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Why Does my Horse… Buck? (And How to Avoid it)

Most riders have experienced a bucking horse at least once in their riding careers and, for the majority of us, once is more than enough! 

Bucking is such a dangerous behaviour, it is important that we understand how and why horses start to buck and how we can stop a horse bucking if the behaviour has become established. 

If, on the other hand, your horse has never bucked, in this article we are also going to look at ways of preventing bucking from developing in your riding horse in the first place.

Why do they buck?

1. Saddle fit 

As a trainer, many horses come to me with bucking as a well-established behaviour. The most common cause of this behaviour is pain resulting from an ill-fitting saddle. This is especially sad as it is a completely preventable situation. 

It is imperative that you always use a correctly and professionally fitted saddle (whether your horse has been sent to a trainer for starting under saddle or is competing at a high level).

Horses that learn to buck as a result of ill-fitting saddles will be more difficult to re-train because the behaviour was learned using pain as a motivator – making the response difficult to extinguish. 

2. Other pain causes

Your horse may have an injury, such as a pulled muscle in the back or some other neurologic issue that causes pain or irritation when ridden. Bucking is a very energy expensive behaviour, meaning horses will not engage in bucking ‘just for the fun of it’. A source of pain should always be your first point of investigation.

3. Rider weight

It is not always an easy topic of conversation, but rider weight directly effects both saddle fit and your horse’s comfort. It is also worth remembering that, if you gain weight (or if your horse does), this will affect the saddle fit and your saddle may have to be re-adjusted by a professional. 

Do the calculation – the data tells us that riders, including their tack, should weigh less than 20% of the horse’s total weight. 

4. Learned habit

Bucking can easily develop as a habit when riders repeat certain patterns, especially pre-ride rituals. Examples of this include lungeing on a short or long line (where the horse is allowed or even encouraged to buck) and saddling, followed by chasing in the round pen, another situation where the horse is at liberty to buck.  

Any behaviour that the horse repeats often will become a habit, regardless of whether it is being ridden or not. The same applies to horses throwing their heads up or rearing (as I explained in the last magazine issue). If the horse practices these behaviours on the ground, their riders should also expect them under saddle.

5. Conflict behaviour

Shying and running off is often accompanied by bucking. This, as a response to fear, is another behaviour that can be difficult to extinguish.

6. ‘Cold-backed’

While this is not a particularly helpful term, ‘cold-backed’ describes a horse that missed out on appropriate foundation training. This is a horse that has had insufficient habituation to the saddle and the rider.

7. The behaviour has previously earned a release 

When bucking results in dislodging the rider, the horse receives an immediate release of pressure, such reinforcement makes the horse more likely to repeat the behaviour in the future.

8. Too much leg, spur, whip

Over-use of leg and artificial aids can encourage the horse to buck.  

9. Lack of relaxation

As mentioned earlier, bucking is an energy expensive behaviour, indicating a bucking horse is not relaxed. The reason the horse is not relaxed could be one of the items mentioned here, something in the environment or other factor.

10. Lack of engagement

A bucking horse is not engaged with the rider. It is possible that the lesson is not mentally stimulating or challenging enough for the horse to maintain his/her attention and thus the horse is not in the engagement zone. 

How to stop your horse bucking once established:

