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Dear Dana: What general advice do you have for rider focus?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - October 18th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

Dear Dana: Do you have a plan for keeping your focus in place while you’re riding?
Thomas, Bend, Ore.

DEAR THOMAS: I call it “mindful riding,” and there are powerful benefits to it. To ride mindfully is to pay attention while you are riding, to raise your consciousness to a level that will allow you to notice more and become more “in tune” or sensitive to your horse and your riding.

Unfortunately, many people have gotten into the habit of riding “mindlessly,” a bad habit that we all can slip into — especially if we have ridden a long time or if we are very accustomed to our horse. We can slip into a habit or routine and get in a rut. That’s easy to do when we find things that work and do them over and over. Why not? If it works, keep doing it. But I want to encourage you to reach for excellence and strive to be the best you can be!

Mindful riding is knowing what your horse is doing underneath you at all times. It is knowing if your horse gives or responds to your cue, it is knowing where his body is, where your hands and legs are, and what is going on with your horse. When I teach this, I often tell a story of a couple of people riding along talking to one another, and bumping their horses, but not even knowing if their horse gave to them or not. The horses are probably saying to one another, “I’m so tired of so and so bumping away on my face, I just get duller with every pick up!” That’s exactly what happens, too. Mindless riding will desensitize your horse into ignoring your cues. Then no wonder you go in the show arena and your horse does its own thing. Great horsemen make each connection count! You cannot teach your horse to say yes to you unless you are finely tuned to the way you are asking – and to the way they answer.

Here are benefits of mindful riding:
1. First, you will develop a better relationship with your horse. Horses will always like a person who gives a clear message vs. someone who is vague or indefinite.

2. You can coach, or teach, yourself to develop feel and timing. Feel is knowing when your horse gives, and timing is knowing when you should release (or pick up) your horse. Both feel and timing relate to riding mindfully.

3. You’ll develop more respect from your horse by making sure your cues are clear and following through until you get the desired response. Many people desensitize their horses without realizing it, because they don’t get the job done when they give their horse a cue.

4. You’ll “get the lean” out of your horse. So many training and showing problems are due to undiagnosed lean. Many horses are drifting and leaning, and their riders don’t even know it. By increasing your awareness, you will know where your horse’s energy flow is going. It might not be going where you thought it was.

5. You’ll eliminate your nervousness, and any show ring or competition nerves might go away because you have taken control of your focus, and put it on a specific thing. You have taken control of your thoughts and done something. Often we get nervous because we have allowed our minds, or thoughts, to get carried away. By refocusing our thoughts on our pickup, and our horse’s response, we are too busy to get nervous!

6. The more mindfully you ride, the more you and your horse become a team. We’ve all seen those beautiful riders that appear to be “one with their horse”. They are in tune with one another. You can do that too!

To become a mindful rider, here are some steps:
1. YOU are your horse’s teacher! Remember this each time you ride. You are either teaching positively, or negatively. Horses learn by the reward, and if you connect or communicate to your horse through your hands or legs, and are not very aware of the response, you are teaching negatively.

2. Give clear messages. Make sure that if you give a cue with your hands or your legs, ask clearly. For example, if you are in the habit of bumping a lot with your hands or your legs, you may have gotten into the habit of giving a lot of useless signals. I have a saying “Be in, or be out”. In other words, ask clearly until you get a yes, and then get out. Keep your hands and legs quiet, as you are moving around a lot, you may be numbing, or dulling, your horse to your cues. Be clear and be in, or be out!

3. Practice your pick-up and release. The most common area of mindless riding is in the use — or misuse — of your hands. I teach my riders to practice their pick up. I feel that the fair, or correct, way to pick up (or come in contact with your horse’s mouth) is to pick up slowly until the slack is out of the reins, and he knows you are there. Then you can bump or add more pressure until you have a “Yes”. After he gives to you, then release. Also, become mindful or “feel” what is going on between your hands and your horse’s mouth. Wait for him to soften or become light in your hands. I see many riders pick up, or connect with their horse’s mouths, and the horse will drop his head into position, but then almost pulls the reins out of the rider’s hands. Then they will release, or give as a reward. For my standard, I want my horses to become soft, or light, in my hands. So follow through, or stay in, until your horse becomes soft and says yes to you, then release. Once you’ve raised your standard to this level, don’t go back and settle for less. This is how you develop a relationship with your horse. Remember, you talk to your horse with your hands.

4. Eliminate distractions. This is every rider’s challenge. How often have you gotten a call on your cell phone, and then lost your place so to speak, with your horse? Or maybe you were irritated after your phone call and got sharp, or abrupt, with your hands. You are breaking relationships with your horse if you are not consistent with your cues! So I recommend you try to keep the distractions away while you are riding or training. Distractions pull your focus off what you are doing. If you are in an intense training moment and you need to make a phone call, or have a conversation, stop what you are doing and stand or walk on your horse until you are ready to focus.

Finally, here are some keys things to be mindful about:
1. Softness in the Face. In order to gain the highest level of collection and acceptance in my horses, I need them to be soft and light in the face.

2. Acceptance to my legs. Horses will tell you through their reaction and body language if they are accepting your leg, or are angry and resistant. I watch their ears and their mouth. If they put their ears back, or are chomping at the bit, they may be mad or afraid of my leg. I listen to their tail also. If they are wringing or swishing their tail when I put my leg on them, this is telling me something. I recommend you learn to study a horse’s body, and watch their body language.

3. Bodyweight. Where is your horse’s body weight? Many horses are traveling on their front end. A horse should be balanced over their hindquarters, not heavy on their front end. I don’t care what event you ride in, whether reining, barrel racing, or western pleasure; a horse will perform better and safer if their body weight is balanced correctly. Horses can learn to travel on their forehand or front end, by using your hands mindlessly and allowing your horse to pull down on you when you pick up on them. Developing feel, timing, and awareness can eliminate this. If you are not sure where his body weight is, pull him to a stop. If he stopped heavily on his front end, or walked out of it, he is most likely on his front end. This is a form of lean.

4. Get the lean out. Is your horse leaning side to side? Horses can lean by dropping a shoulder, hip, ribcage, or their whole body. If you find your horse drifting to the outside or the inside in one circle or another, he has lean. Also, if you put your hand down, walk or trot him, see if he stays between your reins and legs. Does he stay straight, or drift to one side or the other?

5. Physical appearance. Become mindful about your horse’s health. How is his hair coat? When you pull him out of the stall, check his manure. Often if horses aren’t feeling well, they might slow down their drinking. The first sign of a dehydrated horse is that their manure turns to small, hard balls. Check his water. Is it working? Look him over well and make sure there are no cuts or swelling. I always look at my horses flanks to make sure they are drinking. With automatic waterers, you cannot check how much water your horse is consuming. Does he finish his feed? Great horsemen pay attention to their horse!

6. Check His Energy Level. Horses will tell you through their body language if they have too much energy to pay attention to work. Maybe he needs to be turned out or lunged to run and play, or maybe you should start your work by medium trotting until he is relaxed. A horse that has too much energy will show you by their head, ears, breathing, reactiveness, tail, and many other areas. You won’t get that great ride if he is too energetic to focus.

I hope these tips will help you, Thomas. I feel that to be fair to your horse and to develop that partnership that we all desire, we have to stay mindful, and stay thinking!


Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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