One of the more difficult but very important aspects of training have to do with teaching your horse the difference between “work time” and “play time.” Work time is when you are riding, driving, or handling your horse. Play time is when the horse is at liberty, either alone or with other horses. Teaching your horse to have a “work time” ethic will help to prevent your horse from acting out.
I see a lot of people, especially those in the western world (but honestly, this happens across all disciplines), tack up their horse, then run them around in a round pen. Their horse, who is quite clearly uncomfortable and nervous, runs around and bucks and crow hops. When the person finally mounts the horse to ride, their horse is physically and emotionally exhausted, so the horse does not act up as much, and the rider believes that their horse is trained. The problem is that their horse isn’t trained; their horse is just tired. What they reinforce with their training is that it is acceptable for the horse to run and buck while tacked up, and when they mount their horse without exhausting their horse first, their horse reverts back to bucking and running- this time with a rider on his back.
Bucking while under saddle is one of the responses I see of poorly trained horses- horses who have been started too young, horses who do not have a strong base, horses who have been cowboyed (basically a saddle thrown on him and then run around until he’s exhausted), or any of the combinations of these. Unfortunately, horses who buck under saddle while at liberty will buck under saddle with a rider. One way to teach “work time” for a horse is to begin with teaching them that that behavior is inappropriate both with and without a rider.
If your horse is very silly, young, or just *needs* to buck and jump and play a bit before he is really mentally ready for work, then it is best if you can let him do that *without* being tacked up. The reason behind this is to help your horse differentiate between work time and play time; your horse should never buck with a saddle or when tacked up.
Longeing or running a horse around until he is exhausted is not training. What you need to do instead is teach your horse what is and is not acceptable behavior by first working them for very short time periods and not pushing them beyond their physical and emotional abilities.
Bucking Under Saddle
If your horse has learned to buck under saddle, it is imperative to extinguish this behavior. The first thing you need to do is to ensure that the saddle is not hurting your horse or making him uncomfortable. It is not fair to ask a horse not to respond when he is in pain. Make sure there are not dry spots on your horse’s back or rub marks after working- both of these would indicate that the saddle does not fit correctly.
If the saddle fits correctly, but your horse continues to buck when worked on a line or the round pen, he is bucking because he is either anticipating pain or discomfort, or he is at that point in pain or discomfort (there is always the random buck a horse might have if he spooks, or is being silly, as I noted in the paragraph above- but if he bucks more than once or twice, your horse is not comfortable with the tack and/or with his training).
Extinguishing negative behavior like bucking under saddle means you need to retrain your horse’s brain by letting him know that being under saddle will not equate to a negative experience. The best way to do this is to change things up- do not saddle him, work the heck out of him until he’s exhausted, then ride him. Instead, try one of the following:
- Longe him a little before working if necessary, then tack him up, then walk him around for a while, either hand walk, in the round pen or on the line- but don’t ask for any other gait. Horses who have been cowboyed will expect to be run. Instead of chasing him around, just have him walk and relax while being tacked up. Let him know that being tacked up does not equate to being chased.
- Tack him up and put him on a line so you have a little more control. Let him walk until he is relaxed, slowly increasing the size of the longe circle. When he is at the end of the line, you can then ask him to trot. If he tenses or starts to buck, reduce the size of the circle, and ask him to walk again. When he is relaxed, increase the circle and then you can ask him to trot again. You can increase the size of the circle to the end of the line- his reward, essentially, is to be able to move out on a larger circle, which is easier for him. You can eventually add the canter- if your horse bucks, immediately bring him down to a walk and start over.
- In a round pen, tack up your horse and ask him to walk only. If your horse has been cowboyed, this will be difficult because he will expect to only run in the round pen, so if this is the case, you would be best to have him on a line instead. Please don’t make him change directions every 10 seconds to prove you can “control” him- because if you have to change directions that often, you are not in control, anyway. If your horse does walk well in the round pen, however, tack him up, ask him to walk, and after about five minutes, turn him around and have him walk in the other direction for about five minutes. Yes, it’s boring, but keep praising your horse and let him know that he is doing great. After 10 minutes, take the tack off completely, and at that point, you can ask him to trot and canter- and if he bucks, it’s OK- he’s just letting go of some of the energy he built up while walking. Eventually, you can have him walk and then trot with the tack, then take it off and ask him to canter- again, it’s OK if he bucks or is a little silly, because he is not tacked up and he is not “working.” Honestly, I’ve rarely had a horse buck once we get him to trotting quietly with the saddle- by that point he understands that he is supposed to focus and work.
Training Your Horse Takes Time
Always remember what lessons you are teaching your horse and how you ultimately want your horse to act. As trainers and owners, we need to move beyond the idea that we have to run our horses until they are exhausted before riding them, or that they are just lazy if they are acting out. Teaching your horse to act appropriately under saddle takes time and training, and we need our horses to know what is expected of them by helping to teach them what is and what is not appropriate behavior.
I will continue to add tips on how you can teach your horse to be mentally present while being worked, but if you have questions or have a question on how to help work through a specific issue, please feel free to contact me.