Rearing To Go

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Dear Julie,
I have a 15-year-old quarter horse that has decided he must be in the lead on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse, he arches his neck and sets his head as if he’s ready to attack. Then he’ll hop and rear. It all happens so fast, I don’t see it coming. He’s rearing more and more often. I have been working on the behavior by allowing another horse to lead off on the trail and having my horse follow. As soon as my horse gets excited, I ask him to move away from the lead horse. I’ve also thought about outfitting him with a tie down. What would you do?
Trail Woes

Dear Trail Woes,
This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others. It’s a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and in need of further training (and/or disobedient.) It’s certainly not an issue that a tie down could resolve, since these behavior problems are related to herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).
I choose not to use tie downs to resolve training problems. When it comes to rearing, a tie down simply masks the symptoms and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. If your horse were to rear with a tie down in place, it’s possible he could lose his balance and turn over.
Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that his aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is under saddle. Any transgression should be met with a firm, direct correction. Aggression and rearing are potentially life-threatening behaviors. Young horses should be taught this rule from an early age and this fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times when you’re riding alone or in the company of others. Saddle horses must be taught not to fraternize or interact with other horses at any time that they are being ridden or handled by humans. Horses are good at obeying rules when the rules are clearly explained and enforced.
Your horse’s behaviors—arching his neck and rearing— are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be. He is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might in a prideful manner. It’s a warning to “his” subordinates that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordination.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the arch and whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures.
Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There’s no quick fix to repair this relationship between you and your horse. You’ll have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. For an more in depth review of ground work, check out Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (www.JulieGoodnight.com or 800- 225-8827).
Your horse must learn that certain behavior is simply not tolerated while under saddle—specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front and it must not deviate from the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.”
Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second), since this behavior is dangerous for both the horses and the humans. The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.”
Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it’s not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it’s enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier.
Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It’s always best when the motivating factors are something that come naturally to the horse. One of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).
While you’re out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, at the very first flick of an ear, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times.
Remember, there’s an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you’re up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners. From the sounds of it, this horse might be a tough customer. But in the right hands, he can learn these fundamental manners in short order.
Until next time,

