When Horses Shy: How to Give Your Horse Confidence

herd of horses

You’re walking along a beautiful trail; your horse is happy, relaxed; all is serene – suddenly, you find yourself in a spin that would do any reining horse proud, followed by a mad gallop! Yikes! One might think a bear had come out from behind a tree! So why did your horse go from complete relaxation to total panic?

Why horses shy or spook

herd of horses
If the leader flees the entire herd will follow suit. Photo credit: Mike Kamermans
The first step to making sense of it is to understand who the horse is and what is in his nature. First and foremost he is a prey animal. Secondly, he is a flight animal. Third, he is a herd animal. No matter how much training a horse has, his instincts and natural behavior will always be there. In the wild, horses’ survival depends upon their ability to see, hear, and smell danger. They must respond immediately to survive nature’s predators. The gift of flight is their tool for survival.

Being a herd animal, the horse needs a leader. Have you ever seen a herd of horses peacefully grazing when suddenly one horse picks up his head and without hesitation spins around and gallops off? You can be assured if the leader flees the entire herd will follow suit before even checking to see why they’re running. The leader guides the herd.

The horse looks to the rider

While handling and riding the horse we strive to become his leader. Through ground work we teach the horse to follow us, to move his legs forward, laterally, and back. We teach him to focus on us through laterally giving at the pole, the jaw, and the wither. We should not have a problem with him shying at this point, right? No, it’s not that simple!

Even a focused horse can be startled when suddenly a squirrel jumps down from a tree as you pass. It’s a sudden movement that causes his natural instincts to kick in. No matter how much “desensitizing” is done, I have not seen many horses who don’t react at a sudden unseen object. How violently he shies depends on you, the rider. Your body language, your reaction, your timing, and his trust in you all play an important role in how quickly the horse will regain his composure.

Bluntly said, you cannot lie to a horse! You can put on a brave face, but he feels and sees your truth. If you become tense he will absolutely know that, indeed, this is something to be frightened of. If you are unable to react quickly and guide him quietly forward by asking for his focus through laterally giving, by properly asking him to move forward from your legs, and by sitting softly in a balanced manner, then he will take matters into his own hands. You have inadvertently deserted him as his leader, and he will believe he must watch out for himself.

In the same situation, if you are able to react quickly and confidently, he might just take a few steps sideways or scooted forward a moment, then refocus on you and realize he is being guided by you. We should not expect to change the nature of the horse, but rather to give the horse confidence in our leadership.

I realize this is easier said than done: a shying horse can be frightening to the rider, and if the pattern continues, it can become a vicious cycle that’s tough to break. But after working with many riders with fear issues, I do believe that, with guidance, a committed rider can and will work through this. One of my students who deals with fear is constantly saying to her horse, “you’re ok, you’re ok.” I chuckle because what she really means is “I’m ok, I’m ok.” The words don’t help the horse because her voice and her body are full of tension. The horse listens to body language.

Leading by example

So how do you overcome fear and become a confident leader for your horse? I believe understanding your role with the horse first from the ground cannot be understated. Ground work is invaluable as a first step. If he doesn’t follow and trust you from the ground it will not be any better once mounted. There are many methods of ground work and I do not condone bullying in any way. On the surface, you might get the response you’re looking for, but he will neither want to be with you nor will he trust you.

Once mounted it is important to learn how to sit in a balanced seat without gripping. Your journey to developing confidence starts by learning the correct use of legs, seat, and hands, and becoming proficient in your ability to use them independently or all at the same time. Confidence, in turn, allows you to react, allows you to stay soft in your body, and ultimately allows you to guide your horse and pass that confidence on to him.

Many years ago I was riding a horse on a small, narrow country road. There was no breakdown lane, only a deep ditch. I heard the unsettling noise of a tractor trailer truck coming in our direction. They were not allowed on the road so it was not a normal occurrence. I had nowhere to find safety, and he was fast approaching. The horse I was riding was young, skittish, and prone to bolting. I felt the panic rising in me, and then the voice of my instructor came to me saying, “If you relax, breath deep, and trust him to follow you, you’ll get a much better result.” Believe me, relaxing with a huge, noisy truck coming within a few feet of us was not at all what I was thinking, but I did it! As he got closer I put my hand on my horse’s neck, stroked him and breathed really deep. I put my calves on and asked him to keep walking. I asked him to give to the bit. He did nothing! He tensed a bit but did not do his normal spin and bolt (to which I had been subjected so many times). Since this is a “family blog” I will not say what I was muttering to the driver after the fact! He never slowed down or moved over one bit. Scary, and thankfully, I never had to repeat such an atrocious incident, but it made me a believer in the power of leadership through body language. I think I knew it was do or die! The ability to change my own normal reactions became easier each time, and it can for you too, with practice, patience, and understanding technique and horse behavior.

Becoming a rider instead of a passenger takes study and practice. It is not generally a quick endeavor, but in the end the rewards far exceed the efforts.

5 Comments on “When Horses Shy: How to Give Your Horse Confidence

  1. Thank you for you comments, they have helped my understanding a lot.

    • Lynn,
      I am happy that this article has been beneficial to you. If you have any comments or questions please write again!

  2. Great article! I’m sharing with my friends!

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