One of the problems a rider may encounter with his horse is rearing. Rearing is a vice that is potentially dangerous to both horse and rider. The rider may fall off, or the horse may lose his balance and fall over, possibly landing on top of the rider. To successfully deal with a horse that rears, you must first understand the motive behind this behavior. Motivation usually falls into one of four categories. These categories are play, pain, fear, and dominance. Let's take a closer look at each one.
The first category is play. Rearing motivated by play is mostly seen in young horses, or horses who have been cooped up in a stall or small pen for awhile. When turned out, young or stalled horses will run around, buck, and rear-up just for the joy of it. Under saddle, youngsters will sometimes rear in play because they don't yet understand that this is unacceptable behavior with a rider on their back. Older horses who have been cooped up may become so excited to finally be out that they temporarily forget their manners.
The second category is pain. If something (or someone) hurts the horse's head, mouth, or front end; he may rear to escape the pain. This type of rearing is seen in all types and ages of horses. Examples of this type of rearing could be: if the rider jerks on the horse's mouth, if a cat claws an inquisitive horse's nose, if another horse crashes into the horse's shoulder. This type of rearing is almost always caused by rider error.
The third category is fear, and this is by far the most common category. If something in front of the horse suddenly startles him, he is likely to rear. Like rearing due to pain, rearing from fear is an instinctive survival behavior. The horse may rear if he anticipates danger or pain. If the horse is afraid to go forward (as for example when asked to cross a bridge) and the rider presses him, he may rear. If the horse is afraid he is going to have his mouth jerked on (due to past experience) he may rear.
The fourth category is dominance. This is most commonly seen in stallions. They will rear naturally as part of the dominance ritual with other horses. They also rear-up when they are about to cover a mare. This is instinctive behavior. Under saddle, they may forget their manners if their testosterone is aroused by a mare, or if they wish to challenge another horse. Horses will also use this behavior to try and dominate the rider. A stallion may try this just because he's a stallion and it's in his nature to try and dominate his surroundings. But mares and geldings may also try this if they've discovered they can intimidate a rider by rearing.
The best way to deal with rearing is to stop it before it starts. If your horse rears up in play, turn him out or lunge him before you ride. Let him get all that play out of his system before you get on him. Cutting back on sweet feed (especially when the horse is not getting accustomed exercise) will help keep a horse in a calmer frame of mind. Once you're on his back, lots of jogging is very good for settling a horse down. These methods will usually keep an older horse from rearing, but youngsters will occasionally still rear out of play. In general, the best thing to do is to reprimand them once they come back down to the ground. A simple "Quit!", along with a bump of your leg or a tap with a crop is usually sufficient. The main thing is not to make a big deal out of it. Just use a simple, small reprimand and then go on about your business. If this doesn't seem to get through to the horse, you can up the ante a little bit. Reprimand the horse, and then jog him until he is tired enough to want to quit. Once he wants to quit, continue to jog him for another one or two minutes and then walk him. Do this each time he rears. This conveys the message to the horse: "Okay, you want to rear up? Fine, but every time you do, you'll have to jog on and on- possibly forever." Most horses will see that rearing for fun isn't worth all the jogging they have to do, and will quit without a fight.
If your horse rears from pain, obviously the solution is to remove the pain. However, sometimes it is difficult to determine where the pain is coming from. The first place to suspect pain is in the horse's mouth. Have a vet or equine dentist check the horse's teeth. Once his teeth are in good shape, look at the bit. The bit you are using may be too severe. Try switching to a milder version of the bit. If your horse is very narrow-faced and you use a snaffle, the action of the snaffle may be the problem. To see why this is true, hold the snaffle in your hands. Push the two sides together and notice how the bit forms an inverted V. Pull the sides apart again. Now slowly push them together, stopping about a quarter of the way in. This is where the width of most horse's jaws will cause the bit to stop. You get the nutcracker action on the sides and the V isn't very pronounced. Now, slowly push the bit together some more and notice what happens to the V. It gets higher and higher. In narrow-faced horses, the V gets very high before the jaw stops the bit. Every time a rider pulls back, the V stabs the horse in the roof of his mouth, which can cause him to rear. A snaffle with a small O-ring join will eliminate this problem.
Once a suitable bit has been found, it's time to look at your hands. Any bit can cause pain if your hands are severe. Monitor your hands to make sure you aren't inadvertently bumping your horse in the mouth as he moves. You should also monitor your cues. Using too much hand and not enough leg is a sure prescription for rearing. For example, when trying to collect a horse, you should set your hands and push your horse up into the bit using your legs, rather than just pulling on his head.
A painful back is the second most likely thing to cause pain-related rearing. Your saddle may not fit correctly, which can cause painful pressure points. The horse may need chiropractic treatment. He might also have a medical problem which can cause back soreness such as kidney problems, or a mare might have a cyst on her ovaries. Other types of pain have the potential to make a horse rear as well. A thorough vet check should be done on a horse that rears, especially if he develops this habit suddenly and/or for no apparent reason.
Dealing with rearing from fear can be very easy or very hard, depending on the type of fear. If your horse is afraid of objects (like the bridge mentioned earlier), you just have to take a little time to acclimate him to these things. Get down and lead him up to the scary object. Let him take his time going up to it. Once he approaches it, let him take his time examining it. Reward him with a word, pat, or treat for being brave. If a horse knows he's not going to be forced to go up to something he's afraid of, he's much less likely to rear. If you know your horse is timid about new things or if he resists your efforts to lead him up to something, get someone with a calm, quiet horse to go with him. Let the other horse go up to the object first to show your horse that there's nothing to be afraid of. This method is usually a big help. Once your horse trusts you to understand his fear and to kindly and quietly help him deal with it, he's much less likely to panic and rear when something startles him.