Julie Goodnight

Rehabilitation Behaviour Issues

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Question: Hi I have just started to care for a 5 year old Irish Draught x TB – he has a tendon/tendon sheath injury and was about to be put to sleep by his previous owner, due to lack of time and money and the possibility that he may not be able to be ridden again – but as he is normally such an impeccably behaved chap I said I would care for him. He has been stabled now for three months and apparently has not been behaving very well in his 12 foot x 12 foot stable (he is 17.2 hh) – I have moved him to a much larger stable in a quiet yard and he seems much calmer and is great to handle in the box and on the yard. However the vet advised that he can now be taken out for short walks 10 mins twice a day (increasing weekly by 5 mins each walk for the next 4 – 6 weeks) and to do this I take him across to a barn – he is perfectly behaved going to and from the barn but once we get to the barn he is fine for 5 minutes or so and then from nowhere at all comes a little rear – this morning though he did a massive rear and was absolutely vertical -once he came back down he behaved like nothing had happened and wanted to be fussy with me etc. Although I have had my own horse for 10 years now rearing is something I have never had to handle before so I was wondering (a) do you have any ideas why he would be doing this or do you think it is purely a boredom/excitement kind of reaction (he has been known to rear with his previous owner when ridden on the odd occasion). (b) what should I do to stop this behaviour and (c) how should I react when it has occurred. I have only been looking after him for 1 week now and the vet thinks he is likely to be stabled for another three months. When he has done his little rears I told him off in a firm voice and then have just carried on walking him around. Today I stood my ground which was pretty scary and then when he wanted to cuddle and be fussy I just pushed him away from me and told him off – by his reaction it looked as though he was expecting to be thrashed and kept on pulling his head up as though he had also maybe been hit in the face before. If I was able to longe/freeschool him I know I would be able to do something with him but right now due to the injury all I can do is walk him in hand. I hope you will be able to give me some advice as I don’t want either of us to end up injured and three months of this behaviour seems a long long time. Thank you for your help
Best Regards, Georgie
Answer: Georgie, The most important consideration right now is that the horse is rehabilitated. I think from reading your email that you have a very good sense of what is going on with your horse and you are handling it just fine. Imagine the horse’s frustration at being held prisoner in his stall and getting small glimpses of freedom. In this situation, you have to have a great deal of patience and empathy with the horse. Where you would normally not tolerate his disobedient behavior and take corrective action, you are limited in what you can do in this situation. His fractious behavior is stemming from his confinement and is not his fault. The corrective action you would take would be to circle the horse forward when he rears and make him work hard, but you cannot do that because the risk of re-injury is too great. If he just throws one little rearing fit and then is relatively manageable, then I would just ignore it. There are several articles on my website about rearing, but basically, it is either a refusal to move forward or a reaction to having his forward movement inhibited. In your case, I would guess the latter. The solution is always to move the horse forward. In the case of a horse in rehabilitation, when he rears I would just move out to the end of my lead and continue walking forward like nothing was happening. Make sure you stay well clear of the horse’s hooves. I am sure that you have cut back the horse’s ration drastically and it would not hurt him at this point to go down in his weight. Less feed will help prevent him having too much energy in his confinement and the lower body weight will help his recovery. One more suggestion would be to use a rope halter with a 3-4 meter training lead. The rope halter gives you much more control over the horse and is a far superior tool for control and training than is using a chain over or under the horse’s nose. I think you are right on in your intuition about this horse and that you are handling him well, so keep up the good work! I have known plenty of horses to fully recover from tendon injuries. The key is to give them enough time to recover which in some instances may be a couple years. The biggest mistake I see people make with these types of injuries is to try and bring the horse back into work too soon. Once the vet has cleared him from confinement, I would seriously think about turning him out to pasture for a full year. Good luck!

Reason’s For Rearing

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Question:
I was on the Internet searching for info on rearing and found your web site. I have a question I hope you can help with. I have a 6 Yr. old Thoroughbred. He came off the track at 4yrs old and has had on ground training and started jumping. I noticed some lameness issues with him after a long move. He has been sent to the Washington State University and diagnosed with slight arthritis in the right hock. He was injected and released. The University also did a bone scan of the hip and stifles just for my piece of mind. Since his return he has performed beautifully.
Here comes the question…. I was away on vacation and my trainer was saddling him in the cross ties (never a problem) and he pulled back a few times. She then went to working him in hand. This is when he threw a tantrum and not just reared, but was jumping up and throwing himself on the ground. Apparently he did this about 8 times before he realized it was causing him discomfort. I completely trust my trainer. She starts many horses, and specializes in recovery cases. She said she had never encountered a horse throwing himself down like that before. She continued working with him and he eventually came around. I know he has had some “going forward” trials before…but that seemed to be alleviated after his treatment at the Vet Hospital.

Knowing his health is fine, teeth fine, feet fine, can you give any advice as to why he would go to such lengths of avoidance? And to what we can do to eliminate this rearing. Obviously we will not be riding him until he is back to his old “good boy” self in hand. We aren’t even going to trust him in the cross ties for a while. I don’t understand how he could go from being a great, well-behaved boy, to a raving lunatic? I have had the local vet check him, and my equine chiropractor is coming at the end of the month. If he has no signs of pain, I’m afraid I will have to give him up. I want to be able to trust him not to injure himself or ME! Just last week my 5-year-old daughter sat on him while I walked him around. WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY GOOD BOY?
Thank you
Kelly Sundquist

Answer:
As I read your email, many thoughts come to mind, the first of which is that it is difficult to pass judgment on a horse’s behavior without actually seeing the horse in action. I have learned through experience that there is generally more to the story than the person relaying the incident sees, and in this case, it is being relayed third-hand. Usually if I am there in person and able to step back and observe, I can find a cause or a reason that the person handling the horse may be unable to see.