  1. Get your saddle fitted by a professional and re-fit every six months.
  2. Your veterinarian and/or body work therapist can diagnose and treat your horse, and should be called when your horse presents with any new behaviours such as bucking.
  3. Take the time to check your weight and be sure it is within the recommended limits for your horse’s height and type. If you find you are a little over the threshold, it is a great time to focus on your ground work (which will help you shed those extra pounds).
  4. If bucking is a learned behaviour, it is the perfect opportunity to do more with your training. Rather than reacting to the bucking, take the time to teach your horse something new, such as long-reining. 
  5. See the 2-part series on long-reining here.
  6. Horses often buck when shying. If this describes your horse, work in the engagement zone in a soft frame, keeping your horse’s attention and making the lessons interesting and mentally challenging. 
  7. The ‘‘cold-backed’’ horse is simply lacking foundation training. Take your horse back to basics and re-address those important foundation lessons. It is never too late for this and it will be very beneficial to both you and your horse. 
  8. If bucking had previously earned a release for your horse, now is the time to teach new behaviours in its place. Again, this is about being a proactive rather than reactive rider and trainer.
  9. Do you think bucking might be the result of using too much leg? If so, your horse has been desensitised to the leg and needs to be re-sensitised, teach more off the rein and voice and establish upward transitions on the long-reins to avoid the need of excessive leg. Be sure you have a timely and complete release of pressure so that you are not de-sentising and thus requiring more leg, spur or whip.
  10. Bucking is energy expensive and, unless it is a very well-established habit, it is unlikely to present without several preceding behaviours, such as pinned ears, tightening of the back muscles and tail swishing. 

These preceding behaviours indicate a lack of relaxation, assuming you’ve ruled out all other possibilities, particularly points 1 to 4 above. 

Encourage relaxation by taking the horse back to something he or she knows, something you can reward him or her for, and then work on engaging your horse with learning the new movement you are aiming to teach.

10. To engage the horse with learning and encourage it to focus on you as the rider/trainer, be sure to break the lesson down into small and manageable chunks for the horse. With each small but successful step, your horse will gain confidence and become increasingly willing to trial responses to your signals.

How to prevent your horse bucking in the first place:

1. Saddle-fit: 

The most common cause of bucking that I see, as a trainer, results from ill-fitting saddles. The good news is that this is also the most easily addressed. 

The number one rule in training is ‘the horse must not get hurt’ and even sitting for a short time on a saddle that doesn’t fit, can hurt the horse.

You may think, when you are starting the horse, that just a few minutes in a saddle that is a bit small will be alright and you put a nice thick pad under it. However, the ‘nice thick pad’ makes the saddle smaller, not bigger, so it is likely to hurt the horse even more. 

We know that horses remember lessons that involve pain, even when the trainer didn’t mean to hurt the horse. An early lesson such as this can stay with a horse for a long time – as many a ‘cold-backed’ horse will attest to.

Only EVER use a saddle that has been specifically and professionally fitted to your horse.

2. Training takes time: 

Horses vary in the speed with which they can absorb new information and this needs to be considered during the starting process. Rushing horses through the starting process results in holes in their training and problems such as bucking appear. When horses have been started using excessive lunging or chasing around the round pen, this bucking can appear as soon as that over-exercising stops, (usually when the horse goes home from the trainer) simply because the horse was not given the opportunity to consolidate the foundation work.

3. The engagement zone: 

Be sure that your horse is working in the engagement zone. If you feel that your horse is not being attentive then aim to make your lesson more interesting and find new behaviours to teach your horse, because this allows for moments of release and reward.

4. Do your best to avoid it! 

Horses repeat behaviours that they practice. If you always saddle your horse and then run him around the round pen, where he bucks, he is likely to repeat this behaviour under saddle – because he’s been practicing it. 

Never encourage the horse to practice any behaviour that you do not want it to repeat under saddle, this applies to bucking, rearing and being chased (which is basically running away from something scary and translates to shying under saddle).

5. Self-carriage: 

Take care not to desensitise your horse to leg aids. We are always aiming for self-carriage when riding and this means that leg cues should only be applied when you want a ‘change’, such as a longer or faster stride, and released as soon as the horse responds correctly. By not subjecting the horse to unrelenting pressure (wrapping your legs around the horse and keeping them on), you will develop a horse that is responsive to light leg signals.

Read the next revealing article explaining why your horse shies or spooks. 

Dr Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons), PhD

Kate is an equine scientist with a PhD in horse behaviour and training from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is also an equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in Dressage, Jumping, Western and Polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

After years of experience starting horses for clients, Kate feels strongly that owners are best served by learning to train their own horses. As a result, she founded Kandoo Equine and has developed a series of ethical, easy to follow, step-by-step guides that are suitable for horses and riders of all levels.

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