Safety Concerns: Rearing Causes Death Of Rider

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Dear Julie

My cousin, who hadn’t been around horses much, bought a used 20yr. old Tennessee Walker, supposedly a calm, old gelding. My other cousin, who’s been around horses and was in 4H said he’d been starting to lift his front feet. Supposedly she and a friend were coming up a slight hill when he reared and she fell off and broke her neck, instantly killing her. Horses are big animals and not warm and fuzzy friendly, I love you like a dog pets. I believe there was a combination of factors: inexperience, lack of paying attention, and the wrong breed. I’ve seen footage of Tennessees moving and they do lift their front legs very high…Yeesh. I’d’ve never bought one.

My husband says he would’ve stayed on, but would never have let me ride him. How do you stay on a rearing horse, like Roy Rogers and Trigger? Can you train a horse not to rear?

The people who sold him to her said he was, of course well mannered. How can you tell? The first 2 horses she had were Arabians and she had to give them to my other cousin. They were high strung.

I realize there’s risk in just driving, but at least I’ve taken lessons. I saw your clinic in 2003 at the Equine affaire in Columbus, Ohio, and told you you’d shown me more in 1/2 an hour than I’d learned in 4 years. You had.

But I still feel she was taken by the used horse dealer, if you know what I mean. How do you keep from being taken, how do you stay on or prevent a rearing? And is it true that some breeds really are patient and pretty unspookable? All the breeders say theirs is the best and most ‘versatile’.
Sorry for the long letter. Thanks for your precious time. I wish I could afford to take lessons from you.

God Bless,
Julia Grauel, Cleveland Ohio

Answer: Julia,

What a tragic story and I am sorry for the loss your family has suffered. Rearing is indeed one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses. When left on their own, horses will rarely turn over on themselves, but when a human interferes, it is very easy for the horse to lose his balance and fall over, and that is what makes rearing so dangerous.

When a horse rears, you should instantly reach forward with both arms and grab around his neck like you are hugging him. This will keep your weight forward, keep you balanced on the horse and prevent you from pulling back on the reins and causing him to lose his balance. Some horses seem to have more tendencies to rear than others but it is an individual tendency not a breed characteristic. It has a lot to do with how they have been trained, their temperament and their general inclination (just like some horses tend to buck more than others, some tend to kick more than others, etc.).

There are several Q&As on my website about rearing. Basically it is caused by a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Fear, pain, obstinance or poor riding can instigate rearing. Who knows what caused your cousin’s horse to rear; we’ll never know the answer to that. But she probably did not have the riding skill necessary to be riding this horse. Horses can certainly be trained not to rear, just as easily as they can be trained to rear. The solution to rearing is always to move the horse forward; it is ineffective and cruel to hit the horse in the head for rearing, which a lot of old-timers will tell you to do.

I don’t think anyone should blame this tragic incident on a breed. Within any breed, you can find individuals that are prone to rear. While it is certainly true that some breeds are calmer, more docile and cold-blooded (insensitive) than others, you’ll always find horses with both good and bad qualities within each breed. Tennessee Walkers do tend to be on the hot-blooded side but there are many TWs used for trail riding with a great deal of success.

The only way to truly evaluate a horse’s training and temperament before purchasing is to be around him and ride him in several different settings. I always encourage people to look at a horse at least three times before purchasing and at least one of those visits should be unannounced, so that you can see the horse in it’s normal state. You should work with the horse on the ground, groom him, handle his feet, trailer load, etc. You should ride him in the arena and on the trail and in any situation that you might be subjecting him to, such as working cattle. Ideally, you should buy a horse on a two-week trial period, but the seller is not always willing to do that. Another idea would be to have an experienced trainer look at the horse and give you his/her impressions. Usually you can pay their normal lesson fee and get them to go check out the horse and ride him. A person that has had experience with hundreds of horses can generally get a pretty good feel for a horse in one session.

Seeing a horrible accident like this and losing a loved one can certainly lead to emotional trauma. It would be perfectly normal for someone who has witnessed such a thing to develop a fear of horses and riding. There is an article on my website called “Coping with a Fear of Horses,” that may be helpful for you or anyone else that has been traumatized by this incident.

Again, I am so sorry for your loss. Riding is certainly a risky sport but I fully believe that having a safe horse, good riding skills and taking all safety precautions, such as wearing a helmet, will help prevent terrible incidents such as this.

Kindest regards,
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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