Why Does My Horse… Rear?

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If you have a horse that rears, you will know that it is very dangerous behaviour and, as such, it is important to know why your horse rears, how your horse learned the behaviour and what you can do about it to prevent it from happening in the future. Likewise, if your horse does not rear (great!), it is important to know just how easy it is to inadvertently teach your horse this unwanted behaviour and be able to recognise the behaviour patterns that can result in or lead up to, rearing.

In this article, we will look at the 5 main reasons horses rear, the 2 easiest ways of stopping this behaviour if it has already been established and 5 ways to help you prevent the behaviour developing in the first place.

Reasons for rearing:

1. Rearing is a very ‘backward’ movement and often occurs when the horse is attempting to escape.

When horses become confused, frustrated or anxious, one of their first responses may be to try to escape. If successful, such escape usually results in an immediate release of pressure, setting the horse up, through pressure-release and the learning of patterns, to repeat the behaviour in the future.

2. Horses often run backwards or at least move backwards at speed when attempting to escape a frightening situation.

This can place the handler in a position where, inadvertently, they chase the horse backwards even faster. If the handler tries to prevent the horse from moving backwards, they usually pull against the horse and turn to face the horse at the same time. When the horse (being stronger than the handler) continues to move backwards, the handler will then be walking, or running, towards the backwards moving horse – chasing the horse. Several sources of pressure are now on the horse – rein or lead rope, chasing and possibly voice, all of which are likely to,

  • a) drive the horse back further and faster,
  • b) encourage the horse to raise the head and,
  • c) if unrelenting, encourage the horse to rear as it is the next most obvious movement for the horse to obtain a release of pressure.

3. Teaching back-up too soon.

This may be too soon for the horse or too soon for the trainer. If you haven’t developed good timing (you don’t give a timely release of pressure), you may miss the correct opportunity, leading to too high an emotional level and the horse backing faster. Or if your horse does not yet understand pressure-release, he may be confused by the signal, speed up in the back-up, making it impossible for you (the trainer) to release. This is why I do not teach back-up until I can be sure that the horse will only back one step, and until I have good forward movement and halt signals the horse responds to very well.

4. Teaching your horse to back up and raise the head at the same time.

This is most often done when teaching the horse to back-up by swinging or swishing the lead rope around, but it can also be done when tapping the horse on the cannon bone to back up. When teaching back-up, as well as watching the legs, check what other movements your horse is performing to know ‘exactly’ what you are teaching.
This may not seem like a big problem, but if the horse continues to time the release of pressure with raising the head (something we never want to teach), this will lead to rearing.

5. One of the most common causes of rearing that I come across results from being hit by handlers as a consequence of biting.

Biting is dangerous and often comes as a complete surprise to the handler and ‘hitting back’ is sometimes an automatic response. Of course, hitting a horse on the nose or face will most likely result in the horse throwing his head in the air. This may be followed by the horse backing up and then quickly deteriorate into the handler chasing the horse backwards as in point 2 above.

Again, this may not seem like a problem until the horse learns the pattern and still feels under pressure so instead of backing, rears.

I have seen horses learn this pattern so well, and often so quickly, that they skip the bite altogether and go straight from ‘thinking of biting’ to rearing. Have you ever known a horse that suddenly started rearing when being handled by someone new? This may have been the cause.

How to stop your horse from rearing once the behaviour is established

Rearing is a very backward movement. The horse must first raise his head and then move his centre of gravity back before lifting the front feet off the ground.

Being aware of the behaviours that come before the actual rear will help you anticipate the behaviour and initiate a proactive response that will also have a positive effect on your horse’s overall performance.

When you observe these preceding behaviours, move your horse forwards and engage your horse. I use ‘give to the bit‘ or some reverse arc shoulder control to do this and bring the horse back into the engagement zone and moving forwards again. Always be aware of where your horse’s feet are moving.

One of the most important things we train for is self-carriage.

When thinking about self-carriage, people often believe it refers to a horse carrying itself in frame in the dressage arena and while this is also true, self-carriage can and should apply to all that we do with the horse, from cantering a 20m circle in a soft outline while maintaining posture, speed and rhythm, to leading shoulder-to-shoulder with us without the need of constant cueing to speed up or slow down.

