Friday, March 25, 2011

The Rearing Horse

As I was wondering what I should explore this week, I got an email from Roberta asking about how to deal with a rearing horse. Great timing, Roberta!

Actually, timing has a lot to do with successful horse handling in all its forms. When you apply pressure – and just as important, when you take the pressure away – determines how clearly your message gets across to the horse.

Let’s start with the horse that rears when being led. I learned this from Clinton Anderson during the four years I hosted his tour and I had the occasion to use it when I started my filly, Sarah. By the way, when the horse rears the first time, it will probably catch you off guard. Get through that experience the safest way you can. Then, get yourself prepared and plan what you’re going to do next time.

To prepare, put on some leather gloves and put the horse in a longer-than-normal lead rope – at least 12’. Instead of avoiding the situation in which the horse reared, revisit it. When the horse rears, let the rope play out until you are safely out of reach of the horse’s hooves. Hold the rope as high as you can to make it more difficult to snag with his forelegs. Then just wait. No need to scold the horse or try to pull him back to the ground. Just keep moderate pressure on the lead rope. When the horse comes back to the ground, release the rope pressure instantly and reward the horse with kind words and a good rub. Then go right back to what you were doing when he reared. If he rears again, calmly repeat the process.

Understand why this works? The “bad” behavior doesn’t get the horse anything at all. It doesn’t get you to leave him alone and it doesn’t get the rope to go away. On top of that, it’s a lot of work! On the other hand, coming back to terra firma ends the exertion and gets a reward from you. You maintained a calm, businesslike attitude during the episode so you didn’t frighten the horse. If you are consistent with how you react to rearing, the behavior should all but disappear. I say, “all but disappear” because there are never any guarantees with training horses. We simply deal with the behavior that is presented to us at any given time.

Rearing while riding is a different issue and I’ll admit I have virtually no personal experience dealing with this. However, I do know from interviewing many experts that the worst thing you can do is what comes most naturally. We humans feel safest in a fetal position with arms and legs pulled in close to us. When a horse rears while you are riding, you may feel inclined to pull back on the reins and squeeze with your legs, closing up your body in an approximation of the fetal position. That can make matters quite a bit worse, even causing the horse to fall over backward or go into an all out flight mode.

When a horse rears while you’re riding him, move your hands forward and your legs back. Open up your body rather than closing it. If you need to grab the saddle horn or pommel, that’s just fine. The idea is for you to remain balanced on the horse instead of tumbling off and also to give the horse freedom to lower his head and come back to earth. Once the horse’s feet are back on the ground you have a choice to make. You can either reward him for ending his “bad” behavior or, if you feel he is about to rear again, you can disengage his hindquarters by pulling on one rein and asking him to cross one hind leg in front of the other. This is often called the one-rein stop. It’s not a punishment, but it does get the horse thinking about his feet and your ability to control them, thus reinforcing your role as leader and making it less likely that he will want to challenge you by rearing. Which course of action you take depends on the feel of the moment and your level of confidence … or lack thereof. If at all possible, you need to resume the activity where the rearing occurred and proceed as if nothing happened.

Rearing is most often an act of defiance that becomes a habit because the horse gets something he perceives as positive from the experience. Ironically, the act of rearing is its own punishment because of the effort it takes to perform. When given a choice, a horse will generally take the path of least effort. Many times, a good training solution is simply making that path clear.


Hedy said...

This is nicely presented. Thanks!

Mad Dog Ranch said...

I would strongly disagree that rearing is usually an act of defiance. Defying what? Rearing happens most often when a horse feels trapped, when he is afraid, wants to escape and realizes he has nowhere to go with that energy but UP.

This CAN become a learned behavior, a prove way to escape whatever the horse finds aversive, but I would defy anyone to prove the first time a horse reared up while working with a human that it was based on some cognitive "defiance."

Rick said...

