How to Make Your Horse Shy and Spook

Too much action with too little intent makes for wasteful exertion of energy and the confusion between movement and progress – By Steve Maraboli

This may seem a peculiar topic for a training series, as most people really do NOT want their horses to shy. However, by looking at the ways we can make a horse shy it helps us to realise some of the things we do without thinking. Horses shy because they want to avoid danger. Some horses are quiet or well-habituated to (used to) a wide range of objects and situations and rarely shy, while others seem to shy at everything. With some horses it can be easy to unknowingly increase their shying.

Imagine that a famous movie producer has employed you (for a vast sum of money) to train a horse to shy at as many things as possible. What could you do?

To increase shying

If the people around you are always tense and anxious, then you will start to wonder if there is a good reason for it. Imagine that you are blindfolded and transported to a completely unknown country where you have never been before:

  • Everyone around you is relaxed and calm (e.g. in holiday mode). You feel yourself relax too and ‘unwind’.
  • Or, everyone around you is tense and edgy, jumping at the slightest sudden movement or noise. You think that they are waiting for something bad to happen (e.g. terrorists) and so you start to watch for danger too.

So, we can make horses tense by always anticipating danger and being tense and edgy around them, or we can make them calmer by being relaxed and going into holiday mode.

As a rider, we could:

  • Look for danger everywhere. If you can’t see anything too strange, then look for something that has been moved out of place, or that might make a noise.
  • Try to draw your horse’s attention to the object you have chosen, then:
    • Take a sharp breath
    • Tighten your reins
    • Tighten up all your seat and back muscles
    • Shift your weight in the saddle quickly so that the horse gets a sudden signal, and lean forward at the same time
    • Clamp your legs on, grip tightly with your knees and (if you can) let your lower leg swing back against the horse’s flanks to give it a dig
    • If you carry a whip then try to flick it back against the horse side as you tighten the reins

Of course, it can be hard to remember to do these things all at once, so instead you could just visualise a picture of yourself being in a tree on a branch that is moving; think of the branch suddenly cracking and you will find yourself grabbing on and tightening up just as described.

Note that although a branch wouldn’t care, this method will help to make the horse more sensitive and to raise the horse’s adrenaline levels so that it looks for things to shy at too; it will start to react to things it previously ignored.

Habituation means getting a horse used to things, and the more it is used to things the less it is likely to shy. Therefore, if we really wanted to teach the horse to shy we would NOT want the horse to get used to things. So, if a horse was spooking at something we can make it worse by moving the horse away before it gets used to the object – if we let it rush away then this will help teach it to shy. Taking it away while it is still anxious will help to sensitise it (make it more reactive) to objects.

The opposite

The famous movie producer has finished filming his movie and now wants to use the same horse in a sequel. However, this time he wants you to train the horse not to shy at objects, because the storyline has changed. As the producer is going to give you another very large sum of money, you readily accept the challenge even though it is harder to train a horse that has already learnt to shy.

To achieve your goal, you need to avoid doing what you were doing before. However, this might not be so easy when you have been tensing up and triggering a shy and it is impossible to stop yourself from tensing up by just telling yourself not to do so.

Instead, practice relaxing your seat when there is nothing to shy at; tense up and then relax, repeat this until it becomes automatic. Note: when doing this, try not to actually flick the horse with the whip, move your legs back, or grab the reins too tight. Just tense up your muscles and relax them again as if you are doing a fitness exercise.

When you are in a situation where the horse might shy, it is easy to picture falling off or worse if you think the horse will shy, so instead you need to mentally ‘delete’ that image and replace it with something else. The easiest thing to do is to focus on your position and how the horse is going. If you are concentrating really hard on these then there isn’t room for other images, plus it means you are less likely to fall off if something does happen.

So, fill your mind with: are your heels down, legs in the right place, seat balanced and in the correct part of the saddle, shoulders and upper arms relaxed, hands in the correct position, looking up, giving the correct aids, etc. etc. Is your horse on the bit, listening to you, bending properly, active behind, accepting the rein aids, listening to the inside leg, bending, etc. etc. Try talking out loud and saying what you want your position to be like and what you want your horse to go like (but DON’T say what is going wrong – you want to tell your subconscious what you want to happen not what is happening).

If the horse keeps shying then turn it in small circles, but don’t think of it as stopping it shying, think of it as making it work harder. If you are both focussed on doing a perfect circle then neither of you will be wondering what you can shy at.

Please note that this advice is very general. It cannot cover all reasons for shying and all circumstances, and if shying is a real problem then it is best to get specific help from a trainer, as sometimes both horse and rider will need further help. However, if the rider can stay relaxed and the horse remains obedient to the aids then shying can be greatly reduced and possibly eliminated.

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