top of page

Relaxed Attentiveness

The horseman, Johnathan Field, coined the term “neutral” in reference to a state of being that we seek in our horses when they are already doing the thing we want, so we aren’t asking anything of them.

It can be standing or in motion. It’s the place where the horse is settled and waiting for the next thing you're going to ask. Relaxed attentiveness is the quality of this state.

The horse is low on the anxiety scale (I’ll get to that), but not asleep. They're attentive in a way that when you ask for the thing you want, you don't need to build pressure. You can just ask with a light touch, and they respond. It can last for just a moment or for many moments.

Here’s what it looks like when the horse is standing, weight is on all four feet, posture is relaxed, head is down but not down on the ground with eyes drooping. Ears are usually forward, eyes focused on you, expression of readiness without impatience.

When the horse is moving, they have a relaxed, natural outline, the inside ear is on you, or if you're riding, the ears flick back to visit you. You can see their eye catch you often, and their gait is relaxed and swinging, energy flowing easily from back to front. Neutral can be experienced at any point in your time with your horse – leading them in from the field, tacking up, doing groundwork, hacking, jumping, etc.

Another quality of this state of relaxed attentiveness is that the horse’s focus is evenly split between noticing their surroundings and what you're asking for. Instinct means that a horse’s awareness of their surroundings has to remain intact so that they're not caught off guard by something threatening. It’s natural for them to be aware of the other horses in the arena, or a dog or cat moving around, or of the various things people are up to on your farm. Their focus will vacillate. Sometimes it will be more on you, and sometimes more on the environment. When you are working through a new or more challenging question, we would like it to shift close to 100% on you as they try to solve the puzzle.

We want relaxed attentiveness because it's the zone where horses are engaged in learning. You can likely relate this idea to your own life experience. Whenever you are learning something new, you are able to do it best when your focus level is high, and you are not stressed by time pressure or outside circumstances. As soon as stress is introduced to your learning environment, your ability to learn decreases in correlation to the amount of stress added. The higher the stress level, the lower the ability to retain new information. It’s the same for horses.

Let’s look at anxiety on a scale from one to ten. At a one, a horse is basically asleep. They are below the place of relaxed attentiveness because they are at rest. At a 10, a horse is blindly bolting in fear or fighting for their life. Some horses freeze at those higher anxiety moments, and they are there physically, but no one’s home behind their eyes. No learning taking place there. So where’s the sweet spot? Where on the scale does relaxed attentiveness, or neutral, live? It’s between a two and a three. Not very high on the scale at all.

In fact, when a horse goes above a three, we start to see their ability to learn new information quickly decrease. At that point, they may still be able to go through the motions of things they already know quite well, which is what you often rely on in higher-stress situations, like show environments. But they aren’t in that state of readiness for learning new skills.

When a horse is edging into that space above a three on the anxiety scale, they start to consider, "Am I comfortable?” Being a little uncomfortable is okay! It can be a place of growth to step slightly out of one’s comfort zone. Very little learning of new information happens in complete comfort. There is often an edge of excitement or anticipation connected to learning new skills, and sometimes a little pressure to learn is a motivator, for humans and for horses.

But when we edge above a four or five on that scale, the question becomes, "Am I safe?” No learning can happen here. If the horse stays around a four or five, they may be able to perform, as they are able to continually stay in a relatively safe zone, but they are certainly not learning. It would be like asking you to learn a new language while sitting in an outside classroom with a storm rolling in and sirens blaring around you. Once you feel your safety is threatened, class time is over.

It is so important that we know what relaxed attentiveness looks like in our horses, so that we can help them find it, and in the long run, teach them to seek it. It’s a comfortable space, and when a horse knows it exists, they will want to be there.

We can help them become familiar with it by returning to it again and again, every time our horse answers a question properly. We take the pressure off and just let them be. We let ourselves be with them. We take a moment, take a breath, and appreciate the glimpse of understanding that just occurred between us.

We do this over and over throughout the time we spend with our horse each day, and in doing so, we develop our own language and a pathway of communication between us.


bottom of page