How to retrain a horse who bucks or rears – and why hitting them is never the answer

  • Riding a horse which is bucking and rearing isn’t fun for anyone.

    Dr Gemma Pearson, a qualified equine veterinary behaviourist who is director of equine behaviour for The Horse Trust, emphasises that it’s vital to consider pain as the first reason why a horse might show such behaviour.

    “Almost all the horses I see with bucking and rearing have pain as a component,” says Gemma. “I’ve seen horses working at elite level dressage, I’ve seen horses that are jumping, doing endurance riding, hacking and everyone says they’re fine except when they’re bucking and rearing. They’re winning at competitions, therefore pain can’t be a component, but if often is.

    “So it’s really important to speak to your vets and have a good look into pain for bucking and rearing. Sue Dyson’s ridden horse pain ethogram is a great way to consider whether any of these other signs of pain are occurring at the same time.”

    Gemma sees a very small number of horses where bucking and rearing is not due to pain.

    She says: “So then it comes back to deficits in the trained responses. Horses never have an agenda, horses are never naughty. You get the behaviour you reinforce, not the behaviour you want. So most of the time these behaviours have been accidentally reinforced.

    “For both bucking and rearing, it tends to come back to deficits in the go forwards response or the stop response. On the one hand, you may have a horse that’s going along well, perhaps you’re in a field where you always canter with your friends, perhaps the horse starts to buck or the horse starts to rear. It’s normally because the rider is holding the horse back with the reins. The horse wants to go faster than the rider does because they don’t want to run into their friend on their horse in front of them.

    “In this scenario we need to think about retraining the horse to slow down off light bit pressure and then to maintain self carriage [keep going at the same speed]. The reason the horse may start to rear or may start to buck in that scenario is because the horse is motivated to go forwards, it wants to gallop with its friends, so the bit pressure then becomes uncomfortable for them.

    “So the way that they feel they can resolve the bit pressure ,which is stopping them being able to gallop, is often to do a little rear. And if they do a little rear, obviously we don’t want to pull the horse over backwards so the rider often changes the bit pressure, which is self reinforcing.

    “The same if the horse does a little buck – it’s going to displace the rider in the saddle slightly, therefore the bit pressure has been released for a fraction of a second and that has just reinforced that behaviour, so we are training these behaviours.”

    On the other side of the coin are horses who don’t want to go forwards. The rider uses increasing leg pressure, then the horse suddenly stops and either rears or bucks or kicks out.

    “That is the horse’s way of trying to remove the rider’s leg pressure,” explains Gemma. “This horse has not been trained to go forwards off the leg successfully, therefore its alternative way of removing this increased leg pressure is to rear or buck.”

    If the horse needs to be retrained to slow or stop from light rein pressure, Gemma recommends looking at her advice for retraining strong horses; if it needs to be retrained to go forwards from light leg pressure, she recommends revisiting her advice for horses who nap.

    Bucking and rearing: why punishment doesn’t work

    Gemma says riders should not try to punish horses for bucking and rearing.

    “If the horse goes to rear and the rider smacks it with the whip, all that’s going to happen is the horse is going to associate the increased pressure from rein or leg with that. The horse thinks about rearing, the next thing that happens is the whip is there so the horse may try rearing higher, they may try napping or launching or bucking. They’re probably going to try a different behaviour to prevent being hit with the whip,” she says.

    “What the horse can’t understand is that if they were going forwards in the first place, the rider wouldn’t have had to use the whip. That’s a higher cognitive process, that concept is too hard for the horse to understand.

    “We should never use punishment, we need to identify what the deficit is in going forward or slowing or stopping and then quietly retrain that by breaking it down into easy to achieve steps.”

    Gemma adds that when horses rear, the don’t tend to land straight but to one side or the other.

    “As with napping, most horses that rear tend to land to the left because they like to push off that right foreleg, so you often need to retrain straightness in these horses as well,” she says.

    Gemma also says she sees two types of buck.

    “If you put the leg on or excessive rein pressure and the horse kicks out at that, that’s often because of the pressure. If the horse raises its head up and its bum comes up in the air to buck, that can be due to pain but it can be due to increased rein or leg pressure that the horse is trying to remove. And I would call that a U-shaped buck – the horses’ head and bum are at the highest point and the saddle is at the lowest point,” she says.

    “The other sort is an N-shaped buck, like broncing, this is when the head stays down, the bum stays down and the wither and the saddle becomes the highest point of the buck. I’ve honestly never seen a single case that bucks like that that isn’t due to pain – things like kissing spines, other forms of spinal pain, neck pain, are probably the most common reasons we’d see that type of buck in horses. It can be due to other musculoskeletal pain or fractures of the sternum or ribs.

    “If a horse is bucking like that I think they’re the most dangerous ones, the ones where people are most likely to get severe injuries if they’re bucked off. And if it’s an N-shaped buck not a U-shaped buck, no one should be sitting on that horse until you’ve had a really thorough veterinary investigation.”

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