Horses That Shy
By Linda Parelli
Mother Nature built in the response of shying as a defense mechanism. However, humans see it as a vice.
Imagine you are walking through a graveyard after midnight. You're only nine years old and you are holding your father's hand. Suddenly, something rustles in the bushes. Your father jumps ten feet and turns to look with his heart pounding, hand tight on yours, shaking with fright. Then he realizes that it was just a rabbit and seeing that you are still scared, he tries to take you up to the bushes to prove there is nothing to be afraid of. How would you feel?
Now consider an alternative scenario. The bush rustles, your father's hand hardly flinches, he never loses the rhythm of his stride or takes his eyes off the path, or tightens his hand on yours. Calmly he says, "those darn rabbits."
Which "father" would you rather have as your leader taking you through this scary graveyard in the middle of the night? If you substituted a rider as the father and a horse as the young child, which rider do you think the horse would prefer?
In a herd environment, the alpha (or most dominant) horse is the leader. All the other horses take their cue from him. If your horse was following his favorite alpha horse down the trail, his confidence level would be at its highest. He would feel safe and sure about the decisions being made for him, and he wouldn't feel the need to stay alert for danger. All horses know that this is the alpha horse's job. A major key in solving the problem of shying is for you to be perceived as "alpha" by your horse.
Challenge your horse by sending (not leading) him through, over, or under questionable objects such as jumps, logs, tarps, under trees, into trailers, past plastic bags hanging on things, etc. Photo courtesy of Parelli Natural Horsemanship
The most common mistakes that people make with horses that shy are:
1) Blaming or punishing the horse for shying
2) Losing their focus
The best two words I can give you to explore are: Savvy and Focus.
Try to think like a horse rather than a human. Horses, as prey animals, are big chickens. So, don't expect your horse to be the brave one! Punishment will not work for prey animals because they don't understand it. If they are acting out of fear when they shy and suddenly the predator (human) on their back comes to life, it really compounds the problem and the shying will become worse. The answer lies in preparation for a situation.
In preparing a horse to be ridden, most people lunge him in mindless circles until the horse is tired enough to behave. In order to prepare your horse mentally, emotionally and physically, it would be better to play The Seven Games (groundwork in Parelli Level 1) prior to riding.
The Seven Games are based on what alpha horses do to establish their dominance in the herd and gain another horse's respect and trust. The alpha horse causing the less dominant horse to circle is only one of those games. The other six games include moving him backwards, forwards and sideways, with physical or implied pressure, and even causing the other horse to squeeze over, under or through a small space.
Once you have the horse's respect on the ground, transfer that leader-follower confidence to the saddle. Photo courtesy of Parelli Natural Horsemanship
Becoming your horse's alpha causes him to follow your suggestions without question. If you are calm, he can be calm. If you become scared, he will prepare to flee. From this perspective, your steady emotional state is critical to your horse's confidence.
So in preparing your horse to accept you as alpha, deal with him on the ground first, just like another horse would. Play these same seven games in order to gain your horse's respect and trust. The better you get at playing them with your horse, the better the results in everything you do with him.
Once you have his respect on the ground, have challenged him by sending (not leading) him through, over or under questionable objects such as jumps, logs, tarps, under trees, into trailers, past plastic bags hanging on things, etc. then you can transfer that leader-follower confidence to the saddle.
Focus is the most powerful tool you can have while riding. When your horse is shying he is using his power of focus against you because he feels vulnerable without his alpha horse.
The technique I use while riding is to be aware of the things my horse is apt to shy from and focus beyond that point at least 100 yards. This gives the horse a feeling that you, his new alpha, are not concerned, so why should he be?
Remember the example of the father and child. The most common mistake that riders make in this area is they focus on the problem. They try to ride up to the scary thing to show the horse it is not going to hurt him. This is human reasoning not prey animal reasoning! Sometimes the rider just gets surprised from the shying and naturally clamps his legs and hands. Both of these approaches cause the horse to feel that you, his alpha, is very concerned about this "thing," so he should be too.
We all want our horses to be calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic, but they can't be until we are! This is why it's so important to work on yourself... and play with your horse.
Main article photo courtesy of Parelli Natural Horsemanship - Horses, as prey animals, are big chickens. So, don't expect your horse to be the brave one!