That said, there are a few other thoughts that come to mind. I am not a big fan of cross ties and I think they can be highly dangerous, as in the case of your horse. If a horse panics in the cross ties, the chances of him getting in a big wreck and getting seriously hurt are very high. If your horse were pulling back at all, I would not put him in cross ties. You may try tying him to a solid object or hitching rail in a rope halter to see if that would discourage him from pulling, but sometimes a rope halter can make a puller worse because of the additional pressure on his face. There are several Q & As on my website about horses that pull back and also the use of cross ties, so read more about it there.
The other thought that comes to mind is that this is a cold-backed horse. I am not totally clear on whether or not the horse was saddled when this incident occurred, but it sounds like he was. A cold backed horse will sometimes react violently to the saddle, but typically not until it has been put on, the girth tightened and then the horse moves. When he moves, he suddenly feels the constriction and pressure on his back and blows up, often throwing himself on the ground. I have found this to be especially common in TBs. It is possible that she inadvertently got the girth too tight too soon and when the horse reacted and was cross-tied, a full-blown panic set in. This would also be consistent with a reluctance to move forward.

Horses rear either in a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Pain can certainly instigate rearing in a horse; however, it does not really sound like the previous lameness issue is a factor here. It is possible that when he first blew up in the cross ties; he tweaked his back and then was in pain. Hopefully your chiropractor has made a determination on that. There are also several articles on my website about rearing and the causes and solutions.

Going on the assumption that your horse is cold-backed (which is my best guess), all you need to do is make sure he is not tied in any way when you saddle, massage the girth area before tightening and tighten the girth very slowly, walking him between each tightening. Often cold backed horses will crow-hop a little when you first ask them to canter and you need to just work them through that by continuing to move them forward. These measures will alleviate the problems. Good luck and be careful!

Dominance Rehabilitation

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Question:
I have a very dominant 9-year-old Tennessee walker. He is very proud, and was abused and starved. I’ve had him for 3 years. I am having problems with him on the ground and in the pasture. I am the “boss” of my three others, and they all respect me, except him. He rears up at me and attempts to bite me and chase me out of the pasture. We had a great respect and got along great, but lately I can’t get near him. Would like some info on what to do to gain back what we had before.

Thank you.

Dominance Rehab

Answer:

Dear Dominance Rehab,

This sounds like a tough horse! I would recommend that you separate him from the others. It sounds to me like he is becoming protective of “his” herd. Compounded by the fact that he has reason to dislike and distrust humans, he has reverted back to more natural or wild behaviors.

If you separate him from the others, he will not have the opportunity to protect his herd and he will be more reliant on you for companionship and to take care of his needs. Of course, to really gain respect and trust, you’ll need to build a relationship through groundwork. I would definitely start with round pen work, focusing on moving him away from you. I would not let a horse like this turn toward me when I ask him to turn around; instead, emphasize moving him out of your space.

Once he becomes more respectful of your space, then you can start doing inside turns with him. As he improves in the round pen, I would start doing lead-line work focusing on some basic rules of behavior like, stand still until I tell you to move, keep your nose in front of your chest while I am around you, and do walk-trot-halt transitions and turns away from you from both sides of the horse.

With any horse, and especially with one that has shown such aggressive tendencies, always make sure you have some sort of device in your hands when you work with him that allows you to keep a safe distance from the horse. A long whip, a lariat or a cattle sorting stick all work well; I prefer to use a “training wand” (available on my website). The purpose of the stick is not to hit the horse but it is an extension of your arm to give the horse communication and direction. And it allows you to keep a safer distance from the horse and protect yourself should he become aggressive.

With a horse that has been abused and has reason to distrust humans, you have to be careful not to get emotional or angry and escalate his emotions. Horses develop trust when they have basic rules of behavior to follow and you correct and reward them consistently. Start with some very fundamental issue, like moving him away from you, and then work just on that for a while.

I always like to remind people that you can only work on one issue at a time with a horse. So set your priorities and focus on one issue. A good example is when you are working on round pen and trying to control the horse’s speed, but then he starts coming off the rail and cutting off part of the arena. In this case, decide what your priority is at that moment: is it speed or is it staying on the rail? You cannot work on both at the same time. So maybe you step back and work on the horse staying on the rail for a few moments then when the horse is following that rule, you can go back and work on speed control.

