The trouble with riding young horses is that they have, like children, a short attention span.
I don’t really remember having a big problem with Otis as he grew up, but his best schooling sessions were usually on a late winters evening, as no one else was braving the cold, and the darkness enveloped any distractions in the field. I think as well it helped that when I was backing Otis he was usually ridden as an extra in the younger group lessons, so he was used to a busy environment from the beginning.
I school this young mare who is renowned for having the attention span of a gnat on a hot plate. It’s quite amusing albeit slightly frustrating when you’re trying to get some work from her. This was highlighted this week when we started on schooling on the flat on our own in the school and she put her head down and focused, beginning to show improvement in her lateral work. Until another horse entered. And then my mare raised her head, turned, gawped, and slowed down each time she passed the other horse. Like rubberneckers in the street.
So I toned back the schooling and kept it simple – circles and transitions – so I could focus on keeping her forwards, straight, and on a contact as we passed the other horses. Eventually she realised what was expected of her and concentrated on me a bit more.
So a couple of days later I was jumping her. She tends to rush but makes a lovely shape over the fence. Thankfully it was the middle of the day so it was quiet and once I’d warmed up we started jumping a basic cross pole. I was really pleased that she didn’t rush, and responded to my aids nicely, and didn’t rush away from the fence. On about the tenth go someone walked up to the arena gate. We approached the jump towards the gate and I felt the mare get distracted … She turned and gawped before I used my legs and she returned to my planet just in time to take off. The only problem was that she was so busy rubbernecking that her legs dangled as she jumped flat, sending the poles flying.
I spent a few minutes back on the flat refocusing the mare before jumping again. She was great, keeping the canter rhythm, not falling in on the turn and basculing nicely. I was just riding my last couple of fences, which was a bigger cross, and then another horse arrived in the arena. Two strides out, the mare started gawping, before jumping the cross and dangling a leg again.
I didn’t bother rebuilding the jump as I knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate now she had company in the arena, and her approach has been consistent throughout my ride. I finished by asking her to trot around the other horse, with her mind on the ball.
This made me think about the difficulty of teaching a young horse to concentrate. As they get older they will get better, but I think riding lots of school movements keeps their focus on the rider which should stop them looking outside the arena for distractions. Then I think you need to desensitise the young horse to busy situations, so try and ride with one or two quiet horses in the arena and build it up so the quiet horses do more canter work, or poles, or the rider asks for more complicated movements from the young horse.
The same goes for competing young horses; start small and quiet, until they perform as well as they do in a busy home environment and are fairly consistent, and then gradually go to bigger and busier shows.
With the young mare that I school I will just be continuing to work her in the company of another until she settles to work, and leave the jumping and lateral work to when I’m alone in the school until she is consistent in the basics in company and hopefully she will get better at concentrating! Otherwise I may resort to blinkers!