As riders, we deal with all sorts of distractions. Barn noises, show ground excitement, the errant cat that decides to leap into the arena without notice. No one can ride in a vacuum and prevent every little disruption that could spook a horse. Besides, half the fun is keeping your horse focused on you and the task at hand.
That said, some horses are more challenging to keep focused than others. My Anglo-Arabian is one of them. Zoom (aptly named) is a wonderful dressage partner when he's listening and a hot bed of dynamite when he's not. I've worked with this horse for seven years and have been able to greatly improve his confidence around scary things as well as his ability to remain focused amidst lots of distraction.
But since I've worked with this horse for seven years, I also know his limits. Zoom will never be bombproof. Some days, a big noise in the barn next to the arena is nothing to worry about, but one time the sound of a photographer's camera shutter spooked him so badly that he galloped down the centerline at a show. I need to trust my horse, but I also need to be aware of his psychology... and his ability to cross the arena in a few speedy strides.
If you have a spooky horse, how many times have you heard "It's good practice for the show ring!" while battling your horse's latest boogie monster? Most of the time, this is true. It is absolutely good practice to expose your horse to distractions and learn how to handle them. But how do you know when to pick those battles and when to avoid a distraction altogether?
Yesterday I was faced with a decision like this. While I was riding in the indoor arena, a stretch of fence was being sanded and painted right outside one of the arena doors. Zoom became agitated because every time we passed that door, he could hear the old paint being scraped off the fence without being able to see where the noise was coming from. After a few attempts at getting him to go by the door calmly - some successful and some not - I kindly asked the painters if they would mind working on a different stretch of fence while I rode. I really debated this decision, I can't always control my surroundings, but settled on asking them to move because I felt it wasn't fair to the horse to ask him to completely ignore something that was legitimately scary to him.
It's important to not pick a battle with your horse if you're not confident you can win. If the horse wins, he learns that it's okay to react negatively to distractions. After the painters moved away from the arena, I fully expected Zoom to go by that door without protest. He tried to convince me the scary noises were still there, but I was firm and kept him focused. After a couple of minutes he settled down completely and paid no attention to the door. Had I continued to battle with him on dealing with the noises outside, I might have won, but I would have run the risk of only making him more agitated.
This is not to say I always remove distractions, usually I just deal with them. But I know my horse well enough that I can make a decision that keeps me safe and keeps him sane. Also, there are some conditions in which it is simply unsafe to ride. Particularly strong winds that repeatedly rattle the sides of the arena and storms are two big ones. Stick to your gut - if it doesn't feel safe, don't get on.
So even at the risk of being heckled for chickening out, listening to your horse and knowing your limits are of utmost importance when it comes to having a safe, successful ride.
Flickr Photo Credit: rayand