Written by: Anne Gage & Lindsay Grice

Trainers Anne Gage and Lindsay Grice discuss why horses buck and how to prevent this unsafe behaviour.

Thumbnail for Why Horses Buck and How to Stop It

Pam MacKenzie Photo

Riding a horse who bucks is a frustrating experience, which can be difficult to fix, particularly if you can’t figure out why he’s doing it. In the first of a series of problem solving articles, trainers Anne Gage and Lindsay Grice discuss the possible causes and offer advice on how to eliminate bucking.

Bucking is a natural behaviour for horses. “In horses’ evolution, it was probably used to get rid of a predator. It is often commonly interpreted by humans as either as a playful expression or as disobedience – particularly when a horse does not appear to “want” to do as he is being asked,” said Anne Gage, partnership trainer, coach and owner of Confident Horsemanship.

“Equitation scientists agree it’s an avoidance behaviour – a defensive behaviour to dislodge a threat or annoyance,” said Lindsay Grice, an Equestrian Canada and AQHA judge and coach. “Some horses seem more apt to buck than others, who may opt for other forms of evasion such as rearing or running.”

Reveal the Root

It is important to uncover the cause of your horse’s bucking, because, as Lindsay noted, “In all cases, what begins as an isolated incident can quickly become a learned behaviour when it works!”

Excitement
Sometimes, horses buck out of exuberance, play or a build-up of excess energy, which can be the result of limited turn out, lack of socialization with other horses or high energy feed. Lindsay said, “Prey animals get wound up. The faster their legs go, the more their adrenaline rises, which generates more excitement.” Ensuring that your horse is exercised regularly, receives a diet formulated for his needs, and is able to enjoy time with other horses in a stable herd environment can help tame this type of behaviour.

Pain
“First and foremost,” said Lindsay, “it is wise to rule out any physical discomfort that could be contributing to your horse’s behaviour. Back pain, internal issues and joint pain may motivate a horse to buck in search of relief.”

Saddle fit is often considered first, as pressure points caused by an ill-fitting saddle can affect horses in numerous ways. “I’m regularly sliding students’ saddles back off horses’ shoulder blades and having them slip their fingers under the front panels to discover – ‘Ouch, this part is really digging in,’” said Lindsay.

Anne added that there are many other possible causes of pain including: bit fit, dental issues (teeth, tongue, palate, jaw, temporomandibular joint disorder), poll, neck, pelvis, kissing spine, pinched or damaged nerves, causing stabbing or burning sensations.

Lindsay cautioned, however, that we should not “get bogged down or frozen looking for an elusive source of pain, meanwhile permitting a problem behaviour to continue. To allow bucking is to confirm the behaviour, so that even after the problem is resolved, the behaviour may persist.”

Fear/Defensiveness
“As a flight animal, a horse’s fear increases when he feels threatened, confined or restrained in some way,” said Anne. “He feels vulnerable because he is unable to escape or move away from potential harm.”

Lindsay continued, “While a horse is more prone to flight than fight, once he has tried unsuccessfully to get away from a threat, his default is to become aggressive. If threatened or startled from front, he’ll throw his head up, strike out with front feet or spin away. If threatened or bothered behind the girth, he’ll buck or kick. He bucks with whatever force he needs to avoid or relieve the threat or pressure.”

Conflicting, Inconsistent or Unclear Aids
Horses can also feel threatened or become irritated by a rider who is unbalanced or unskilled in the saddle, thereby sending mixed signals. “This problem springs up frequently with novice riders,” said Lindsay. “For example, the increased pace of the canter and resulting instability of the rider magnifies problems that might not be seen in the walk or trot. As the stride gets bouncier, the rider’s body becomes “noisier” or she grips with her leg, which the horse finds uncomfortable and confusing. He may respond by bucking in hopes of relieving that pressure, then the rider’s leg is displaced, she is unseated, falls off or stops the riding session. Should any of these things happen, the horse discovers a pay-off for the behaviour.”

Anne added, “Miscommunication is a major cause of confusion and anxiety for horses. The timing and strength of your aids impact your horse’s behaviour. Examples of poorly timed aids include: asking your horse to go forward, but not releasing the rein to allow him to do so; not releasing over a jump; and landing on your horse’s back after a jump.”

She noted that improper and unbalanced training can also contribute to this problem. For example, asking your horse for the left canter lead when he does not have a left bend can lead to confusion and a desire to evade your request.

