments where a horse can look and when they need to focus. This means having clear points of loose reined, ‘hey, take this all in, good girl’ as well as ‘here is your contact and now please go to work.’ Boundaries of course include expectations — when I’m cantering at jumps, I expect that she will try at least a little bit to stay with me and pay attention. When I’m done, I’ll stop and loosen my reins (or better yet, hop off her back) and let her soak in the atmosphere.

Rikki might be looking at other things, but at least she got her legs (mostly) out of the way for the fences on the course. Photo by Greta Colley.

I keep my asks small but insistent. When walking back to the stalls despite giving her a long rein to walk on, I insist that she pay just enough attention to not walk ahead of or over me. She’s welcome to take it all in at that point, but she has to do that while still respecting my space. Basic groundwork helps here. Walk together. I stop moving. She needs to stop with me. If she doesn’t, I stop her and back her up. Praise. Walk forward. Same thing. The better she is, the longer we can walk without having to test our brakes.

Even when a horse is distracted, I do my best not to try to micromanage their attention. I am not going to hold them tight or constantly wiggle their reins or pull on their lead rope around to keep them aware that they are attached to a human. That’s like trying to yell a convoluted conversation to an already distracted pre-teen in a loud room. “Wuuuuuuut?” Instead, clearly define the objective, make it short and sweet (and clear), and then leave them alone. Distraction is loud, yelling (by micromanaging) on top of that only makes it all that much easier for the four-legged toddler to tune you out.

Loose reins and the ability to look around become the reward. Good girl, Rikki. Photo by Greta Colley

Beyond boundaries, riding or working with a distracted horse means that when you pick up your reins and ask then to perform, you have to focus double time. Because they want to take everything else in, a rider who never waivers from their line, their goal, or their ask helps draw the horse back to the goal at hand. This is of course easier said than done. If my horse goes full llama on me to look at something out of the ring and up the hill, I’m quite tempted to lift my eyes and my shoulders to take a good look at the thing that has nabbed their attention.

Don’t do it. At least not until you’re on a loose rein and no longer asking for focus.

I’m laughing at her and focused on our first fence. She’s just gawking at all the folks watching her go. Photo by Greta Colley

This is hard, because their distraction will tempt you to pull off of your line or simply scratch from everything. But if you can keep on your course or your test and it is still safe (enough), and double your focus down to razor-edged “we. go. here. now. quietly. thank. you.” you can get them around, and help build an understanding that work means paying attention, and that the reward is the ability to gawk at all the pretty lights and moving ponies after the fact. It is a process. It is not always pretty. But it is productive and so worth staying the course.

As with this weekend, this doesn’t always make for super good looking rounds. Rikki’s dressage test was OK, especially if we were facing away from the judges box and the hill where everyone crowded to watch the four different rings. Facing the hill, she fought contact to get her head up and go off her rhythm and line so that she could look. In the end, after her halt, she was thrilled to just be able to gawk at the huge atmosphere and her fellow equines.

I got her attention back in time to get three of the four legs to jump normally. I’ll take it. Photo by Greta Colley

In stadium she was willing to let me get her on a line… after a second of noooooope, want to looooook. She relied heavily on my ¬†direction and attention. And while she considered the jumps more speed bumps that were in the way of her vision, by holding the line and determinedly getting her around, she gained experience. In fact, she got better as she went, and acquired another opportunity to realize that focus comes first and the ability to look is a reward. Really, she was so, so good, especially considering what she has had as training (a few months) and what I was asking (a hell of a lot).

To survive Chatt on Rikki, I set boundaries (and spaces for reward) and used my ability to focus (I mean, we are humans…) to compensate for her proverbial ADHD in order to make a successful day of it (good girl, Rikki). In the end, I was thrilled with how she worked through her distraction, and I went home with some new homework. Despite all they have seen at the track, big atmospheres can be challenging for baby Thoroughbreds and so many others. Besides getting them out as often as possible into similar spaces, I need a better plan next time. I need to bring normal with me as a way to create focus and the relaxation that comes with the familiar.

This week, I’ll start the creation of that “movable normal” — a set of ground work exercises and warmup patterns that will allow me to bring the work from home directly to the show. From here until the Makeover (and likely beyond), each day I work with Rikki, I’ll ask her to walk through the “give and over” exercises here and a brief walk and trot lunge for attention (all of these exercises are described in a ground work article here). Once riding, we’ll work big, loopy figure eights to get her to understand the repetitive change in bend and the timing of the half halt.

Making the new more comfortable and easier to ignore will allow more moments like this as she gains experience and hones her pretty ridiculous talent. Photo by Greta Colley.

Let them settle in; let it be predictable. These repeatable exercises provide the security of home and encourage the trust and attention required to stop looking around for a minute and focus on the task at hand. Repeatable, mobile exercises create and simulate normal. And hell, in extremely interesting and stressful places, who doesn’t love a little slice of home to take the edge off.

We’ll be seeing folks at the Makeover in a few short weeks. And you’ll definitely see us there. Rikki will be keeping her head above the crowd and trying to make eye contract with all of you. I’ll be focusing for her and very likely laughing. Because at the end of the day, if I didn’t find this comical, I really don’t know how I’d get through show days with horses who didn’t act as perfect as Prada.

Gratuitous photo of Prada being fantastic in dressage because I’m just so pleased with how she good of an eventer she is going to make. Photo by Greta Colley.

Go ride folks! Set boundaries, ask for focus, and know that the baby-brained moments are all part of the process.