Keeping a horse focused on you and the work you are doing can by trying at times. Horses that spook and are nervous are the most obvious examples of a lack of focus, but horses that become bored also have difficulty focusing. There is a sliding scale of misbehavior that can indicate a horse isn't focused. A milder case might show up in a horse who looks for any excuse to break or just doesn't "care" to pick his feet up over a Trail obstacle. On the other end of the spectrum is a horse that looks for any reason to spook, buck or run off. Doesn't sound like fun does it!?
A mild lack of focus often can be dealt with through just a reminder from the rider. A bump with the bridle, a bump with the leg. Maybe a back-up or two. Sometimes just letting the horse stop and settle for a moment helps. I don't like to let any horse build up adrenalin or as I call it "steam". It's very hard if not impossible to bring them back to a calm state after a build up of steam occurs. So, watch for signs of agitation and stop the build-up before it happens by letting them settle then getting them focused back on their work.
Now, the more serious cases obviously need more help. First of all, if they need it, I let them play (really play!) on the longe line before I ask them to work. Then (and, especially if they're young) I'll probably bit them up next because this gets helps their focus shift from playing to working. I like to take the more difficult horses and get them to soften in the mouth, the poll and especially in the rib cage. I want them to not only yield to my leg but bend around my inside leg. I want to lift a rein and have the horse drop down softly into the bridle.
When working on a horse that really has difficulty focusing, and the horse starts spooking or thinking about everything else but me, I'll go back to basics and start an exercise that is appropriate to his level of training to get him thinking about me and the bridle and my various cues. This may be a walking circle, might be a trotting reverse arc, may be a leg yield or other exercise.
Also, you will find that once a horse softens to your hands and legs, he is much more relaxed and able to work, as well as focus. A tense horse is not a good learner. When a horse relaxes his poll and neck, it just follows that he will relax his back and can then engage his hindquarters.
One last tip: you, his rider, must also remain focused. Don't start an exercise and just drop it because you are bored, out of time or in a hurry. Ride for your horse and make it a point to accomplish something, even completion of a simple but well done basic exercise, with every ride. Hope this helps! See you next week. JD