Simply being aware of when your horse is in self-carriage and when your horse is moving without being cued, will help you convey clear signals to your horse.

A good example is a horse that takes a few steps backwards at the mounting block. The horse may do this for many reasons but, if left unchecked, it could escalate to the dangerous behaviour of running backwards and/or rearing. When noticed early, in this situation the rider could re-train standing at the mounting block (see Hips to the Fence for Mounting lesson), keeping the rider safe and the horse more relaxed and less anxious (a horse that is moving without being cued is not in self-carriage and possibly anxious or confused).

How to prevent it from happening in the first place

• Always teach back up from:

  1. a verbal cue,
  2. resting your hand on the chest gentle (from the ground and moving your weight back slightly from the saddle) and,
  3. gentle lead rope or rein pressure moving backwards without the head elevation increasing (from the ground or saddle).

When taught correctly, in this way, the horse will not raise the head when performing the back up so you will not inadvertently teach rearing at the same time.

• Only teach your horse to back when you have established a good go forward cue and a good halt. If your horse is taking any backwards steps without being cued, then work on establishing obedience in the forward cues before moving to back up. This is the reason we don’t see a back up in dressage tests at the introductory levels – consistency in the forward-going movements should be established first.

• Never use back up as a punishment. Positive punishment is something added, which is why it is called positive, after a behaviour to discourage that behaviour from happening in the future, which is why it is called punishment. It is the timing (after the behaviour) and intention (to discourage the behaviour), rather than the severity (backing the horse or hitting the horse with a stick) that define it as punishment. We know that horses do not learn optimally from punishment (also known as a correction), so it is worth being aware of when you are using it and finding different means of training the horse when possible.

An example of when back up might be used as punishment is when the horse pushes into you when you are leading and you back it up to move him ‘out of your space’.

Punishment is always a very ‘reactive’ training technique. The horse exhibits a behaviour we don’t like/want, we react by adding something the horse doesn’t want, rein pressure, back up, a tap with the whip or a harsh word. Of course, everyone uses correction from time to time but if one tries to be more proactive with their training it is considerably less likely to occur.

Going back to our example of the horse pushing into the handler when leading. If we knew that the horse did not lead well, we could be proactive by bridling the horse and teaching give to the bit and shoulder control, at the same time teaching the horse to lead and improving our overall performance, all without the need to be reactive or punish the horse.

Throwing the head up is something we never want the horse to do. Regardless of what you are teaching, or are trying to teach, be sure your horse isn’t also throwing its head up. Horses are great pattern learners, but we must set up good patterns and be aware of when the pattern starts and ends and exactly the behaviours we are targeting in those patterns. If your horse is raising its head when you are teaching the back up it may be that the horse associates the release with this increase in head elevation and, if so, may increase that elevation to the point of rearing in the future.

On the topic of learning patterns, horses also turn these patterns into habitual or automatic responses quickly when our release is timely. This can be a great thing for the attentive trainer but a detriment to one that is not paying attention to all of the behaviours a horse is exhibiting. Once a behaviour, such as running back or throwing the head up, has become habitual, those preceding behaviours no longer appear as warnings to the rider/handler and the horse can seem to be behaving unpredictably or for no reason.

A common example of this is the horse who throws his head up and runs back out of the trailer. This may only happen once or twice and soon the horse is raising its head and moving backwards at the very sight of the trailer.

I have only ever taught two horses to rear and I did so completely on purpose. It is not something I recommend teaching! In both cases, I had the same lesson plan and used the same cue. The first time I taught it, I was released on ‘the front feet getting off the ground’. That lesson took 45 minutes. The next time, I thought about what the horse had to do ‘first’ and released on ‘any increase in head elevation’ and then I shaped that behaviour – that rearing lesson took 3 minutes!

Here is a link to a short video looking at those small behaviours that could lead to rearing if not addressed before such a pattern develops:

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Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons)

Kate is an Equine Scientist (Charles Sturt University), PhD Candidate (Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney), 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.

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