Groundwork: Working with a Rearing Horse
By Hadrien Dykiel
The feisty off the track thoroughbred reared once, then twice, and then another time. And then again, and again. By the end of our groundwork session, I lost count of how many times “Lulu” had reared.
In my experience, I have seen horses rear for two main reasons:
1) The horse is feeling trapped and confused
2) The horse is challenging you
There are ways to determine if the horse is just scared or actually belligerent. In both cases, we will address the problem immediately and similarly. However, trying your best to understand the reason behind your horse’s rearing will help you respond more appropriately.
The first factor to consider is how confused might your horse be. This was my second time working with Lulu, and she was still learning what the groundwork exercises meant, such as lunging. At times, a horse may feel trapped and overwhelmed and may try to defend themselves. The best way to rule out confusion is to make sure you have taken the necessary steps to teach new exercises to your horse properly. If I ask a wild mustang to lunge from me, that horse is more likely to misbehave than a horse who already understands the principle of moving away from pressure and trusts me. Fear often accompanies confusion, so look for signs such as wide eyes and frenziness. The truth is, it is necessary to push our horses out of their comfort zones for them to learn new things. There will always be some confusion, especially when introducing a new exercise. How far out of their comfort zone you push your horse has to be reasonable, a little stress improves attention and retention, while too much stress inhibits learning.
Another factor to consider is the horse’s temperament. As it turns out, Lulu has a history of attacking people. “She sizes you up then charges. It’s calculated” her owner tells me. A dominant natured horse is more likely to challenge you, especially the more you ask from them. Some horses are more inclined to lead, while others are more likely to follow. A dominant horse like Lulu is not willing to give up her leadership easily, I had to convince her that I was fit to lead. It is common for aggressive behavior, such as rearing and striking out, to emerge when you are establishing yourself as your horse’s leader via groundwork. In the horse’s eyes, you are positioning yourself as the leader by asking them to move away from you. Some will agree to this with no resistance, while others will test your leadership abilities. For safety, it is absolutely necessary for people to always be in the leadership position. You will find that horses will often find relief in relinquishing their leadership role to you, even if they initially appeared reluctant, because it takes a big responsibility off of their shoulders.
When Lulu reared, I gave her the benefit of the doubt that perhaps she was confused and flustered. You can see how I handled it in the short video clip below by not increasing the pressure more but not backing off either.
Even if confused, rearing is not acceptable behavior. Notice how I ignored the behavior and continued applying pressure with my stick and string by hitting the ground next to her. My goal was to get her to yield her shoulder away from the stick and string. I released the pressure, aka stopped waving my stick and string around, as soon she moved from from the pressure and began lunging. In the past, I would be willing to bet that people unintentionally rewarded Lulu for rearing by releasing the pressure when she would rear. This has taught Lulu that rearing can get her out of doing things. For that reason, it is important to remain consistent and continue applying pressure until she moves away from it and stops fighting it.
At times, a horse may rear more because they are challenging you rather than because they feel a need to defend themselves. Knowing your horse’s temperament and disposition is helpful. Prior to the exercises, did they already show signs of disrespect such as pinning their ears, nipping, or crowding your space? If those behaviors were present, it increases the chance that their rearing is a result of them challenging you more. When you horse rears, notice their expression. Seeing the whites of their eyes may be a sign of fear, while their ears pinned back, striking out, kicking, and even charging are more likely signs of them testing your leadership. In this scenario, especially if the horse understands the exercises, it is appropriate to increase the pressure as much as necessary to drive them away from you. This is similar to two horses in the field challenging each other: Buttercup pins his ears, Pretty Girl bites him, he backs up towards her, and she kicks him away. Each horse escalates their energy levels until one moves away. Make sure you are like Pretty Girl, not Buttercup.
Next time I work with Lulu, I will know that she has respect issues and that she understand the concept of lunging. I can be pretty sure that her rearing is not from fear, but from belligerence. I will respond by increasing the pressure, aka whacking her with my string on her shoulder, until she moves away respectfully. If you are not comfortable with that, get control of her feet somehow. Her owner told me she’s backed Lulu up the entire length of the arena after Lulu reared and hopped forward to strike. Increase the pressure and get the horse to move way from you energetically. Stay consistent, and the horse will learn that there is no point in rearing since you are not going to back down. You can gauge the effectiveness of your training by noticing if the frequency and intensity of the aggressive behavior decreases over time. Remember to continue pushing your horse out of their comfort zone by gradually asking more from them.
Above all, stay safe. A rearing horse can be very dangerous. Always maintain a safe distance between yourself and the horse, which is why I like using the training stick. I would not use something shorter, like a dressage whip, for this kind of situation. Also be aware of the people and horses around you. As you can tell from the video, my friend had to move out of the way while video taping. Please post with comments or questions. You can visit our store AllHorseStuff.com for groundwork tools, please get in touch as well if you have any questions.