Focused Riding: The Seldom-Taught Riding Skill

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

When a photo of a truly great riding master takes your breath away, study it carefully. Often what caught YOUR attention is that all of the rider's attention is focused on the horse and all of the horse's attention is focused on the rider.

The rider is not wondering about what an observer - an instructor or judge or railbird buddy or whomever - is thinking as they watch. The horse is not paying attention to the birds in the arena or what is happening around the door or hiding in the corner. They are totally present with one another.

Focus is not taught separately from other basic riding skills that any progressive riding or training program must address. Behind every discussion of the 'how to' of riding skills you have heard or read, however, is an assumption that the rider is paying full attention to what they are attempting to do. Riding 'in the moment' does not come naturally. It is a mental habit that riders must work on as much as they work on the physical skills any good rider needs. Lack of focus interrupts the flow of communication between horse and rider. It is like hanging up the phone. The rider has to reopen communication and reconnect with the horse.

Most instructors do not teach focus (or call it concentration or paying attention or whatever you like) as a separate riding skill. They assume that as their students practice, concentration on the task at hand will develop automatically. Most beginning riders start off blissfully unaware of how important focus is, if they think about it at all. Certainly by the time riders master all of the progressive rungs of the riding tree and reach the upper levels, focus is a habit. Reminding developing riders about focus can help them improve their progress.

I constantly remind beginning students to concentrate on where they are going, what they are doing, and what their horse is doing. I will remind them, for example, not to look out the door when they pass the arena opening. A laid back older horse will probably ignore a rider's attention bobble and truck on past the door. A younger horse might take advantage of the rider's attention lapse to wander off the rail, drop out of a trot, or otherwise evade the rider's aids. A reactive horse might feel the rider's wandering attention as a danger signal and react by spooking, bucking, or running away.

Concentration on the immediate task at hand must become a habit in order to reach the upper levels of any sport. The ability to focus improves as a rider masters each rung on the riding tree. When relaxation becomes automatic, it no longer distracts the rider from trying to keep her balance. As the rider's balance improves, it no longer distracts her from following the horse's motion. The better the rider's seat becomes, the more capable she becomes of setting the rhythm with her seat, feeling the nuances of what the horse is doing underneath her and applying the correct corridor of aids with correct timing. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. As a rider's physical skills improve, the ability to focus mentally improves. As focus improves, skills improve.

Faith Meredith reminds her students to stop for a moment before they start a lesson and leave anything else on their mind in a corner of the arena. When the lesson is over, they can go back and pick it up. But during the lesson, they need to put their full attention on their horse and only their horse. In his training classes, Ron Meredith reminds students that full attention to the horse begins at the moment they open the stall door, continues while they groom the horse, and never stops as they lead it to the arena. Focus continues throughout the training session, the walk back to the barn and the post-session grooming. If a student allows a buddy to distract them with question about what kind of pizza to order for dinner or a juicy bit of gossip or starts watching another student or horse, they disrupt the connection to their own horse. They cannot expect the horse to give them full attention if they do not give full attention to the horse first. One of our school horses, Tip, likes to teach the beginning students this skill. While walking to cool her down, Tip will usually walk them into the muck pit or go for a bite of grass. Complete attention on your horse becomes extremely important when handling a young or unruly stallion or head mare.

Horses must learn to concentrate on the rider as much as the rider must learn to concentrate on them. Goldie oldie school horses help beginners focus on riding skills. Later, less forgiving school horses will challenge them to maintain focus while working on skills, too. Baby horses in training need constant gentle reminders to pay attention. And even advanced level horses need reminders to keep their attention on their riders and the task at hand. That starts with the rider's total focus on the horse. Focused riders get better results. So add this skill to this list of skills to master on your way to becoming a good rider.

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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.

Coming to the Manor has changed my life. I have learned so much and now feel comfortable to enter the horse industry. I came here not knowing if I could make a career out of this or if it was what I really wanted to do. All of the classes and staff have been amazing and proved to me that this is what I want. Thank you for giving me this amazing opportunity.
Jennie Blanchflower: 2008 Riding Master VI Graduate