Distracted and Dangerous



Jason Webb gives advice on a horse whose attention is everywhere but with their owner.Question

I have trouble getting my horse to pay attention to me sometimes in hand and under saddle. He often seems nervous and tense, always looking at things going on around him. I feel like he might just explode and it means I hate taking him out on hacks or to shows. What can I do?


Horses don’t pay attention if you are not ‘leading’ them. If you don’t have a purpose or a plan in which to engage your horse, they are likely going to be focused on any potential dangers around them. They will feel like a lone horse and we all know that a horse on its own is vulnerable and will be particularly nervous and tense.

First you need to have a plan for worst case scenarios - indications of bucking, bolting or rearing. Obviously safety should be your first priority so make sure you are wearing a suitable riding hat and that your tack is in good, safe condition.



Keep control if you feel any bad behaviour coming on by disengaging your horse’s hindend to take away his ‘power.’ Do this by bending your horse’s head to the left or right until his hindend steps over. You can give at this point and repeat as many times as necessary until you feel your horse settle.

If he is also tricky when led from the ground, practise yielding his hind quarters away from you to achieve the same effect (see my previous articles). Make sure to practise both these exercises at home so you have them in your toolbox should a difficult situation arise when out and about.

Once you are confident with these exercises it is time to give your horse some challenges, starting with something simple. It could be something as easy as going around a couple of cones or markers until you feel good rhythm and an ease in their steering. What this does is give you and your horse a focus. Keep setting new challenges to avoid boredom for both you and your horse. Boredom will result in your horse testing you for something to do. Make sure he accepts that you are the leader and is happy to wait on your command.



If you are at a show or on a hack you may have to think up some patterns without the help of any markers. Design some with plenty of turns in them to keep your horse busy and thinking, and his attention on you. Moving your horse’s feet is a sure way to get their respect and lots of changes in direction with good forward motion helps channel any nervous energy into a job. Moving feet is what a dominant horse does to get its counterparts to submit to their leadership. They use gestures backed up with a kick, a chase or a bite to get the other horse to move their feet and do their bidding (eg. ‘leave the food / mare / foal / me alone’). You have to adopt this attitude.

Don’t try to be ‘pretty’ about it and don’t feel that just because you are at show that this ‘settling down’ time with your horse needs to be in a perfect outline with you on the perfect diagonal etc. It is about getting your horse listening to you.

Once you have achieved this you can go ahead and work in an outline and show what you are both made of, but getting your horse to recognise you as the leader in this strange environment should be the first priority.


Horses are instinctively herd bound. It’s one of seven categories of instinctive behaviour in horses and is known as ‘gregarious behaviour.’ Quite simply, it is the desire to be with others. Even though gregarious behaviour is instinctive in horses, somehow we speak of it as an affliction - barn sour, gate sour, buddy sour, herd bound, spoiled and even ‘ruined.’ Horses are instinctively drawn to the herd and it’s up to us to provide the training and leadership the horse needs to transfer this draw to us instead. Two simple things motivate the horse to be with the herd and these are safety and comfort. That’s what horses seek out the most. Teaching the horse that he will get those two things from you, even more than he does from the herd, is the secret to success. Until your horse gets the same feeling from you that he does from the herd, he will not want to go anywhere with you.

For your horse, a sense of safety comes from being in the presence of a truly alpha leader, an individual that is confident, aware of the environment, in charge and in control of all those around. An individual that dictates and enforces rules and is fair and consistent in punishment and reward, thus providing structure and meaning to an otherwise chaotic world.

Comfort comes in the feeling of acceptance, reassurance, rest, praise and stroking. Discomfort comes from having to work hard, being admonished and aversive pressure such as the bump of the lead rope. Make your horse comfortable when he does the right thing and uncomfortable when he does the wrong thing. He will always choose to seek out comfort.

 Herd of Horses

Herd of Horses

Keep in mind that all behaviour in all animals is either instinctive or learned. Horses are extremely fast learning animals and highly sensitive to their environment. Sometimes instinctive behaviour can turn to learned behaviour over time or on the very first instance.

For example, if a horse is being led away from the barn and the safety of the herd, he might become emotional and distraught (instinct) and his antics may cause him to break free from the handler and run all the way back to the safety and comfort of the barn. From this experience he may learn that all he has to do is break away from his handler to get what he wants and thus it becomes a learned behaviour.

A riding horse is considered to be well trained and obedient when it goes in the exact path dictated by the rider and at the speed dictated by the rider. A horse is disobedient when it voluntarily varies from the path or speeds up or slows down, unauthorised by the rider. Almost always, when a horse varies its path or speed, it is intentional and in a direction he wants to go, such as toward the barn / gate / other horse.

It has become increasingly obvious to me, through the decades I’ve spent teaching people to handle their horses, that most people are totally unaware of the small infractions horses make all the time, particularly as it applies to barn sour behaviour. When small disobediences are ignored, it leads to bigger ones. If they are corrected, the barn sour behaviour goes away.

Condoning Disobedience Does your horse pull toward the gate? Is he looking around all the time, never focusing on you and the path you have dictated? Does he slow down when you pass the gate and speed up as you round the corner toward the gate? Does he turn easily toward the gate and sluggishly when you turn away? These are all small and subtle disobediences - even if he only varies the path by six inches, he knows he’s doing it and he knows when you ignore it (or don’t notice it) and therefore you condone the disobedience.

All a rider needs to do to stop this disobedient behaviour is, first and foremost notice it, be aware of what your horse is doing with his whole body at all times and be aware of what motivates him. Then call him on it and admonish him appropriately, finding the amount of pressure that motivates him to change.

When you ride in the arena, put your horse on the rail then lower your hands to his neck and expect him to stay there. You shouldn’t have to constantly tell him to stay on the path. If you do, your horse is disobedient and you have a co-dependent relationship with him. If he comes off the rail or cuts corners (moving on a path that you did not dictate), pick up the reins and correct his direction right away, scolding him as you do. Get him back on the path and drop your hands again, expecting him to stay on course.

Insisting on your horse’s obedience and focus on the task at hand is a minimal requirement for your horse to think of you as his leader. Be aware of his behaviour and motivations and correct him consistently, with enough pressure that he feels like he’s gotten in trouble and thus looks for ways to avoid getting in trouble again. Reward his good behaviour with a release of pressure, a few kind words, stroking and letting him rest. With this kind of strong leadership your horse will accept you as a capable and authoritative leader and will gladly go with you anywhere.