Good luck to you and make sure you are very careful around this horse and watch yourself. Hopefully once he is separated from the herd, some of his aggressive behaviors will diminish.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Why Does My Horse Rear?

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A rearing horse is dangerous—when you’re on the ground or when you’re riding.

Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Why does my horse rear?

Dear Julie,
I have a 12-year-old quarter horse gelding that hops up off his front legs whenever I ask him to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go like across the creek or out of the barn yard. Or if I stop to talk to someone coming home from a trail ride, he fusses and hops and will eventually rear straight up if I don’t let him go. What should I do when he acts this way and how can I break him of this disturbing habit?
Fearing Rearing
Dear Fearing
Rearing is an interesting behavior that has two separate and opposite causes; but regardless of the cause, the solution is always the same. Rearing is also one of the most dangerous behaviors of the riding horse, because of the propensity of the rider to lose balance pull the horse over on himself.
Although rearing is often a fear response for the horse, it can become a learned behavior when the rearing causes the rider to inadvertently reward the horse for his actions. Whether the behavior is learned or instinctive (fear response) it’s caused by one of two things: when forward motion is inhibited or when the horse refuses to move forward.
The hops your horse makes are just mini-rears. He’s threatening that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll rear. He’s learned from experience that if he rears, you’ll give in and let him have his way. Most riders are understandably afraid of their horse rearing and so will drop the argument at that point—it only takes one time for this to become learned behavior.
A common example of rearing in a refusal to move forward would be when you ask him to cross the creek and he doesn’t want to or is afraid to; this is often a fear response but can become a learned response if he gets what he wants. An example of rearing when forward motion is inhibited is when you stop him on the way home and he wants to keep going; this is typically a learned response.
It’s always important to understand the root cause of a behavior and whether or not you are dealing with a learned response or instinctive fear, before developing a plan to correct it. In the case of rearing, whether it’s a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited, the solution is always the same—you must move the horse forward, even if it means not going where you want.
A strong rider may be able to move the horse actively forward in the direction he doesn’t want to go, with aggressive use of the aids. If you are not a strong enough rider to enforce your commands, then you would need to move the horse forward in any direction you can to thwart him from rearing. In this case, I would continue to work the horse hard away from the place he didn’t want to go (i.e., trot or lope small circles with constant changes of direction) then take him there to rest. Let him catch his breath then gently ask him to go one or two steps closer to the place he doesn’t want to go. If he obeys, praise him and let him rest again; but if he refuses, repeat the process, making him work hard again.
When the horse is threatening to rear unless you let him keep going back to the barn or with the other horses, you’ll need to move him forward to thwart the rearing, then immediately turn him away and start asking him to constantly change directions R-L-R-L, making sure to always turn him away from the direction he wants to go. Finish each change of direction with a couple of steps of disengagement of the hindquarters (see www.juliegoodnight.com for more info on what this is and how to do it). After he is sufficiently tired of that exercise, ask him to stand again and see if he’s changed his mind—if not, repeat the process until he rethinks it.
The longer a learned behavior has been engrained, the more difficult it’s to dissuade the horse from his bad behavior. Think of it this way, every time he got what he wanted, even if only for a second, he scored a point. Often by the time a problem gets to the magnitude of rearing in refusal, the scores is about 487 to nothing; so you’ll have a lot of points to make up. With patience and persistence, you can bring your score up and you’ll eventually be victorious.
Again, rearing—especially when it’s a learned response—is one of the most dangerous behaviors of riding horses and it will likely require a strong and confident rider to persuade the horse that it’s not in his best interest. If your horse is rearing frequently, you may want to enlist a trainer to even up the score in short order. However, you’ll only win this game by scoring the final points yourself—the trainer can not make the horse be obedient to you, only you can. But perhaps the trainer can put you in a better position to win.

Good luck and be safe. Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com