Thanks to our unrelenting rain for two weeks, this past weekend I had the very distinct pleasure of taking a handful of very antsy horses to finally get a turn out in the round pen. A few horses were a little silly, but most were fine, and enjoyed their time in the round pen, rolling around and maybe bucking or even running a little. Except for Garnet.
Garnet came out of the stall upset (several people were in her stall, even though I asked them NOT to go in there- but that’s another issue). The second she came out of her stall she went straight up into the air. Multiple times. When she came down I could walk her a few feet, but she would then blow up and go straight up again. She probably reared no fewer than 20 times on the way down to the round pen (there were about 15 volunteers on the property, and she reared multiple times, but NOT ONE PERSON got a picture, which leads me to think there is some sort of conspiracy afoot).
After running around and being silly for a bit, Garnet calmed down and I prepared to take her back home. She got about halfway to her stall before she freaked out and went straight up again. Jocelyn got one picture this time, at least. I was finally able to get her back to her stall.
I was not happy.
The above sentence is a gross understatement.
The reason I view Garnet’s behavior as so much worse than being a human kite when I am walking Ulysses, or as a human shield when I am walking Quixote, is that, annoying as those issues are, they are not nearly as dangerous as rearing.
Rearing is the Most Dangerous Behavior
There are a number of arguments as to why rearing is the most dangerous behavior in horses. One reason is that when a horse rears, his pawing motion can end up catching a person on the head- either on the way up or on the way down. That can mean a broken nose, jaw, or even a crushed skull. If the person is caught off-guard, he can also get too close and get knocked to the ground, and the horse can end up coming straight down on him. Think about it this way, if a horse kicks you, it will hurt, and you can end up breaking a bone. If you get caught underneath a rearing horse, however, you can die.
Obviously there are a lot of ways to die around horses, but rearing is one of those behaviors that is dangerous, serves no purpose when working with humans, and needs to be stopped. Like yesterday. Preferably last week.
Why a Horse Rears
Horses will naturally buck a little when they are playing, or when their backs hurt. Sometimes you will see a horse crow-hop a little, but not all horses will rear, especially if they are not turned out with other horses who do NOT rear. That being said, if you turn a horse out with a horse who DOES rear, the other horse may learn this behavior. Indeed, my trainer turned her lovely Morgan gelding who had NEVER reared in the 20+ years of owning him, out with her student’s horse who did rear- within two weeks her Morgan was rearing when playing or at liberty.
The majority of the horses I’ve worked with, however, rear not because of their experience with other horses, but because of their experience with humans. When a horse is feeling pressure by a human, often with the use of force or pain, he will work to move away from that pressure. If he is unable to run from the pressure, he will resort to other behaviors- kicking, spinning, bucking, biting, and, finally, rearing. I’ve found that rearing is usually the last behavior horses go to- they usually try other behaviors first. If the pressure does not let up, the horse might skip through the other behaviors and just go straight to rearing, because he has learned that the only thing that works is rearing. This is what happened to my horse, Tamahome, as well as several of our other horses, including Sierra. When I started working with them, they had been so abused that their first reaction to any sort of frustration or pressure was to go straight up into the air.
How to Stop Rearing- Fear Response
If a horse like Sierra chooses rearing as a response to pressure, then what you need to do is to pay attention to the small cues that horse exhibits before rearing, and stop the pressure *before* the horse goes up. This may take a little trial and error, but if you are able to see that the horse is getting agitated, you can lay off of whatever you are doing to upset her, before she resorts to rearing.
If a horse rears because of a fear response, or because of a learned response to abusive training, then you need to stop the pressure or whatever it is you are doing, but otherwise do not give any other feedback. Don’t tell the horse he’s good or he’s bad- just stop the pressure and try to learn from that experience not to push him so far next time. Punishing the horse for exhibiting a response to abuse will never help the horse overcome the abuse- he needs to learn that you are going to listen to what he is saying (please stop) without fear of retribution. When he is back on the ground and calm, start again, but this time, go slower and with less pressure, so he learns that you are listening and will not hurt him, but also that the rearing is not going to stop the training.
How to Stop Rearing- Under Saddle
A horse who rears while under saddle is even more dangerous than a horse who rears on the ground, because there is a very strong likelihood that the horse’s hind end can end up buckling and he can flip backwards onto the person. I’ve talked with a number of people who have been permanently crippled when they broke their back, pelvis, neck, etc., when a horse flipped back on over them.
The best way to stop a horse from rearing is to pay attention- again, often horses will rear because they have learned from the past that rearing is their only option. If your horse is agitated, and maybe crow hopping or getting more and more upset, instead of continuing to feed into that drama, STOP IT. Just stop what you’re doing and let the horse rest for a second, then ask again. Continuing to pressure the horse can lead the horse to rear. If he learns, however, that when he tells you that he is upset and you LISTEN, he will be less likely to resort to those dangerous behaviors.
