Humans see skittish horses as a problem and see shying behavior as a vice, but Mother Nature built in the shying response as a useful defense mechanism, and it should be respected.
In a herd environment, the most dominant horse (the alpha) is the leader. All the other horses take their cues from him; they feel safe and sure about his decisions, and they don’t feel the need to stay alert for danger or be reactive. Following his alpha horse, your horse would be calm and confident. A major key in solving the problem of your skittish horse is for him to perceive you as “alpha.” In human terms imagine you are a young child walking with your dad on a dark street. If he is calm and sure, so are you. If he startles at every sound or movement, you’re going to feel pretty skittish. It’s no different with horses. If their leader is cool, calm and collected, so are they.
The Natural Horsemanship Approach to Horses Who Shy
The most common mistakes that people make with skittish horses are punishing the horse for shying and losing their own focus. Punishment doesn’t work for prey animals because they don’t understand it. The solution lies in Horse Savvy, Preparation and Focus.
Horse Savvy means thinking like a horse rather than a human. Because they’re prey animals, horses are chicken, so don’t expect them to be brave – that’s your job. If your horse suddenly shies and you over react, it just compounds the problem, and your skittish horse will become more so. Becoming your horse’s alpha means he’ll follow you without question. If you are calm, he can be calm. If you’re scared, he’ll prepare to flee. Your steady emotional state is critical to your horse’s confidence.
Preparation. To prepare your horse to be ridden mentally, emotionally and physically, and to accept you as his alpha, deal with him on the ground first. Start by playing the Parelli Seven Games in order to gain your horse’s respect and trust. Once you have his respect on the ground, and have challenged him by sending (not leading) him into, through, over or under “scary” objects such as jumps, logs, tarps, trees, trailers, plastic bags, etc…then you can transfer that leader-follower confidence to his back.
Focus is the most powerful tool you have while riding. Your skittish horse is shying because he feels vulnerable without his alpha horse. Try to become aware of the things your 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. A common mistake that riders make with a skittish horse is to focus on the problem or ride up to the scary thing to show the horse it won’t hurt him. This is human reasoning not prey animal reasoning! Sometimes riders just get surprised when the horse shies and instinctively clamp their legs and hands. Both these approaches cause the horse to feel that his alpha is concerned, so he should be too.
We all want our horses to be calmer, smarter, and braver, but they can’t be until we are! That’s why Parelli horse training believes it’s so important to work on yourself and play with your skittish horse until his confidence in you grows.
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