Sunday, June 21, 2009


Horses tend to buck for one of three reasons (typically):

1. Disrespect, or defiance.
My Warmblood x, Koolaid, is the horse I have to credit for really getting me into NH. He was downright dangerous at times, and impossible to start under-saddle. Not motivated to work in the least, he would refuse to move forward - nevermind getting a trot or canter out of him! And this was supposed to be my jumping horse? Haha. So I tried blunted english spurs to back up my leg (pre-NH, of course!). A riding crop. The ends of my reins. If he so much as saw any of the aforementioned tools, he would refuse to move. If I did somehow manage to get him moving and I so much as thought about having him move out faster, he'd usually retaliate my squeeze and touch with the rein ends with a buck (accompanied by laid back ears, a tail swish, and a general bad attitude). When I started working on the NH with Koolaid - it took a lot of work - but I started to earn his the point where he then moved out out of respect for my request and, ultimately, out of respect for me.

Often I hear people instructing others to "make" the horse move out. Well this is a 1,200lb animal. You're not going to "make" it do anything, and if you attempt to do so, you're going to get yourself into more trouble than you started with. Think of how you would respond if someone tried to forcefully "make" you do something - you'd probably retaliate too! This type of buck does not usually have all that much power behind it, but nevertheless it's still a nuisance to deal with and can be dangerous.

At the time of the buck, the best thing you can do is ignore the undesirable behaviour. Punish your horse and the retaliation is likely to escalate and/or it most certainly will not result in any forward progress. Even if it does cause the horse to do what you want at the time, success will be temporary as the resentment builds in your horse. If you have to, even dismount and work on earning some respect on the ground before remounting and continuing the session. Sometimes this means staying off your horse for a number of sessions! Ultimately though it will result in greater success under-saddle later. Whatever you have on the ground is halved under-saddle: a good level of respect on the ground will translate to a low level of respect under-saddle, and an exceptional level of respect on the ground means a good level of respect under-saddle. If you work off of this rule and earn the highest level of respect possible on the ground, issues such as defiant bucking under-saddle will evaporate.

The long-term solution obviously then is to earn a higher level of respect from your horse. Respect is something that must be earned, not demanded. The best way, I've found, to accomplish this, is to mimic what horses do in a herd situation - earn their respect through a series of ground games that horses play with one another out in the pasture.

2. Fear
Last week I was putting riding time in on a 3yo QH and I unstuck my looped rein ends from the saddle pad on his right side. This horse had very very limited human contact when I first started working with him and was very fearful of humans and anything new. He still is a work in progress and he remains fearful and reactive at times, particularly to do with anything on his right side. Well this time he tensed up immediately when the looped rein snapped loose and he lit into bucking - hard.

Horses are very aware of being prey animals, and that we are predators. It's not something that we typically think of all that much, but our partners are very aware of it - it is a part of them. So from the horse's perspective, the horse that bucks is desperately trying to get the predator on his back, off. If something spooks a horse and he cannot yet trust his rider's leadership, he's going to take matters into his own han-...well, hooves. His survival depends on it - or so he thinks. The horse switches over from left-brained, thinking mode, to right-brained, reactive mode where all instincts kick in. A horse's first instinct when presented with something threatening is usually to run. Fast. Well, a predator sitting on your back, likely isn't going to help the whole running scheme! In fact, most predators (read: humans) will try to restrict their horses from running. We typically don't relish having a horse bolt away with us. So, from the horse's perspective, if you've got someone restricting you from fleeing from imminent danger, of course the first thing you're going to do is get rid of them - it could be a matter of life and death. It's nothing personal against the rider, the horse isn't even thinking about the rider, he's consumed entirely by his need to stay alive.

Short-term, either dismount as quickly as possible, or ride it out. Stay calm, sit deep in your seat, and try to get the horse's head up. Talk to the horse - people underestimate the effect their voice has on their horse. In the above example, it took me a few minutes to think about talking to the horse I was riding. I was too busy worrrying about the stirrup's I'd just lost and the sudden spinning he started doing after bucking! As soon as I made a conscious effort to relax a bit and talk to him in a quiet voice, he stopped. He was still very tense and we spent a solid 5 minutes or so standing and waiting for him to relax, but he'd stopped bucking and eventually relaxed enough to continue our original work.

Long-term, desensitize your horse. Also, work on gaining your horse's trust. Always being predictable and leading your horse through troubling situations, and playing ground games (such as the ones your horse plays with his buddies in the pasture) will help gain a higher level of trust. The same rule I mentioned earlier, about respect on the ground versus respect under-saddle, applies to trust. Earn a high level of trust on the ground and you'll get the level of respect under-saddle that prevents bucking due to fear.

3. Discomfort, pain
When I first brought my Quarab, Silver, to the Thoroughbred racetrack last year, he had not been ridden regularly for a couple of years, really (*look of shame*) - the odd ride here or there, but that was it. Within a week, he was starting to resent being caught in his stall, saddled, or even working on the track. Every time we passed the gap it would be a bit of a fight to keep him moving forward rather than deeking off the track. When I pushed him and refused to listen to him, he threw in a few bucks here and there. This horse has a fabulous work ethic - bucking was not something he usually did. So I had the track chiro check him out on his rounds through our barn. Turns out the saddle I was using wasn't fitting Silver well - it did not have enough whither clearance and so was pressing down on his whithers, throwing his spine out of alignment. The chiropractor re-aligned him and instructed me to pad my saddle better so that it wouldn't sit on his spine. For the rest of the Calgary season, Silver was back to his regular self. His gait was smoother than before and he seemed to enjoy his work with me.

