“Getting” a horse’s attention… By Catherine Bell

Linda Parelli recently increased her notoriety when a YouTube video of her working with a horse received “trial by internet” (the Linda Parelli video mentioned). Her response to the wide-ranging criticisms included the reason that she needed the horse’s attention to be focused on her in order to work him safely. This prompted further on-line debate – if you don’t like the way Linda Parelli did it, how would *you* get the horse’s attention?

For me this begs the question “is it really necessary, or even desirable, to have the horse’s attention on the trainer all the time”?

Horses have evolved for 60 million years as a highly successful prey animal. They keep themselves alive by almost continually keeping some of their attention on what could hurt them. They group together in herds to help keep themselves safe and, with rare exceptions when a horse may lie down and sleep watched over by another horse, they are always looking out for themselves and each other. In contrast, humans have been domesticating horses for about 6000 years. We expect to be able to take a horse out of its herd and have it focus on us, and us alone, for periods of typically about an hour, maybe with just the occasional break.

I was watching my horse have a roll recently. We had just come back from a fast ride on a warm day and he is not clipped. He *really* wanted to roll. Yet even though it was something he really wanted to do, he walked around the field, pawed the ground, walked a bit more, looked out to the horizon, walked a bit more, looked to see where the other horses were, looked back to the horizon and then finally had his roll. With so little focused concentration on a behaviour he was really motivated to do, how can we ever hope to have focused concentration on a human whim with little incentive for the horse?

Instead of trying to force the horse to do something that is clearly so unnatural and illogical for it, why don’t we work with the horse’s behaviour instead of against it?

Most people “need” the horse’s attention to be focused on them because they perceive the distracted horse to be dangerous. So what happens if we force the horse to focus? Typically, we will be making the horse turn his head in a particular way, maybe towards us if we are on the ground or straight ahead if we are riding. Does this guarantee the horse’s attention on the task we are trying to accomplish? Probably not, the horse could still be thinking about anything (assuming we have not yet become so aversive that we *are* the most threatening stimulus in the horse’s environment). Unfortunately, as soon are we become more coercive we just don’t know what the horse is thinking. That to me is much more dangerous than being merely distracted.

For the sake of my (and my horse’s) safety, my priority is to know as much as I possibly can about what my horse is thinking. That involves using as little coercion as possible and giving him maximum opportunity to express his feelings. What does he like? What doesn’t he like? What is worrying him? What does he need to think about before he feels he can safely carry on with the ride? With all this information I almost always know how he will respond in any situation. His responses remain small because he does not have to fight and I can remain relaxed and comfortable with almost anything he does.

Perhaps counter-intuitively for people who have always believed they need to (over-?)control their horse, this does not produce a horse who “takes the mickey” or will always choose not to do any work. When we hack out (on plenty of roads as well as tracks), my horse will want to stop and look at things but it is only ever a brief look to reassure himself that all is ok. If something concerns him, e.g. a manhole cover, we can wait for a gap in the traffic so that he can have enough space to walk around it if he needs to – so much safer than me trying to force him over it, with so many uncertainties in the outcome. If a horse is more fearful than this on the roads and his behaviour likely to be more dramatic, then we should consider very carefully whether the horse should be out and about at all. Some carefully shaped training in a safe environment would be much more advisable until the horse is feeling more confident.

Reassessing what is reasonable in our horse-human interactions is a vital key to improving our relationships. When things go wrong, we almost always expect the horse to change his behaviour – even if we acknowledge that we have made the mistakes! A healthy relationship requires give and take on both sides of the partnership and, given that generally the horse has not chosen to be part of the partnership, I think it is only fair that we take on a little more responsibility for our behaviours. If we are afraid of something the horse might do (typically through its own fear), then we should be considering how to address our own fears – coercing the horse is not really a valid way of doing this.

How different the Linda Parelli video could have been if, when she realised the horse was so distracted, she had allowed him a few minutes to relax in the environment and taken the time to consider *why* he may have been distracted (including the consideration that apparently he was partially blind, although that was far from the only consideration). This could have been so much more instructive to the thousands of people who watched the video. And it would probably have done her reputation a lot more good as well!

By Catherine Bell (www.equinemindandbody.co.uk)

(Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Posted in Equine Behaviour, Horse Training and tagged , , .


  1. What a delightfully comforting article. I confess I did not do the groundwork but the yearling that I bought absolutely knows the length of the lead rein. I did however do all the rest of his “gentling”. Now as a 16 year old if we meet a couple of motorbikes coming towards us I simply take one hand off the reins and scrunch the base of his mane. All the reassurance he needs that it is not one of those (it happened 8 years ago) bikers rallies.
    Before which his attitude to motorbikes was normal. He had an expectation that a motorbike would scream past (usually because the rider had not seen us) or drop it’s throttle and give us a very wide berth. These things were normal. But to meet a group of 20 then 8 then 30 then 15 all in a very short one mile lane absolutely blew his mind. There was no where to go, it wasn’t normal it was very frightening for him, he has never forgotten.So now if I see or hear a lot of bikes ( they are allowed to go off on day trips too) I simply jump off flag (the slow down gesture) and let him have enough rein to run around me if there are lots of them. In the knowledge that he is frightened but he would never run over me, just do a fast lunging session with me with one hand on his neck doing a giddy circuit. Guess what these get less and less fretful because I accepted that it was terrifying for him I did not expect that he would ever get over it but least said soonest healed and he actually does very little and has moved / increased the number that he panic’s about. Catherine’s point being, you know what, when he’s scared and when he is a little scared you can comfort but when he’s really scared. He is not doing it to be naughty.

  2. Really good article Catherine. Coercion seems to create so many problems that further down the line become very complicated and expensive to try and fix. We are so fortunate that we live in a world where we have the luxury of developing trusting relationships with our horses, the least we can do is make ourselves worthy of their trust. It’s also so much more fun to be in harmony with a horse instead of dominant opposition.

  3. This seems to me to be the heart of the matter with regard to horsemanship. Being able to read your horse well enough to know when and how to get his attention on you and to be able to change and adapt what you do and expect from moment to moment.
    My youngster is going through a phase where he is becoming anxious when he is out and about. I’m finding when I insist he pays attention to me, his anxiety level decreases. I use various strategies to gain his attention according to how he feels to me. Sometimes, for example when there is a deer running through the woods, I will join him in looking at it. My daughter’s horse will just not move on until she has looked at and acknowledged whatever it is that worries him. Once she has, he moves on quite happily. This works for my young horse too. Sometimes simply changing direction will bring his attention back. Once he is relaxed and ‘with me’ again, we can go along together companionably without the need for him to have all his attention on me.
    It is a ‘feeling’ thing with no hard and fast rules.

  4. I’ve had a much better relationship with my pony since I stopped worrying about having his attention on me all the time while we are out hacking. I used to be involved with a system of riding that set great store by this – if the horse had his ears pricked he was looking at the scenery and not concentrating on his rider – and was therefore not in control and possibly not safe. I used to spend every hack worrying because I couldn’t get my pony’s complete attention 100% of the time. Then I found a new teacher who was very good at teaching me the skills I needed to feel safe and confident. That made all the difference. I can’t remember exactly when I stopped worrying about my pony’s focus of attention because I realised one day that I hadn’t thought about it for ages and that as Jackie says above, we now go along companiably and it’s perfectly OK for him to look at the scenery, just as it is for me. Knowing that I am pretty secure on his back, that I can cope with his behaviours and that I can read his body well enough to predict his actions makes me feel much more safe than trying to control his every thought ever did. Thanks, Catherine.

Leave a Reply