If you think your horse is going to rear, what you can do is make him move his hindquarters- just like you prevent a horse from bucking by lifting up his head and making him use his hind, for a horse who is about ready to rear, ask him to turn and make him engage his front end. If you are not fast enough, or if he just refuses, make sure to lean forward and put as much weight as you can on his neck, so he doesn’t flip over. Do NOT pull on the reins for balance- that can pull the horse off-balance and make him flip over on top of you.
Sometimes if I am balanced enough, I might tap the horse on the head when he is in the air- not too hard- but since he can’t see above him, he can think that he has hit something in the air, and he might be less likely to go up again. I have done this with a few horses who had learned that rearing would scare their owners, and they would not be ridden anymore- which meant that they learned that rearing could get them out of work. One of the horses I tapped on the head would randomly tilt his head and look up when I was riding him, as if to see if there was anything above him, and if it was safe for him to rear… thankfully after just a few times he decided against it.
If you feel that the horse is rearing too high and might flip, you may want to think about jumping off- but this is also incredibly dangerous, so I never recommend doing this unless you know the horse is going over backwards. One of our horses, Cindy Lou, reared incessantly when I got on her the second time, and I never rode her again- she was rearing because of her fear and previous abuse at the horse ranch, but she had a bad hock, and I was concerned that it would go out and she would flip over. Although I probably could have trained her not to rear, the risk for my getting hurt was too great; it just wasn’t worth it.
How to Stop Rearing- Horses Who Just Rear
One of the biggest issues with Garnet’s rearing this weekend was that, while she was agitated when I got her out of the stall, and true she had been cooped up in her stall because of the rain, and I could explain her going up once or twice, she kept rearing over and over and over again. She had reared a few times on the lead before her surgery, but we figured that once she could run around and “be a horse,” that behavior would be extinguished. I hadn’t seen that behavior since we have allowed her to run around, but it was in force ten-fold this weekend.
Horses who rear because they are excitable, or who need exercise, or who rear for whatever other random reason are difficult to work with because there is no obvious trigger that you can identify. In the case with Garnet, what stopped the behavior previously was to get her out everyday and work her so she was *tired.* Unfortunately, the next time she is on stall rest either due to the rain or because of an injury, there might be a concern that she could exhibit this behavior again. The hope, however, is that if we stop the rearing for a long enough time, it will eventually extinguish that behavior.
Daily exercise definitely helps keep horses from rearing, because they don’t feel that burst of energy necessary in order to go straight up into the air. For most horses, just working them everyday helps to prevent rearing.
If I feel the horse is going to rear, I can try to use my voice *before* he goes up to tell him no, or I can try to pull him towards me, disengaging his hind and engaging his forehand. Sometimes just stopping the horse and making him focus on me will stop him from rearing.
When a Horse Rears
If you are unfortunate enough to be on the ground end of a rearing horse, the most important thing to do is to try to get to a safe distance from the horse, while still holding onto the lead rope. Keep your knees bent and your body balanced, ready to move. Do NOT turn your back. Do NOT drop the rope and run away (that would require you to turn your back). If you keep the rope in your hand and the horse looks like he is going towards you, you can flip the rope up towards the horse’s head, which will push the horse back and give you more room. I don’t yell or give negative feedback to the horse- that’s only making a bad situation worse.
Horses Who are Trained to Rear
I see a number of (in my opinion), very stupid and short-sighted videos of people sitting on rearing horses, or teaching their horses to rear. All I have to say to this, is to invoke Bob Newhart, and say, “STOP IT.” You should not encourage a dangerous behavior because you want a few likes on Instagram.
We had one horse at the rescue, Caspian, who reared when you gave a little leg and pulled on the reins. Unfortunately, this cue usually means “back up.” So you can understand my frustration in trying to figure out how to teach Caspian to back up when his training told him to just go straight up. We compromised by me working with him on the ground, having him back up with bit pressure, and when I was on his back, pulling him to the side every time he started to go up. I was able to break him of the training for the most part, so that he could be adopted out, although I definitely told his new owners that he had been trained to rear, and that he might go up if they were too heavy-handed with the reins.
Just to reiterate to whomever is saying that they STILL want to train their horse to rear: STOP IT.
Unless you are a professional horse trainer and you are certain that, upon your death that your horses will be cared for and not given to an unsuspecting individual who might accidentally trigger the horse to rear, STOP IT. Unless your horse is going to be used in a Hollywood movie and you are going to use the money you make to care for him for the remainder of his life, STOP IT.
If you want to teach your horse something cool, teach him some tricks, like counting, or saying yes and no, or lying down. Don’t teach him to do something dangerous.