Thursday, May 27, 2010
Rearing can occur for a number of primary reasons:
1. The horse feels trapped or restricted
2. As an evasion
Reason number one is the most common and is borne of fearfulness or reactiveness on the part of the horse. This can be the horse who is being held back by its rider and who thinks the only answer is 'up', or the horse who simply becomes right-brain on his own and explodes upwards.
Reason number two can be a result of number one (the horse feeling trapped) as well, or can simply be the result of a horse who doesn't want to try and figures rearing might be a successful method of evasion. In my experiences however, most horses do not rear as a result of evasion, yet rearing is often misinterpreted as such.
In either situation, the answer is both to develop a stronger partnership between horse and rider and to develop the horse to think as opposed to react - to be calmer, braver, smarter. Safety first, which means working the horse from the ground rather than under-saddle, if necessary. It is okay to dismount!! With the horse who is reactive and fearful, the ultimate goal is to develop greater confidence in the horse himself as well as his confidence in your leadership. As prey animals, horses are very claustrophobic animals whose primary instinct is to flee and so if they are restricted up front by the bit, they might perceive their only option to be 'up'. Often a rear is preceded by head tossing - the horse's attempt at gaining control of the front end. Keeping this in mind can enable us to possibly avoid causing the horse to feel trapped. What, specifically, can you do?
- if your horse is flighty, develop relaxation and suppleness in your horse on the ground first
- remain calm and ensure your own body is relaxed
- allow your horse some slack in the rein - if you must correct your horse (ie. slow forward movement), you can either correct by squeezing the reins gently, as if you had a baby bird or a sponge in your hand (half halts) whilst simultaneously relaxing your seat, or gently (gently!) bump the outside rein to slow your horse or close your hand on the outside rein (using one rein rather than two prevents 'trapping' your horse)
- encourage your horse to be left-brain and thinking, rather than right-brain and reactive, by having him think - use patterns and have him disengage his hindquarters often
What about the horse who is simply evading your pressure and perceives the right answer to be 'up'?
Spend undemanding time with your horse - grazing, grooming, just hanging out. Try to change his perspective from one of resistance, to one of willingness. Prey animals will naturally resist and do the opposite of what a predator tells them, so it is your job to act more prey and less predator, and to ask in such a way that your horse can, and wants to, answer 'yes'. Sometimes this means earning further respect under-saddle (check out the 'point to point' exercise) and on the ground, and other times it means not offering a force the horse can oppose against (for example, don't micro-manage - constant nagging with, say for example, your legs, offers pressure your horse can and will eventually resist against; instead, allow the horse to make the mistake then correct, and make the right answer easy and the wrong one hard). Use phases of 'ask' so that your horse has the chance to respond to a lower phase of pressure, and reward with rest (etc - whatever motivates your horse) when your horse chooses the right answer. 'In the moment', you may correct your horse via a bump with ONE REIN to set him off balance and force him to drop back to all fours. This is best done in a bitless or a plain rope hackamore, so you are not bumping the horse's sensitive mouth via a bit.
What not to do in the rear:
- do not push a rearing horse forward until he is back on all fours or unless he is yet only a couple inches off the ground - you run the risk of fueling the reactive horse's response and having him flip himself
- do not whip a rearing horse - you will more likely only add fuel to the fire
- do not pull back on the rearing horse or you could pull him off balance and flip him
- breaking objects (eggs, boards, glass) over the horse's head - it might 'work' but it did not solve the root cause of the rearing and carries the major risk of causing head trauma and killing the horse (I've heard too many stories of horses being accidentally killed this way!!)
- put a tie-down or martingale on the horse - it is a band-aid solution that only further restricts the horse and can incite further claustrophobia and panic in the horse. Futhermore, if a restricted horse rears too high, he runs the risk of losing his balance and being unable to regain it due to being tied down by the tie-down or (standing) martingale. If you fear the horse might smash its head against your jaw, get off and work it out on the ground - whatever the issue, it can be solved on the ground! Safety is paramount. A running martingale can help in some circumstances, but it can also limit your use of the rein. Such equipment should ONLY be used to re-teach a (extreme) rearing horse in a professional's hands, and will be accompanied by training methods that address the ROOT issue while keeping the trainer safe.
Above all, in either scenario, it is never fair to punish the horse for being a horse. The rearing horse is simply the horse who is resorting to an escalated level of communication - 'shouting'. Figure out the root cause of the behaviour and solve that root cause, whether it be ill-fitting tack, misalignment chiropractically or muscle problems, other health or physical issues, or rider problems. Develop the horse, develop the rider, and the miscommunications disappear. If you are not sufficiently experienced or you find yourself becoming frustrated, walk away and seek out a professional. Rearing issues can be serious so if in doubt, consult a professional.