Distracted Riding - Don't Text and Ride

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Distracted driving causes injuries. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration reports that 20 percent of vehicle accidents in 2009 involved distracted driving. A government-sponsored study of commercial drivers found texting created a 23 times greater risk of a crash. The Centers for Disease Control defines three types of distraction:

  • Visual - taking your eyes off the road,
  • Manual - taking your hands off the wheel, and
  • Cognitive - taking your mind off what you are doing.

What has this got to do with horses? Whether or not you are guilty of all three distractions because you answered your phone while riding, I observe riders allowing distractions of one sort or another to interrupt their relationship with their horse all the time. Think back to the last time you had any horse-related injury, large or small. You will probably recognize that distraction was in play.

Everything we do with horses depends on our ability to keep our attention on our horse and to continually bring it back when it wanders. Distracted riding makes us more accident prone for the same reasons distracted driving makes car drivers more accident prone. When you are with a horse, you must be with him proactively, paying attention moment to moment as you are working with him from the ground, paying attention stride to stride while you are riding. Faith Meredith tells her students to take anything on their mind when they come into the arena and leave in it a corner. They can pick it up again on their way out. But while they are there, they must be 100 percent with their horse.

When you are with a horse, you must constantly monitor his:

  • Emotional feel that day, in that situation, in that moment,
  • Energy level that day, in that situation, in that moment, and
  • Attention level that day, in that situation, in that moment.

You start by assessing the horse's body language from the moment you open the stall door and you continue monitoring his feel and energy and attention level until the moment you put him away. You pay close attention to the horse's body language, his general attitude, and his response to you. And you stay aware that, from his side of the encounter, the horse is paying close attention to your body language, your voice, your touch, and whether you are fully present with him or out to lunch visually, manually or cognitively. Ron Meredith calls this being with your horse stride by stride and teaches 'heeding,' a method of groundwork that helps students be with their horses moment to moment.

I remind my students that when they first encounter a horse, he immediately categorizes you as lion or lamb. Do you walk into the stall timidly or aggressively? Are you confident and calm? How does the horse react to whatever you are projecting? Does he pin his ears or turn his hindquarter toward you? Does he turn to face you? Does he come forward calmly to greet you? Does he run to the back of his stall or hide in a corner?

While you are with your horse, you need to be directing the horse at all times. You must proactively direct a behavior or action you do not want BEFORE it starts rather than defensively reacting after it happens. If your inattention allowed the horse to take a stride you did not intend or misbehave in some way, 'correcting' or 'punishing' the horse after the fact is a defensive tactic. It may make YOU feel like you are doing something to teach the horse. From the horse's standpoint, however, it only makes you an aggressive lion. In his mind, your inattention simply allowed an opening that he went through, just as he might when dealing with horse herd dynamics. He did something horse-logical to him and your 'correction' is a meaningless reaction. Far from gaining the horse's respect, you just get filed in the 'unpredictable crazy person, not to be trusted' category.

Depending on their personality or mood of the day, some horses are more or less demanding of your attention. The other day, a friend entered the arena while I was riding a spooky seven-year-old. The mare is not really all that nervous but, when she was younger, she learned that spooking got her out of work. As my friend passed through the opening, the mare shied halfway across the arena. It was not the time to say hello to my friend in any way. I kept my attention on the mare and put her right back to work by riding her forward from my leg to my hand for five minutes or so before I said hello to my friend. Even then, the minute I said hello, the mare ignored me again. So I worked on keeping her rhythm in the gait and keeping a forward connection. She demands my full attention stride by stride.

When a horse like a goldie oldie is less demanding of your attention, that does not let you off the hook. We have some reliable school horses like this that will start testing their rider as much as 20 strides before they will try to pull something. An aware rider picks up on their tiny signals and reminds them of the task at hand. You can almost hear them saying to the oblivious rider, "Did you see that? How about this? Notice what I'm doing now?" When there is no response from the rider, then they duck across the arena to get closer to one of their buddies, or change the gait without being asked, or do whatever they would like to do because they know their rider's attention is somewhere else and they can get away with their antics.

You must keep your attention on your horse at every moment whether you are grooming him in his stall, leading him somewhere, or riding. You should pay full attention to ANY horse whenever you are within one of his 'strike' zones. I remember an incident when a woman was standing in front of a horse's stall while her friend was inside with the horse. The woman was focused on her conversation with her friend so she was completely taken by surprise when the horse reached forward and bit her on the face. A lot of people know stories about someone kicked by a horse in cross ties when they walked up behind or alongside the horse. If you groom your horse in the stall, do not let him wander as you follow. Take time to get that halter and lead rope so you can control the horse's movements and stay in the safety zones alongside him as you groom.

Ron Meredith tells a story that epitomizes total concentration on your horse. His training mentor was working a horse on a cow when someone ran over to the arena yelling that the trainer's house was on FIRE. Ron's mentor never took his focus off the horse or the task at hand. He never said a word, just kept riding as though he had not heard the dire news. Only when he finished and took the horse off the cow did he turn to the man and simply say, "Call the fire department."

We are all guilty of attention lapses. I can give you a personal example. On an incredibly busy day, I used a headset to do a telephone interview while feeding my horses. Definitely multi-tasking and definitely not 100 percent attention to the task. As I lifted his hay, my stallion grabbed a mouthful and yanked hard, shaking itchy hay bits (lots) down into my shirt. There was no reprimand. He was simply being a horse-logical opportunist. The fault was all mine. I just had to deal with the discomfort until I could get a shower.

This is an example where only my pride was hurt. And it helped inspire this article. But being proactively attentive means being much less accident prone. It also means far better communication between us and our horses. Paying attention, like everything else we do with horses, is a learned skill. The article archives at meredithmanor.edu contain lots more tips on heeding groundwork, safety zones, and riding stride by stride. Start practicing today.

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Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Ron has been teaching "Natural Horsemanship" before it was cool. No matter how long you have been riding, MM will improve your riding immeasurably! Appreciate that you will not be riding a "made" horse all the time and value what each horse has to teach you. It is soooo WORTH it!
Debra Davidson Jennings: 1993 Riding Master III Graduate