Thanks for spirited post, Mad Dog. First the standard caveat: None of us knows for certain what goes on inside a horse’s mind. I don’t believe that fear and defiance are mutually exclusive mental states in a horse. Certainly one can flow into the other. Let’s take your example of the first time a horse rears and let’s say it is caused by fear and claustrophobia, as you suggest. What does the horse do with his front feet when he rears? Doesn’t he usually paw the air? Isn’t getting struck the greatest danger to the handler? “Flight first, fight second” is how horses respond to threats. When flight is impossible and the horse goes up, I believe he is going into fight mode. Whether you call it fighting, intimidating, defying or challenging, the horse is trying to change the situation through his actions, not just get away from it.
Let’s get back to habitual rearing. You asked what the horse is defying. Ultimately, he is defying another creature that is trying to control movement of his feet, which is his most precious possession. In herds, horses rear, both at play and when fighting, as a way of challenging each other to determine dominance hierarchy. More dominant horses can control the movement of more submissive horses. My filly, Sarah, who I raised from a foal, showed no sign of being frightened of me or of feeling trapped when she reared. She was just being obstinate and yes, defiant. She was simply tired of me asking her to move her feet in a certain way and thought that rearing would get me to stop. This is the same scenario I saw played out many times with the “problem” horses Clinton handled on tour. Once they recognized that rearing accomplished nothing and that responding to Clinton’s direction of their feet earned them the chance to rest and recover their air, the rearing stopped and they relaxed.

Barbara said...

I am starting a young horse who when on the long line during our ground driving was rearing when he asked to stop and stand, his defiance not wanting to stand quietly he would rear and try to move forward from the stop or he was doing this when he does not want to go forward. I have found patience and moving his feet change his focus and by the end of our session he did not have any desire to rear. As you said it is a lot of work and did not get the result he expected. I believe tha bad or dangerous behavior can be eliminated, decreased or made worse depending on how the handler changes the horses focus to a more productive task.

Barbara said...

I have a four year old that I am starting and have found that patience is the best training tool. No matter what the behavior. Or course be safe, but a rearing horse has a reason whether defiance,fear or confusion. The most important thing is not not reward the behavior by putting the horse away. If the handler changes the focus of the equine then they can redirect the actions and move to a productive task. Move your horses feet and refocus the energy but never stop and put the horse away when things are not going well. Rearing is hard work somake standing with all four feet on the ground a pleasant place to be.

88bce8be-5d3d-11e0-84a8-000f20980440 said...

My farrier took care of the rearing problem with my friend's mare in very short order. She was rearing when he was trying to trim her feet. So he made her rear, backing her up until she got tired of rearing. She only tried it one more time with the same result and she got the picture. As Clinton says make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy!!
As far as rearing under saddle, my QH used to do it when he didn't want to go forward. I just ignored the behavior and kept turning him and urging him forward. He didn't get what he wanted and he just quit doing it. Rebecca

Kim Allaby said...

As an equine massage therapist for over 12 years and a horse owner and trainer for almost 30 years I have had experience with rearing horses. Along with the reasons you outlined; another reason horses rear and refuse to go forward under saddle is pain; either in their mouths or their bodies.

A Mini Beginning said...

Thanks Rebecca for sharing your friends experience with the horse rearing for the ferrier! I just got a very young show mini with lots of nervous energy and still learning his manners. Although, a rearing mini isn't much of a health threat. It can still cause injury to the myself, my little girls, or to the horse and is just plain annoying when I'm trying to work with him. He just got gelded 2 weeks before he came to me and is very sensitive about his tail being touched and his hooves cleaned or touched for that matter. I'm going to try the ferrier's technique of just making him keep rearing until he gets it in his head that it's not worth getting exhausted over and that I'm not gonna give up or hurt him for that matter. Thank!

Colette said...

I have a two year old Welsh Cob, I've had him for 9 months now. He was very shy of everything that moved and didn't move when we first got him but he's a different animal now. Today he reared on me for the first time, it was on the farm road, from the field back to the farm. It was time to put him back in the stable but the entrance to the yard was blocked so I had to wait down the lane with him. This he did not like and started tossing his head and rearing. I've never had a horse rear on me before and he's already 15hh so he's quite a big boy already for a welsh. I had my two children with me too so I told them to keep well out of the way and let his rope out. He tried to get away but he couldn't so he reared again. Meanwhile the van blocking the road went so I could move him up the lane again and put him away. He's never done this before and he was certainly being defiant. He did catch me off
guard.....this time!!