Buck Prevention Strategies

“Avoid making the assumption that bucking is just a training or attitude problem,” said Anne. “Get to the true source of the problem.”

Observe Your Horse
“Watch your horse when he is turned out in the paddock or loose in an arena. Notice how he moves without tack or a rider,” Anne advised. “How does he behave generally – does he seem relaxed or anxious? Compare that to how he behaves while being groomed, tacked up, lunged and ridden. Notice where he carries or holds tension in his body. Tightness around the eyes and muzzle, and holding his breath are subtle [pain] cues that are often missed. A lack of swing in the neck and through the back, and not stepping well underneath his body are also signs of tension.”

Rule Out Pain
When there is a sudden unexpected change in behaviour, pain is often the cause. “Investigate all possible sources of pain or discomfort, then take the necessary steps to eliminate it – massage, chiropractor, dental work, changes to saddle fit, bit fit etc.,” said Anne. “I had a normally quiet horse that suddenly began bucking explosively. Through blood work, it was discovered he had PSSM, a muscle disorder that causes chronic tying up.”

Determine the Trigger
Is your horse’s bucking consistent with a certain event such as a canter transition or after a jump? Or is it random? Does it happen with every rider or just one? Does it happen when he is lunged or only when ridden? Anne recalled a client whose mare suddenly started bucking when asked to trot. “We could find no obvious signs of pain – she’s a very stoic mare – so we had an experienced massage therapist check her over. She determined that
the mare was sore in her shoulders and that was likely caused by a problem in her front feet. Further investigation by the veterinarian confirmed that diagnosis and the root problem was successfully addressed and the bucking eliminated.”

Go Back to the Basics
Your investigation may reveal gaps in your horse’s training. It is important to fill these in order to help him be confident and comfortable with what he is being asked to do.

Lindsay said, “In training a horse with an inclination to buck, I’d make sure the following ‘bricks’ are well laid in my training foundation before cantering.

“The horse should be straight and forward. Bulging to the outside of a circle (usually toward the barn), lack of forward motion and bucking are often related problems. It is essential that you have control of your horse’s body parts in order to keep him straight and avoid ‘fishtailing’ hind quarters. All lateral work such as bending, leg yielding, turns on the haunches and forehand will give you some tools to contain evasions.

“Teach your horse from the ground to defer to your pressure on every part of his body before you climb aboard. Use well-practiced yield-to-pressure exercises under saddle every time you feel him distracted.”

Anne said it is helpful to “break tasks down into small steps. For example, if the horse bucks at the canter, focus only on the set up for the transition without actually going into the canter. When he is doing that comfortably, ask for the transition going into the canter only if he stays balanced and relaxed. Then, canter only a few strides before coming back to trot or walk. If the bucking happens when jumping, trot and then canter over poles. Remember to praise your horse with a soft word and a wither scratch for a good try or a small step toward what you want him to do. Small gains quickly add up and help your horse feel calm and confident.”

Lindsay agrees with this tactic, and cautioned that “If you’re going to stir up a storm, you need to be able to ride through whatever the horse’s response is so that he doesn’t find bucking rewarding. So, consider coming at a training problem in another way vs attacking it head on.”

Check in With Your Horse
Pay attention to every stride your horse takes under saddle. “Look
for signs of ducking head, shifting weight to front end, lack of rhythm, swelling beneath you. Timing is key to nip the urge to buck in the bud,” said Lindsay. (See photos left and below)

“Check for signs that he may be being pushed too fast – not ready either mentally or physically for the work,” Anne added. “Make the focus of every training session about keeping your horse balanced, calm and relaxed. Ensure he has a good warm up with stretching and light lateral work – circles, serpentines and figure eights – at walk and trot. Give him stretching breaks throughout the session.”

Lindsay suggested that lunging before riding is a good way to manage excess energy and help evaluate your horse’s willingness to participate on any given day.

Work on Yourself
Lindsay also noted that, when dealing with a buck, you must maintain control of your emotions. Don’t startle,” she said. “Use aids at a smooth escalation. Don’t behave abruptly or get after your horse in anger.”

Finally, Anne reminds us to take responsibility for our own part in the equation. “Riding is a journey not a destination. There is always room for improvement in our balance, suppleness and timing of cues in the saddle.”