Rearing is a very dangerous unwanted behavior in horses. Let’s take a look at why your horse might display this behavior, and how you can safely overcome it.
Like many professionals in the horse industry, I sincerely wish there was an effective “quick fix” for a rearing horse! When people ask me what to do when a horse rears, my simple answer is – nothing. At that point, it’s really too late to do anything that would be effective, so just hold on, loosen the reins to help stay balanced, and know that what goes up, must come down!
Now let’s explore what can be a very confusing behavior with a wide range of what I consider bizarre and dangerous advice for solutions — and then examine an approach that has a solid foundation to build confidence in both horse and rider!
Why horses rear
The act of rearing takes quite a bit of physical effort from a horse, which is why it usually happens only under extreme playful, confusing or fearful conditions. To rear, the hindquarters are 100% engaged, being the primary lifting mechanism, the front feet push off the ground (some horses appear to rock back and forth just before “liftoff”), the spine is straight, coiled and strong, and the loin muscles are holding everything in balance. Some good news is that because rearing takes much more effort and athleticism than most horses care to offer, it’s usually very simple to request less demanding maneuvers to prevent a horse from even getting into the position required to rear in the first place!
The most common cause of unwanted rearing I’ve observed occurs when a horse becomes confused or frightened. People are likely to pull back on the reins while squeezing or kicking the horse to go. Riders can even be completely unaware that they’re doing both — go and whoa — at the same time, which can easily escalate to a point where the horse considers “up” might be the answer. When the horse lifts up or shows signs of rearing, the rider stops the pressure, which communicates to a horse that they “guessed” correctly. If you wanted to teach a horse to rear, this is exactly how you would go about it!
Diffusing rearing behavior
Influencing the hindquarters is the key to stop rearing. I say “influence” rather than “control” because this approach requires the rider to do some prep work, beginning on the ground. When people think they can “control” the hindquarters, that implies to me that the foundation remains limited but we can just pull the horse’s head around to “get after ‘em” if he tries to rear. It’s not a judgment, but I’ve found this approach leaves the horse less confident because prey animals don’t understand the concept of punishment; it gets the result short-term but leaves a horse confused and likely to rear again.
Influencing the hindquarters looks like this:
- Begin on the ground with a halter and lead in a medium area free from obstructions. Stand next to the horse facing the shoulder and hold the lead loose enough for him to feel zero pressure, and rub him using nice big strokes over the shoulder, back and sides. You want the horse to know that when you do this, you’re asking nothing from him. If he begins to walk forward because he’s not used to zero pressure on the halter, simply keep his nose tipped toward you and continue petting him until he stops walking, then remove your hand for a moment or two before you begin again. This may seem like a crazy place to start, but you’d be amazed how many horses have to learn that the absence of pressure means “do nothing”.
- When the horse remains standing and relaxed, tip the nose toward you just slightly to prevent forward motion. Then begin with the lightest steady pressure, using your fingertips, on the side about where your leg would be when riding. Gradually increase the pressure (without poking) until the horse makes even the slightest effort to move away from it, then stroke over that area to “erase” the pressure and continue petting him until the feet stop again. Don’t be too picky in the beginning by trying to get the perfect movement from the hindquarters. It’s more important for the horse to know that pressure is released when he even tries to understand what’s being asked of him. This is what builds confidence in horses; even if we’re not good at this at first, they seem to really appreciate our effort and patience.
- Horses are brilliant at recognizing patterns, so as the timing of your release improves, these early steps to move the hindquarters should progress fairly quickly. Reward the horse’s slightest try, and continue to build to take more steps with less pressure. Make it a game of how light the pressure can be, ultimately moving the hindquarters in a continuous, complete circle from both sides of the horse, with the front feet remaining in the same spot and little or no pressure on the halter.
- When this feels solid, add the saddle but remain on the ground and use the stirrup or iron in place of your hand. This adds another aspect to the sequence of pressure and more closely simulates riding. Also at this stage, teach the horse to tip his nose laterally, always rewarding lightness. Horses search for comfort, so you may find that if you don’t take up the slack from the lead, the horse will hold his nose tipped in a nice supple position as his hip steps up comfortably under his body. This maneuver is commonly called “disengaging the hindquarters”, for obvious reasons. If you think of the hindquarters as the “engine” of the horse, it’s like pushing in the clutch of a standard transmission car to disengage the drive train, and has a similar effect. We can floor the gas pedal, but all that power has nowhere to go if the gears are not engaged. Many people are taught similar maneuvers for “suppling” the horse’s body, but I like to think of it as suppling the mind.
- If the horse is regularly ridden in a bridle, go ahead and introduce the bridle now. Because taking the power away from the hindquarters requires lateral flexion of the head and neck, this works best with a snaffle bit or soft rope hackamore. Because a shank bit or rawhide bosal are used to promote vertical flexion for the athletic engagement of the hindquarters, they would not be effective for this maneuver. From the ground, get everything soft and flexible, tipping the nose laterally using the reins and moving the hip using steady pressure. As the horse understands what’s being asked of him, he’ll relax, drop his head, lick his lips, waggle his ears and learn to move from very light pressure.
- When you feel ready, go into a smaller riding area, mount the horse and repeat the steps you introduced from the ground. Many horses assume that weight in the saddle means “go”, so you may need to start all the way back to tipping his nose and petting his neck until the feet stop, then release the pressure. People don’t even realize that any horse can learn to stand while being mounted, and remain standing until we ask him to move, again learning what “zero pressure” means so he can more confidently respond by moving when he feels pressure.
- Repeat the steps you went through on the ground. Tip the nose enough to see the eye, lightly add pressure from your leg, wait for even the slightest movement away, and release the pressure to reward the try. Every time we change position, it feels different to the horse. The horse might be hesitant or feel somewhat “braced” at first, but he’ll catch on pretty quickly and you’ll soon be able to move the hip both directions with very little pressure.
- As this gets better, add forward movement by releasing pressure on the reins and allowing the horse to walk relaxed with very little steering. Just be a passenger for the most part, then calmly tip his nose and see if you can get in time with the feet; ask for a step or two up under the horse’s body, then release and walk along again.
People want to know how long this process takes. It simply depends on you, your horse, and your ability to expand your mutual understanding. I’ve seen horses get this so quickly that the rider thinks she’s doing something wrong. I’ve also taught an entire half-day of a clinic from the back of a horse who took that many hours to understand that my weight on his back did not mean he needed to walk forward!
Regardless of your work with horses, these suppling exercises will enhance your clarity of communication. You’ll know you can ask for engaged, powerful activities, and at the same time both you and your horse will have an understanding of how to relax and “shut it all down” when you need to. When I feel a horse even begins to become confused and “braces”, this maneuver of tipping the nose laterally and moving the hip slightly becomes an instant reminder that he can relax and trust me in a given situation, and then we can go on to the activity at hand.
The remedy to rearing is all about expanding our foundation of communication with our horses by being able to take away the power from their hindquarters.
Karen Scholl is a horse behaviorist and educator, presenting her approach “Horsemanship for Women” throughout the United States and at Horse Expos in the U.S., Canada and Brazil. Though she has recently retired from conducting hands-on clinics to dedicate herself to expanding her library of resources, extensive information is available on her website, KarenScholl.com or by calling 888-238-3447.