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On the Trail: Focus Exercise – by Clinton Anderson



Clinton Anderson

Clinton Anderson

No matter where you live, chances are that you can use your natural terrain to help you train your horse. I like to do what I call the “Focus Exercise” in places that have a lot of trees. Fence posts, large rocks or other objects can also work well.

The Focus Exercise is similar to my Intermediate Series exercise Post n’ Circle. In that exercise, the rider looks ahead and picks out a post. She trots the horse to it and circles around in front of it a few times. Then she looks ahead and picks out another post and rides to it. On the trail, you can use trees instead of posts to do the same thing. Rather than circling in front of the trees like you would a fence post, you can circle around them.

This is an excellent exercise if you have a young or green horse that is kind of wiggly and wants to weave back and forth. It is one of the best exercises I know of for getting a horse to do a nice straight line and a nice round circle.

Follow Your Focus

To start, look ahead of you and find a tree. Fix your eyes on it and don’t take them off of it. Ask your horse to trot on a loose rein, and then ride the horse straight to the tree you have chosen.

When you reach the tree, keep trotting and circle around it. Whichever way you feel the horse leaning, go in the opposite direction. So if the horse anticipates that you’re going to turn left, turn right. If he thinks you’re going to turn right, turn left. If he doesn’t anticipate, just go ahead and pick the direction yourself, circling him on the side that he’s the stiffest on. Try to make a smooth transition into the circle, meaning you should start turning a few strides before you actually reach the tree. Don’t get all the way up to the tree and then have to yank the horse off to the side to start a circle.

Once you start the circle, turn your head and keep your eyes on the tree. If you take your eyes off the tree, you’ll lose your focus and you won’t be sure what type of circle you’re doing. Ideally, you want your circle to be symmetrical with the tree in the center. Think of a wheel where the tree is like the axle in the center and you are riding around the rim.

Clinton Anderson

Clinton Anderson

When you’re circling the horse around the tree, use your inside rein to steer his nose (the rein closest to the tree) and your outside leg (the one furthest from the tree) to encourage his shoulders to follow his nose. But don’t babysit the horse. If you need to make a correction with your rein or leg, do it, but don’t hold the horse in position by constantly applying pressure to him.

Trot the horse in a tight circle about 10 to 15 feet in diameter. Continue around in the circle for at least three completions or until it starts to get smooth and round in shape.

Then look up and pick out another tree to ride to. Keep your eyes fixed on it and ride straight to it. Initially, trot the straight lines between the trees because it helps the horse catch on to the lesson. However, as soon as you can, canter the straight lines between the trees. Don’t worry about what lead the horse is on, just concentrate on steering him in a straight line to the tree. If you don’t feel confident enough as a rider to canter, that’s OK, just stay at the trot. But if you do feel confident enough, step up to the canter as soon as you can.

Continue to do the exercise until you can feel the horse really wanting to slow down, follow his nose on the straight lines and make smooth round circles. Be really picky about making round circles. Usually the horse will want to lean out on one side of the circle and cut in on the other.

Focus and Roll Back

Rollbacks are a great addition to the exercise. Trot around the tree until the horse is soft and following his nose. Then stop. Tip the horse’s nose in toward the tree. Use your outside leg to apply pressure near the horse’s girth and do a 180-degree rollback. As soon as the horse comes out of the turn, hustle him back on the circle. My rule for rollbacks is “Slow to come round, quick to go out.” That means that the horse doesn’t have to go through the turn quickly, in fact, I prefer my horses to jump their front end through the turn in a relaxed manner. But, once the horse is through the turn, he needs to hustle back to the circle.

Spiral for Control

You can easily modify the Focus Exercise to help improve your control of the horse’s body. When you’re trotting around a tree, use your outside leg to push your horse in and circle closer to the tree. After a few circles, canter off toward the next tree.

Trot around the tree when you reach it. This time, use your inside leg to push the horse out a bit and circle a little further away from the tree.

While you’re circling, you can also go from a medium circle to a smaller circle ““ then out to a larger circle ““ all around the same tree. These “spirals” really get the horse soft and responsive to your legs.

Clinton Anderson

Clinton Anderson

Back Around

When your horse is responding well to this exercise ““ when he’s staying light and responsive on the bit, when he is heading straight toward the object you have chosen, and when he is circling softly around the object ““ you can add another component to it.

Trot or canter toward the tree you have picked out. When you get there, instead of trotting in a circle around it, stop by it. Then back your horse in a circle around it. (For step-by-step directions to back your horse in a circle, refer to the Advanced Series exercise Backing Circles Under Saddle.)
After you have backed in a nice round circle, do a 360-degree rollback away from the tree, and then trot around it a time or two.

After the Focus

Once you’ve done some training and spent some time on the Focus Exercise, then give yourself and your horse a break. That’s the great part about training on the trail. Just put your horse on a loose rein and walk off ““ go for a quiet, relaxing ride. Enjoy just putting some miles on your horse.

As far as the horse is concerned, walking along the trail on a loose rein is easy and extremely rewarding after a five or 10 minute training session. He’s not looking to spook. He’s not in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. If he did decide to get jumpy, just put his feet back to work until you got him using the thinking side of his brain again.

This exercise is just one example of how you can intersperse training while trail riding. Both you and your horse will benefit from the time spent outdoors, away from the confines of the arena and you’ll have a safer, more enjoyable trail partner

Author note: Clinton Anderson is a clinician, horse trainer and competitor. He’s dedicated his life to helping others realize their horsemanship dreams. Learn more about the Downunder Horsemanship Method at www.


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