Being a horse trainer, I get questions often. I had an inquiry, recently, on my opinion about horses that rear. Normal responses to this, and maybe for a lot of people, are to think about a horse’s teeth, back, feet, or anything else being sore, maybe even trying a different bit. All those things could be true. I’ve heard of many things about similar issues. Some ideas people come up with can be entertaining, like, different feed or supplement products, the time of day, a Western vs English saddle, riding bare back, spurs or no spurs, back cinch, hackamore, tie down, etc. Again, one or more of the things listed could be the problem. Here is what I have come across in my training experiences and believe to be the most common problems. One of two things are usually wrong, maybe both – 1. The horse hates the situation it is in. OR 2. The horse has learned that resistance is the right answer. My advice is to back up and fill in the gaps.
The inquiry, more specifically, was about a horse that is a contesting horse and won’t go into the arena, willingly, and has started rearing. First, let me say this, rearing is among the most dangerous things a horse can do to a rider. Most of the time it’s very bad to be stepped on.. You can get hurt by being kicked, though sometimes it’s more scary than injurious. I’ve seen decent riders laugh their way through being bucked off a horse, but if a horse falls on you, you can be permanently injured or worse. Rearing is not acceptable. A rearing horse may not be your problem to fix. If it’s a problem you don’t want to work on or can’t take on, or if you can’t afford to get help from a competent handler, it may need to be a pasture pet. You shouldn’t even feel good about selling that problem to somebody else.
For me, I don’t want to work on a rearing problem in the problem. As I mentioned, it’s too dangerous. I have had a horse rear and flip over on top of me, and it was terribly scary, and I was injured. I was lucky and learned how to avoid that problem in a nano-second. Rearing comes down to a form of resistance. Let me delve into the mechanics of how to handle this type of resistance.
I don’t let horses rear. If there is a chance of it happening with a horse I am working with, I will do a lot from the ground. It’s not the bridle; it’s not the saddle; it could be discomfort, but it usually isn’t. Most likely it is resistance. It’s a horse saying NO. So, I work on a horse saying YES; and, rewards for saying YES. I don’t except NO from a horse. I don’t mind if a horse isn’t sure of what to do or where to go, but NO isn’t an answer. If I say GO, it means GO, now - not later, not when they feel like it, not because it’s easy, not because I asked the right or wrong way, not because they got distracted and missed the cue – GO somewhere, now! This perspective may sound coarse, to some, but this is where I don’t care. A parent looking at their kid in the ER and wondering what could have prevented this horrific event, is most likely the problem of a horse saying NO.
GO, TURN, and STOP are my answers. I like to saddle horses to do ground work, especially when using a round pen and off a lunge line. Often, when a horse has the liberty to run, freely, you’ll find some underlying issues. I want all the drama out. It might not be day one that you find all of it. My priority becomes GO, TURN, STOP, in that order, but take as much time with GO as the horse may need. Hand signals don’t mean anything to me at this point. I want a cluck to mean the world to a horse. If the horse thinks it’s a mere suggestion, I’m not fixing anything. Cluck, kiss, whichever you prefer, but use a clear verbal cue that can be, and will be, used from the saddle. Build the cue as good as you can get it. Cluck; drive; cluck; drive. Cluck, as to mean go.
When you feel that you can get GO anytime you want it, start to work on the TURN - while in motion, step over in front of your horse and drive the other way. Let the TURN take care of itself. Different horsemen may say different things about whether a horse turns to the inside or to the outside, and how that matters. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as they do it when you ask, because you ask. Again, they must do it, now, with the cue. NO is not an option. You’ll get pretty far in to the fix by building the GO and TURN cues. If a horse goes and turns when you ask, you can stay out of a lot of trouble. Work the GO and TURN, as long as it takes to get it every time you cue for it. Make your horse work. You can feel sorry for him later; he needs to sweat.
For the STOP, you’ve already been working on half of it. If you’re properly driving the horse when you give the cue to GO, it’s easy to get the STOP - stop driving and say whoa. If the horse doesn’t STOP, TURN him. Work that STOP until you can get it every time. Stop driving, then say whoa, and TURN him, if needed, until you can get it every time.
You will have to go through GO, TURN, and STOP from the saddle, too, but I want you to check one thing, first, before swinging your leg over – bridle response. It always helps to have the excess energy off your horse when doing this. From the ground, check each side with pressure on the bridle. When you make contact with the bit, you want a thoughtful YIELD to that pressure. No drama; no motion; just give to the bit, nicely, each way, every time. Here’s where positive reinforcement can go a long way. When you draw the rein back, they should give until you release – every time.
Now, you have a horse that will GO, TURN, and STOP, every time, and is not afraid of the bridle. Horses learn to hate things based on past experiences. You may never be able to figure out exactly what started the problem. However, the horse needs to fully understand their job before there is too much pressure, or speed, or perfection asked of them.
From the saddle, you go back to the round pen for good reason – you don’t have to turn; the fence will do it for you. Leave your hands off the bridle and just GO. When you have GO from the verbal cue, every time, work in the TURN. Keep yourself out of tight turns for a while, but you’ll have to work up to them, eventually. Mix in some flexing from the saddle like you did from the ground. When you get to the STOP, don’t pull; this is always true, and not just for this situation. Quit telling them to GO, say whoa, then TURN. Pull is always last. Keep doing this until they stop from the word whoa, every time. This takes away the need for yanking on the bit like so many contesting horses, as well as, others may have to deal with. Hopefully, the horse can recover from the issues that we, the riders, usually create for them.
GO, TURN, and STOP when done well and thoroughly, can keep you out of a lot of problems. Some problems can’t be fixed at home, by yourself, or just a dvd walkthrough, but with good habits of GO, TURN, and STOP. The horse must gain the understanding that those things are not optional, but absolutes. Get help with this stuff. It’s worth it. You’ll have more fun doing what you want to do with a horse that is responsive and respectful.