One of the first things now that I mention when someone tells me a horse bucks is discomfort or pain. Have your saddle fitted (or re-checked - horses change!) by a professional saddle fitter, have a reputable chiropractor check out your horse, and/or even have a vet evaluate your horse for any sources of pain or discomfort.

Determining the reason your horse bucks is vital to figuring out what to do about it. Ultimately, using methods such as Parelli Natural Horsemanship, where you can develop balanced levels of trust and respect, will help you create a better rounded horse. However, knowing why a horse is bucking can help us focus in one one area of our partnership that may be lacking; sometimes we accidentally neglect particular areas and have to come in and fill in the gaps we've left. So, how do you figure out why a horse is bucking? First off, rule out any physical issues. Second, evaluate the horse's body language. The horse bucking out of defiance is going to have a clearly ticked-off appearance. Ears laid back, tail swishing - all the looks of an angry horse. The fearful bucker is going to be tense, eyes big, nostrils flared, ears back but not flat, tail clamped tensely against his body (at first), and will appear nervous overall. Thirdly, take into account the horse's normal behaviour. A right-brained horse is going to have a greater tendency to react fearfully; he's unlikely to be defiant (usually). A left-brained horse that bucks defiantly is likely to be rude in other ways as well - he might invade your space, lack motivation, etc. So, here's a little practise at reading body language:

Well, contrary to the video title, the horse isn't crazy, just scared. Note how he clamps his tail in tight as he backs up, before exploding into a series of bucks.

Here's a horse bucking out of defiance. Very left-brained and thinking - he just wants that rider off (after she has been bouncing roughly against his poor back incessantly), and now. Note the pinned ears and how the horse calmly halts once he's achieved his goal.

Here's some very reactive flight-oriented bucking by a horse simply not used to a saddle yet. Note the horse's hesitancy to move forward at times (freeze instinct) before the bucking spree (flight).

This horse seems to be bucking out of defiance also. Note the pinned ears and the head-shaking.

Keep in mind, there may be a variety of factors at play when a horse bucks. A buck might start with a genuinely scared spook then the 'defiant' horse runs with it and turns the spook into an excuse to deliberately buck the rider off (and not because they are scared). Or a buck might start out as a form of resistance but escalate as a fear reaction. A horse may buck due to lack of balance also (say, after a jump), or in response to discomfort or pain (which might appear as fear-based or done out of defiance when in fact pain or discomfort or lack of balance or what is the root cause). Take note of not only the horse's body language just prior, during, and just after the buck, but also the horse's general usual behaviour and their behaviour throughout the ride. Are they generally resistant? Or generally fearful? Consider contributing factors such as lack of turnout, certain feeds, etc, that may lead to a horse bucking, even if fear-based or done out of resistance toward the rider.

Unfortunately, usually the horse gets blamed when he bucks. In addition, people seem to assume that whenever a horse bucks, he's doing so because he deliberately wants to be disobedient, when this just isn't always the case. When it is, the horse's perspective and other factors should still be considered. The trouble is, the horse isn't the problem, they're just reacting how nature programmed them to. Also, there are normally a lot of signs that precede a buck - horses typically use a buck as one of the last resorts, as "shouting". The defiant horse will walk all over you, lack motivation in moving forward, pin his ears, etc. The fearful horse will be fearful in other areas of his work with you as well. A defiant buck is usually inadvertently caused by the rider: the rider fails to earn a sufficient level of respect for what he then attempts to ask of the horse. Sometimes it's just something to take in stride and work on (whether under-saddle or on the ground), sometimes it requires taking a step back and re-evaluating things and adjusting your approach. In one of the above videos, you can see the rider is bouncing against the saddle with every canter stride. Obviously after numerous laps, that's going to start to smart a little and the horse is going to want the rider off. Sometimes it's a saddle that's bugging the horse, or the rider's style of riding (seat/body/hands), or sometimes the horse just doesn't want to work with that person. The key is to develop a relationship where the horse is happy with the rider and wants to work in partnership. With the fearful bucker, the horse usually isn't confident enough for what is being asked of him. Sometimes the horse is a loaded gun - seemingly fine but feeling tense inside, when something sets him off to react explosively. Ultimately, if we just learn to look at things from our horse's perspective and develop a strong partnership with our horse, we can prevent and/or solve all these issues, such as bucking. Prior and proper preparation is the key. What kind of partnership do you have with your horse? Do the two of you work in harmony, or is your relationship fraught with arguments?

Another point is that punishing the horse for bucking is the very last thing a person should be doing - in general. Hitting a horse only proves to him that you are simply another unpredictable, horse-eating predator and increases his fear and distrust of humans, rather than increasing his confidence and trust in you. For the horse that is bucking out of defiance, hitting him only creates more resentment towards you. Instead, work on motivating such a horse to want to work with you. There are exceptions of course.

One last related point is in regards to horses that buck after a long break. Here's one such example. People seem to think this is okay, that it is to be expected, that it is the norm. It isn't. A horse bucking, even after a long break, is still the result of any of the above reasons. It could also simply be a result of a lack in partnership (which results in one of the three reasons above). Think about it. Your horse has been out on pasture for months, cementing bonds with his horsey buddies...not with you. Then, we take our horses out and automatically expect them to work in partnership with us, when we have put no recent work into earning that partnership! So take the time it takes to earn that partnership before you get on your horse's back: I promise it will pay off...and the result will include a lack of bucks.


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ShleeBlitz said...

Aren't you also blaming the horse by labeling it as "defiant"? It's 90% ride error or past experience hanging on, I believe. Shouldn't blame the horse.