As you warm your horse up, you should also be using that time to check in on him to ensure that his focus is on you and not everything else happening in the arena. Having your horse’s attention on you and what you’re asking him to do during the warmup is important. It will help you figure out what you need to work on during your actual riding session.
If you ask him to focus his attention on you and he’s stiff going one direction, or dull to your leg, make a mental note. Include some exercises in your training session for the day to address those issues.
Check In Step One
As I cruise my horse around the arena during my warm up, I leave my reins at a drape. I see how she responds to being in the arena. Within a few minutes of walking, she puts both her ears up. And she fixates on the cattle in the pen behind the arena. My horse has officially checked out on me and has checked in on the cattle in the pen behind us.
Because her ears are focused on the cattle in the pen behind the arena, I go to my hand and leg to get control of her hind end. I use her feet to get control of her brain again. And also to remind her to focus on what I’m asking of her and not locking on to what the cattle are doing.
I’m going to continue to ask her to move her hind legs until I see her ears move back toward my direction (but not pinned), and then I’ll let her go back to walking in the arena on a drape rein to reward her for focusing her attention back on me.
It doesn’t matter if my horse is all the way on the opposite side of the arena; if she starts to look at something she thinks is scary, I’m going to fix the problem where I am at in the arena. I don’t want to walk her toward the cattle and get her even closer to the scary object before I even try to get her attention back on me.
This will help me have better control over my horse’s feet as we gradually make it closer to the other side of the arena.
As I warm up, I’m going to change up what I’m asking her to do to get her attention back on me. This time I’m going to ask her for a walk/jog transition. When I go to my leg and voice to cue for the jog, she’s not ready for the cue because she’s not focused on what I’m asking. I’m going to get her attention back on me by staying in the jog and bending her around until her ears go back to me.
My horse finally starts to get her focus on me. So now I’m going deeper into the corner, closer to the distraction, to see if I can continue to keep her attention on me. I watch her ears, and almost use them as an antenna to tell me if she’s focused on what I’m doing or what is happening around her.
If my horse is completely checked out from what I’m asking, I might not even walk in a straight line around the arena as I warm up. I feel her tight underneath me and showing nervous energy. I’m going to zig zag around the arena, moving her shoulders, hind legs, and ribcage around. Getting her attention back on me is the best way to prevent a spook. But, also it helps me keep control of the feet. If she does jump at something, I can easily collect her and bring her thoughts back to me.
Once her ears are mine and she’s focused on what I’m asking her to do, and not what else is happening in the arena, it’s time to get to work. If I find her losing focus at any point in my ride, I will go back to the beginning. I will work on moving her feet to get her focus back on the task at hand.