Horses that rear when ridden: causes and solutions *H&H Plus*

  • Rearing can be dangerous for both horse and rider, but once a horse has developed the habit can it be resolved? Andrea Oakes finds out...

    Rearing is considered among the worst of equine behaviours. A horse who “stands up” of his own accord can be difficult to handle and dangerous to ride; if he falls over backwards, the consequences are potentially catastrophic.

    The causes of rearing can be complex and may involve both physical and psychological issues that need to be carefully unravelled. So where’s best to start?

    “When a client presents me with a rearing horse, it’s important to rule out any pain that might be causing this behaviour,” says Dr Liz Barr MRCVS, of Barr Equine Veterinary. “We’re aware that horses are rarely ‘born naughty’. Unwanted behaviours, such as rearing, are more often down to failures by the owner or trainer – for example, failure to train correctly, correct badly fitting tack or recognise a physical source of pain.”

    Liz’s first step is to obtain a full clinical history to determine the horse’s age, how long he has been with his current owner, whether anyone else rides him and, if so, whether he rears with another rider. She then ascertains whether the horse has had appropriate dental attention and routine saddle-fit checks, before noting any recent tack changes – especially those involving bits or saddles.

    “Changes in training methods or an increase in the level or complexity of training may be significant,” says Liz, who also notes any trigger factors, such as the horse being asked to perform a particular movement. “I’m always more suspicious that there’s a source of pain when an older horse — of more than four or five years — who has been performing well with the same rider for a length of time starts rearing, with no reported changes in tack or training.”

    Further investigation

    A full clinical examination is then performed to identify pain in the limbs, neck, back or pelvis region.

    “We assess the mouth and teeth, including the bars of the mouth and the corners of the lips, as trauma to these regions can cause pain and rearing behaviour,” explains Liz. “While the percentage of horses with a clinical problem associated with wolf teeth is probably quite small, removal of these is generally straightforward and may be prudent in the case of a younger horse who rears.”

    Once the horse has been seen in motion, any obvious lameness is investigated with diagnostic analgesia (nerve and joint blocking) and imaging. But what if no lameness is found?

    “Provided the rearing is not too severe and the horse can be ridden safely, it is interesting to see him with a different rider, in a different saddle or with a different bit or a bitless bridle,” says Liz. “Giving him a relatively high dose of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as bute [phenylbutazone], for 10 to 14 days, while monitoring him to see if there is any improvement in the rearing behaviour, can give some indication as to whether or not there is an underlying painful cause.”

    Before the Covid-19 crisis, different vets would approach these cases with different types of imaging, such as radiographs (X-rays) of the back, neck and/or limbs, which may be helpful, as well as other options such as nuclear scintigraphy (bone scans) or CT scanning of the neck. Another option is a more extensive dental evaluation, using oral endoscopy. Sadly, none of these are really feasible until social distancing regulations are lifted.

    Other investigations for horses that rear may include routine haemotology (blood testing) and biochemistry, to rule out underlying disease.

    “A reluctance to work forwards that progresses to rearing is sometimes seen with pain caused by muscle disease,” explains Liz. “Myopathy, also known as tying up, may be identified by increased muscle enzymes on routine blood analysis. Blood samples can also be taken to detect suspected causes other than pain, including aggression in mares as a result of a granulosa theca cell tumour of the ovary, or coltish behaviour from a rig.

    “Any stomach ulcers identified by gastroscopy should be treated, of course, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this does not resolve the rearing behaviour in a frustratingly significant proportion of cases,” she adds. “Other causes may need to be considered.”

    Conflict behaviour

    Rearing without any apparent physical cause is usually a conflict behaviour, says equine behaviourist Gemma Pearson MRCVS, who explains that the horse’s motivations are typically at odds with the rider’s requirements.

    “If pain has been ruled out, rearing is often due to inadvertent reinforcement as a result of poor training,” she explains. “A horse who does not move forwards immediately from a light leg cue and maintain his gait, in self-carriage, may trial a rear to escape excessive or nagging pressure from the rider’s leg, spur or whip. If the rider momentarily ceases this pressure when he rears, the behaviour is cemented through negative reinforcement – a good example of inadvertently training the wrong response.

    “Similarly, a horse who does not slow or stop immediately may trial rearing to resolve the pressure exerted on his mouth,” adds Gemma. “If the rider gives the rein to avoid pulling the horse over backwards, or is tipped forward as he lands and launches himself, the momentary release of pressure leads to negative reinforcement. This pattern can also occur if a horse rears after stopping in front of a jump and is tapped with a whip. He might not associate the punishment received last time with the act of refusing, but may learn to predict another smack.”

    Gemma explains that even a horse who usually responds well to the rider’s cues can trial a rear if he feels overwhelmed, perhaps if he is asked to walk past something that terrifies him.

    “Some horses do have a genetic predisposition to certain conflict behaviours,” she says. “Cobs and draft horses have been genetically selected to pull and are more likely to barge; thoroughbreds have been selected to run and are more likely to bolt, while the selection of warmbloods to be ‘off the ground’ means they may have a tendency to rear or buck.

    “Horses do tend to change their behaviour as soon as pain is removed, which is one reason why we ask owners to ride before and after nerve blocks to see if problems, such as rearing or bucking, resolve,” adds Gemma. “If the behaviour persists, we would suspect a training deficit or anxiety on the part of the rider, who is giving signals to the horse that now cue rearing. A behaviour session will usually get the partnership back on track.”

    ‘It’s something I can deal with’

    Caitlin Burgess had owned her warmblood gelding Chocotof for a year when he started to rear.

    “He had always been as good as gold,” she says of the Lord Leatherdale son, then nine. “It got to the point where he wouldn’t move forwards when I got on without standing up.” Chocotof’s tack, teeth and back were checked and he underwent clinical examinations and X-rays, all of which failed to pinpoint a problem. And while the rearing subsided when he spent some time with Caitlin’s trainer, he would still stand bolt upright on occasion – often out of the blue, but particularly when asked to collect.

    When a bone scan later revealed a sacroiliac joint injury, Chocotof was given shock-wave therapy, a cortisone injection and careful rehabilitation.

    “We were confident that the pain had gone, but he continued to rear with me,” says Caitlin, recalling elimination at the summer regionals when he stood up in front of the judge. “I had it in my head that he would go up, so I had to be a bit braver to tackle this behaviour.”

    Now 12, Chocotof is winning at inter I and was long-listed for the 2019 British junior European team.

    “He still has a tendency to rear if he finds something difficult, but it’s something I can deal with,” says Caitlin, who is now training with Henriette Andersen and aiming for British young rider squad selection. “He’s super now, in every test.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020

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