Do You Make These Mistakes When Your Dressage Horse Shies?

I’ve dealt with a lot of spooky dressage horses, and I find that often shying gets worse because riders do one or all of the following things.

1.    Hit or kick him to make him obedient.
2.    Make him walk straight up to scary object and face it straight on.
3.    Forget to go around your ring in both directions.
4.    Force him to go close to the scary object.
5.    Patting and soothing him while he’s shying.

Let’s understand the nature of horses:
1.    Horses shy because they’re afraid.
2.    A horse shies because his natural instinct is to keep himself safe by fleeing.
3.    His eyes are set on the side of his head so he can see with binocular vision (like us) as well as monocular vision.
4.    Many horses are claustrophobic.

So looking back at the first list of rider coping strategies, you can probably see why they don’t work very well.
1.    If your horse is afraid, punishing him convinces him there is something to be afraid of.
2.    Asking your dressage horse to walk straight up to a scary object is one of the most frightening things you can do. In his mind, it’s like asking him to meet a cougar head on.
3.    Like people, horses have a dominant eye. When the dominant eye is on the outside, your horse is less apt to spook because he can survey the environment for possible danger. When the dominant eye is on the inside, he’s more anxious. He’ll want to whip his head around and check out his surroundings with his dominant eye. And while he’s doing that, he’ll be shying from potential danger.
4.    If you try to go by the scary object as close as possible your first time around the ring, you’ll add to your horse’s anxiety.
5.     If you pat him, you’re rewarding him for being spooky. In his mind, you’re praising him for keeping you safe, and he’s more apt to repeat the behavior.

Taking all of the above into consideration, here’s what I do:
1. I never punish a horse that shies.
2. I don’t reward the horse while he’s shying.
3. I walk around a new environment (ring, field, arena) in both directions so he can see everything slowly the first time with both eyes.
4. If the scary object is at A (a flower pot, for example), I won’t go all the way to the short side my first time around the arena. I might turn across the school between V and P. Then each time around I get gradually closer to the short side so when I finally go by the flowers, it’s no big deal.
5. Once I’m working I add the following 2 tools. Well before the flowerpot, I bend my horse’s neck so much to the inside so he can’t see it with either eye.
6. When I’m beside the flower pot, I soften my inside hand forward so my claustrophobic dressage horse doesn’t feel pinned against whatever he’s afraid of.

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3 Responses to Do You Make These Mistakes When Your Dressage Horse Shies?

  1. dressage rider says:

    Great post!

    I ride a school horse and she spooks at the center door in the arena. If my aids weren’t fast enough to keep her on or at least close to the rail I immediately circle her around for another pass. I turn her head to the inside and only reward after we’re past the big spooky door without a shy. My instructor my have me ride one big loop past that area and on the second pass make it slightly shallower. At other times I may ride 20 meter circles past the door.

    My instructor has also mentioned that she won’t require this of all her students. Some just aren’t capable of it.

  2. Piaffer says:

    My horse is very frustrating sometimes. We rode last night and he spooked at EVERYTHING he has already seen on the outside track of our arena, so i rode him in the middle of the ring and he was fine, wonderful even, but still spooked severely when i got closer to the sides. He used to be a serious bolter, so thinking of safety i got off, walked around with him, and he passed the scary spots with hesitation but a lot easier than under saddle, then i lunged him in the middle, then the scary spots, and he was fine, i got on a he continued to spook. I know you need to be patient, but it’s frustrating when it seemed we were way passed this stage in his training, any more tips Jane?

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