Sometimes you show up to the barn, excited to work on such-and-such with your horse, only to find that he or she is a complete spaz that day–dancing in the cross-ties, head high, eyes bugging out–and you have to shift your plan and spend most of your precious riding time coaxing their brain out of Panic Mode and back into Able to Handle Life Mode.
Or sometimes you carry on with your original plan to go for a trail ride, or to work on flying-changes ('uuuuge mistake), so now you are having a fight with your horse that takes most of your precious riding time to work through. Or maybe they pulled off an enormous spook at that tiny beam of light shining across the arena floor, and you're now looking at the beam of light very close-up, thinking about how you reeeaaalllyyy should have listened to your trainer who told you not to ever be too married to your plan....Womp-womp.
But wait! There are ways to salvage a productive ride here. It doesn't have to take the majority of your time at the barn to get your horse into good working order. There isn't a one-method-fits-all solution, unfortunately, so it is necessary for you to know and understand your horse for best results. Here are my favorite methods for focusing a horse before riding:
1. Lunging: This method works great for a horse that has not had enough turn-out time and needs to stretch and burn off that antsy energy that builds up when they are stalled for too long. This also happens in winter when their turn-out is too snowy/icy for them to run around in. Their feet hit that nice sand in the indoor arena and they get the urge to rip, roar and possibly roll. Let them have at it until you notice signs of relaxation (lowering head, licking and chewing, slowing down).
Lunging allows the horse to warm up their muscles and stretch, without our weight on them. It also encourages horses to move freely forward, since there is no rider on them attempting to balance or slow them down. One of the most important elements of correct training is forwardness, so lunging is not only a way to work off/channel rampant energy but also a way to establish the fundamentals of good training.
I like to lunge immediately after bringing my horse out–before grooming or tacking up–to avoid naughty antics in the cross-ties. My horse stands so much nicer after a quick lunging, and I don't have to spend those minutes before our ride yelling "quit" and "stand" every two seconds–which obviously is not an ideal way to prepare yourself for a relaxed and focused ride. The grooming process should be an enjoyable experience for both my horse and myself.
Do not lunge horses who tend to get more riled up from a good run-around. If it takes more than 20 minutes of lunging for them to relax and they work themselves into a lather in the process, there are more effective methods for this type of horse, so avoid this one unless you have that much time on your hands or unless working on their lunging skills is part of the lesson plan for the day.
Make sure you've been taught how to correctly lunge your horse before using this method, as lunging before your ride sets the tone for the ride and also establishes who is the leader in the relationship. In other words, if your horse is ignoring you, pulling on you and just generally asserting their control over the entire situation then you can expect your ride to go much the same way: badly for you. A good lunging session should accomplish the opposite–giving your horse a chance to get the sillies out while also tuning in to you, respecting your space and settling into their work.
Horses, being herd animals, feel most safe and relaxed with a confident leader looking out for them. Most of the time they settle into the follower role willingly, but if they sense you don't know what you're doing or you lack the confidence to effectively lead, they will test you. This does not mean you should use lunging to "dominate" your horse or assert your dominance over them. Earning respect and trust cannot be done by force or fear. Do not chase your poor horse around the arena, cracking the whip and scaring them to exhaustion....this kind of "training" is not tolerated at Sioux River.
2. In-Hand Work: Some horses have more mental-energy than physical, and benefit from having that energy channeled into something challenging right off the bat. That could mean that you get on right away and move forward with a warm-up routine that keeps their minds busy, or, if you don't want to be on their back at first because you're worried about the huge spook or buck that could be hiding in there, then doing some in-hand work before getting on might be the ticket.
In-hand work, when done correctly, is stimulating mentally for a horse, while simultaneously helping them to stretch and relax, so by the time you mount they should be focused, supple and ready to rock. Examples of basic in-hand work can be seen here and here. Just like with lunging, this exercise takes practice and you don't want to carry on with it in the wrong way, so ask your trainer to help you at first.
In-hand work is not effective for a horse who is so antsy that they are jigging in place the whole time, or so pushy that they're trying to run you over. It should be a tool that aids in focusing a horse with an anxious mind. Muscling your horse into a frame and beating on them with your dressage whip to "teach them respect" is NOT acceptable behavior at Sioux River.
3. 1N Breathing Technique: Some horses are really not the hot type at all but have days where they just seem out of sorts and easily distracted. Or maybe your horse IS the hot type, and lunging just works them up even more, and they're not quite polite enough for in-hand work either. There are many triggers that could be at play...sometimes it's a change in weather, or the howling wind, or a change in their feed, or perhaps they're picking up on some nervousness or anxiety you're feeling. When you just need to take a moment to reset, relax and center yourself and your horse before you mount, the 1N Breathing Technique is the ticket.
Watch this short video to see the technique in action:
Supposedly this technique equalizes the oxygen and carbon monoxide levels in a horse's brain. I don't know enough about brain chemistry to know whether that is true, or if it just works because it makes us slow down and focus on our breath and become quiet and centered for a moment. Maybe it's both. In any case, it really does work!
I use this at horse shows when I want to take a moment to connect with my horse and bring our nerves down a notch, or before a ride when I can tell my horse's brain is elsewhere and I want to bring his focus in to me without all the fuss of a lunging or in-hand routine. My horse has a very obvious reaction to this, going from tense and wide-eyed to soft-eyed, with head lowered. He'll lick and chew after a couple minutes as well. It helps to be cognizant of your own breath while doing this as well–take deep, slow breaths.
4. Avoid these mistakes: I see people doing these things sometimes, in an attempt to win over their horse's attention or calm them down, unaware that they are just re-inforcing the nervous energy or the unwanted behavior that is a result of the nervous energy.
–Feeding treats before a ride. In most cases, this just adds fuel to the fire. Picture this: Horse is being anxious, fidgety and rude while you're grooming and tacking. The only thing that could make that scenario worse would be the introduction of a REWARD at that very moment! You are not winning over their affection or bribing them to behave nicer–you are rewarding the naughty behavior. Save the treats for after the work is done, when you'll be rewarding a calm, polite horse who just completed an honest day's work for you.
–Ignoring the warning signs/your horse's mood to stick to your plan to trail ride/school flying-changes/jump a 3' course/etc.....This ends badly for you, but I bet you'll never do it again!
–Skipping your warm-up, or warming up in the wrong way. Knowing your horse and figuring out the best type of warm-up for them is crucial. Your rides will improve ten-fold when proceeded by a great warm-up. It might vary a little depending on the day, and definitely by the horse, but take the time to figure out what works to get you both focused, relaxed, supple and feeling connected and then make that warm-up your religion!
–Mistaking pain for naughtiness. Sometimes bucking, head-tossing, stopping, spooking, and general crabbiness is not a sign of excess energy but of pain. Be sure to rule out any soundness or tack issues (is the girth pinching? Is their bit laying correctly in their mouth? Etc.) before continuing with the work, especially if that behavior or attitude is unusual for that horse. Never force a horse through a ride when something doesn't seem right!
Good luck and happy riding!