How to Keep Your Dressage Horse Focused Despite Distractions

Stacey Hastings shares a few techniques to help you keep your horse tuned into you, instead of the distractions outside of the ring.

Q: My mare gets tense when I pass the short sides of the arena; both sides have open doors where she can see the pastures with other horses. She falls in with her inside shoulder, especially at the trot, cutting the short sides or corners. I’ve tried to bend her more to the inside, but my aids don’t really get through. Plus, I don’t want to pull on her mouth. How can I get her through the corners and short sides without falling in? —Carey Roberts of Eugene, Oregon

A: This is a common problem not only with habitual distractions but also those ring demons that live in the same corner ride after ride. I’m not sure of the level of training you and your horse have, but it’s been my experience that the more the horse is on the aids, the less distractions become disruptive. Sudden disturbances, such as a dog running into arena, really can’t be helped. I don’t mind them. I always try to keep calm.

I’ve not had much luck expecting a horse to face his fears head-on or simply ignore distractions. So I always try to position his head away from whatever is diverting his attention and push his body toward it. I have competed many horses for their first time, and have had trouble getting several of them to trot straight after the halt at X toward the judge at C. Even a green horse can do a bit of shoulder-fore down the centerline. I also will turn a little before C.

Here’s an exercise that can help you get your horse into the corners. It will help her become more supple and responsive to the aids. It will also improve the connection between your inside leg and outside rein so you can have success riding her through the corners and short sides without feeling like you are pulling on the inside rein.

Since she gets distracted and falls in on the short sides of the arena, take her to the middle. Start on a 20-meter circle. Try this first at the walk and eventually go to trot. Once you have established a forward and connected trot with proper positioning to the inside, position your horse to the outside of the circle with your outside leg and spiral her into the center until you get to about a 10-meter circle. Now position her to the inside and leg yield her off your inside leg back to the original 20-meter circle. You may have to do this several times before your horse quickly yields from your leg and you have control of her shoulders.

Always be honest with yourself and make sure that your horse is yielding from your leg and not from your inside rein. When you feel that you can easily spiral in and out on a 20-meter circle in the middle of the arena, start to leg yield bit by bit to either side until you can position your horse to the inside with good connection on the inside leg to the outside rein. Basically, your circle will become an oval heading to the short sides. If you feel you have your horse too much on the inside rein or she is really falling out (which is a good problem for you), position her back to the outside and leg yield her in to gain control of the outside shoulder. However, if you are completely into the short side, don’t position her to the outside; she might look outside and get distracted again. Take your time and don’t get caught up in her distractions. If you think you are going to lose her, stay where you are in the spiral-out until she settles.

When I’m at a new place with a nervous, tense, green or distracted horse, I stay on a circle in the middle of the ring until I feel him settle, then I spiral out. I’ve had much luck with this technique.

There is one other thing you can look into that could be a source of distraction for your horse: ulcers. Sometimes the anxiety of work will upset a horse’s stomach, compromising his behavior and ability to work.

(Credit: Iva Knapp)

Stacey Hastings is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist, a USDF certified instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF “L” Education Program graduate with distinction. Visit






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