If a horse is rearing because he's fearful of pain (due to past experience), it can be very time consuming to break him of this habit. You are going to have to replace bad experience with good. If it took 6 months or more to develop this habit, it will take at least that long with only good treatment to break the habit. If your horse is afraid of pain in his mouth, riding in a western hackamore may eliminate this problem. If you ride English or compete in western show classes, you will have to go back to a bit eventually. However, even a relatively short break will allow any soreness in the horse's mouth to clear up, as well as giving him a needed mental break. Once you go back to a bit, try a different mouthpiece. In western, if you use a straight mouth, try the lowest port possible. Or try a snaffle-mouthed curb. If you've been using a snaffle, change to a straight bar bit. For a horse that goes English, a straight-mouth bit like a Kimberwick may work well.
If your horse is rearing as a dominance issue, you will have to get professional help if you are not able to dominate the horse yourself. You will have to use much stronger reprimands than with a playful horse and must remain calm and determined throughout. It may be quite a test of wills, especially the first time. This is doubly true in the case of stallions. In general, I believe stallions should only be handled by professionals. I have seen some easy-going, good-natured stallions that even a child could ride, but they are unusual.
With any horse that rears, you want to keep his forward momentum going. If a horse is moving forward freely, it is very unlikely that he will rear. Before a horse rears, he will usually tighten up his body. If he is moving, he generally shortens his stride. His head will come up first, sometimes led by his nose, and then his body will follow. If your horse feels like he is going to rear, you should circle him. Whatever your style of riding, use a lead rein to turn him. (A lead rein is similar to the English direct rein, but you pull your arm away from your body and pull the rein out to the side rather than back, almost as if you're leading the horse. Leave your outside rein very loose.) Use the lightest cues possible, and whatever you do, do not pull back on the horse. If a horse is close to going up, pulling back- especially with both reins, will almost certainly make him rear. Once you have the horse circling, use your legs lightly to get the horse moving forward. Usually jogging is the best gait for this, but if your horse is really wound up and the area is safe to do so, letting him gallop may be your best bet. What you're trying to achieve is to distract him from the behavior and to use up enough energy to burn off the adrenalin that has accompanied his upset or excitement.
If you can't discourage him, and he actually goes up, whatever you do, STAY OUT OF HIS MOUTH. If his mouth is tender, the pain will keep him going up and back until he actually falls over while trying to escape the pain. Even if his mouth isn't hurting, hanging on to the bit may cause him to fall over. A horse uses his head to balance. If his balance shifts too far back during the rear (which is very likely with the rider's added weight), the horse needs to move his head forward and down to regain his balance. If the rider is hanging on his head, he will be unable to do this, causing him to fall over. To avoid getting in his mouth, raise your hand up along his neck. NOTE: If you're riding with a running martingale or "rings", raising your hand up the horse's neck will actually shorten the reins, causing them to pull on his mouth. In this case, put your hand low on his neck and give him as much slack in the reins as possible.
When riding in a western saddle, the high back of the saddle will keep you from slipping off when the horse goes up. If you're riding in an English or other type of flat saddle, you will have to hang on to keep from slipping off the back. Lean forward but slightly to the left side, so the horse's head and neck don't hit you in the face when he comes up. Hold the reins in your left hand (making sure not to pull on his head), and grasp him around the neck with your right arm. If you are riding in a western or Australian saddle with a horn, you should lean slightly forward and to the left, but don't grab the horse around the neck. It's not necessary, and it will put you much too close to the horn, which could catch on your clothes, and keep you from getting out from under the horse if he goes over.
If a horse goes up past the vertical, he's almost certainly going over, and it's time to get off. In a saddle with English-type irons, it's best to take both feet out of the stirrups and use your arms and body to push yourself off to the side. Practicing dismounting without your stirrups is a good exercise to prepare for such an emergency. In a western saddle, you can keep your left stirrup to help you swing your right leg over and (along with your arms) to push yourself away. The difference in technique is due to the fact that that a western stirrup with its fender is much less likely to trap your foot when you're pushing off. In either case, the horse's momentum will help push you clear. Always push to the side and try to land on your feet. Be aware that once you're on the ground you will still likely need to move back to be completely out of the horse's way as he tries to get his feet back under him and get up.
If you try the advice above and the horse continues to rear, especially if the rearing gets worse, you will need to get professional help. A rearing habit will not go away on its own. The longer it continues, the longer it will take to correct it. Once your horse's trainer has taken care of the problem, you need to have a serious discussion with him or her. Find out what they think caused the rearing. Ask what you can do to keep the problem from recurring. You might need to take a short course of lessons; ideally with your trainer, or if that's not possible, then with someone he or she recommends. You also need to ask your trainer frankly if they think you and your horse are suited to each other. Perhaps you love to ride, but are only able to get to the stables on the weekend. If your horse is high-energy and has been in a stall all week, he may be too high to perform calmly with the small amount of riding you can give him. It would be much kinder to the horse to find him a home where he is ridden daily, or has a pasture to live in. You might get much more enjoyment from a quieter horse. If this isn't an option, try to find a boarding situation where your horse is out in the pasture most of the time. Whatever the options, keep an open mind and honestly consider whatever your trainer tells you. While the final decision is yours, considering knowledgeable input is never a mistake.
I hope this blog has been helpful. As always, if any of the information is not clear, or if you have any other questions, please let me know in the comment section.
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