Sunday, September 20, 2009

Attention, Rhythm and the Bridal March

Do you ever get funny words to fill in when you do comments on blogs? I got one yesterday - "tanter" - it immediately made me think of Dawn and her "rodeo moments" on the lunge - I think a tanter is a canter involving a tantrum!

Now, on to the real subject of this post. Dawn and I have been doing lots of different things to help her pay attention to me - this is one of Dawn's biggest issues. Attention is also the foundation of a lot of other things, including the ability to work through worrisome issues together, which is the foundation of trust. That's where we're headed with all of our work. We've been making very good progress on her attention. I don't expect her to have her attention on me every second - I think this is unrealistic - but I want her to still have me in mind and come back to me when I ask her to. In order for the horse to pay attention to us, I believe we must pay attention to the horse - the process has to be mutual, in my opinion.

For me, using rhythm in my work with horses is helpful in all sorts of ways. I use it for my breathing, for thinking ourselves into transitions of gait, and for timing cues to be most effective. I think a steady rhythm feels natural, and provides a pulse for our activities and can lead to relaxation. When I'm working with Dawn on her attention, or with Maisie on our "momentary transitions", I find that using a regular rhythm in what I am asking the horse to do makes it easier for them to respond successfully. Once they've got the hang of the regular rhythm, then we can start to change it. So with Maisie, I'll ask her to trot four strides, then walk two strides, repeat. Once she's doing this reliably, then we'll move to 3/2/3, 5/3/5, etc. and eventually to more random asks.

When Dawn and I lead to the pasture - we're in a far-away one right now - we do an attention exercise I call the "bridal march", which involves rhythm. I have her on a loose lead - the point is for her to pay attention to what I'm doing and choose to respond, not for me to constrain her. I also want her to be a few steps behind me. (This exercise, I think, will only be useful for a horse that already knows how to lead well on a loose lead, staying out of your personal space and either behind or to the side and slightly behind.) Walking to the pasture is a time where Dawn's attention often wants to be elsewhere - she's thinking about the herd. I want her to keep track of me as well and pay attention to what I'm doing. I try to walk in time with her front feet and develop a regular rhythm together. This, in my experience, gets the horse's attention in at least a subconscious way. Then we do the "bridal march" (if you've ever been in a wedding, you'll understand where I got the idea for the name) - we take four regular steps together and then I take a short, slow step - she's supposed to match what I do - then four regular steps and a slow step, and so on. If she needs help paying attention when I slow down, I gently jiggle the lead or if need be give her a secondary cue by asking her to slow by turning my body towards her. She did really well with this today and I was very pleased with her.

She's also doing better at not running from the gate of the pasture the moment I take off her halter. I am still using food treats for now. It's huge progress for her to stand, thinking about me (or at least the treat) as I take off her halter. I've been extending the time I ask her to stand there waiting. Once she has the treat, she often walks off for at least a few steps without running.


  1. As always Kate, a well constructed posting. I've noticed this with Moralejo too, he seems to take notice of me and respond accordingly. For instance, we stop and pick fallen apples on the way up to the yard and it makes him incredibly attentive to me, just waiting for my signal to grab an apple.
    Seems you're making good solid progress with dawn, great news.

  2. Getting the attention and focus of a horse that relates more to other horses than to humans is a difficult task. You seem to be making good progress with Dawn. And,I agree, it should translate to the under saddle work as well. Nice going.

  3. As always a wonderful post, so descriptive of your time with the horses. I also do the bridal march from time to time with certain horses, it is a great tool.

  4. As far a fun words go, my daughter has one she uses all the time. It's called the 'trollop' not quite a trot or a gallop if you know what I mean.
    Sounds like you and Dawn are doing some good work.

  5. A TANTER!!!! Now that is hilarious! And something I am too familiar with!!! Thanks for lending humor to an at times upsetting situation! No more tanters! No more tanters!!!


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