Wouldn’t it be cool if every horse made a New Year’s Resolution not to shy at silly, innocuous, or invisible things in 2019? Alas, I think we all know that isn’t likely, so best case scenario is we riders resolve to do better by our horses when the shy does happen.
The late Walter Zettl was a highly respected clinician and proponent of classical training principles. “My approach,” he said, “is that of complete sympathy for the horse and devotion to its happiness and well-being…. I attempt to educate riders to make their horses happy, confident, and proud to work for them.”
Here is Zettl’s advice for handling the horse that shies, from his book DRESSAGE IN HARMONY:
Young horses often shy and jump away from new objects or situations or quick movements. Older, more experienced horses may also jump away from new “goblins,” but usually time has accustomed them to weird blankets, shadows, flowers, sunbeams, and so on. One should never forget, however, that the horse evolved as a grazing animal whose main defense against predators is flight. A few months or years of training will never overcome millions of years of evolution.
To cure shying, the horse must be brought to trust his rider and himself. He must trust that the rider will let him run away if something terrible happens, and he must feel balanced and in control of his body. You often see riders trying to force their horses past a “scary” object, and the horse becomes more and more tense, and the rider resorting to more and more force. You can never beat the shying out. What is really happening in the horse’s mind is that he is being trapped near this frightening thing and that his one defense is taken away. Also, he learns to associate a whipping with an object, place, or situation, and we have succeeded in teaching him that this thing is to be feared, and he becomes more and more tense.
When riding past a frightening place, the rider must become more relaxed, careful, cool, and quiet. When the horse trusts that he can run away, he will accept that he does not need to—yet. The rider must lightly control the horse, but always give the horse the reassurance that flight is possible. The rider must also keep the horse well balanced, so the horse feels that he can jump away.
By positioning the horse with a good bend away from the object (shoulder-in for those horses that understand it), the horse cannot bolt away so easily through the inside shoulder, although he still sees an “escape” through the front. For example: When a horse shies from an object on his right side, he usually bends strongly right to look at the object, plants both front feet, and pushes out through the left shoulder. Keeping the bend left makes this more difficult, making it easier for the rider to keep the horse going straight past the object. Making the horse bend right and pulling him toward the object only makes the horse more frightened because escaping forward takes him toward the hazard.
You can learn more from Walter Zettl in his book DRESSAGE IN HARMONY, available from the TSB online bookstore where shipping in the US is FREE.
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