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Q&A: Horses that Rear Up

horse training tips horsemanship problem solving q&a riding Sep 05, 2023

Q: The biggest fear I have when riding is a horse that rears. I’ve noticed that when my horse gets frustrated, he tends to come up in the front end. How do I solve this issue and prevent it from getting worse?

A: A rearing horse can be a terribly frightening and helpless experience.  It can also become seriously dangerous, as horses ultimately may rear and flip over, potentially crushing their rider under them as they fall backwards to the ground.  Once a horse goes into a rear, the rider is helpless and can do nothing but hope the horse will come back down and not flip over.  Let me just say that if your horse has begun rearing to either refuse to go forward, or does it due to buddy/barn sour issues when when being restrained in the saddle from going home or to other horses, or if the rear occurs as a fear response during a spook, all rearing behavior must be corrected or it will get worse and become extremely dangerous.  

In your case, your horse gets “frustrated” and “tends to come up on his front end”.  This may be due to feeling barn or buddy sour, or maybe you are asking something your horse can’t find the answer to, and so he is starting to rear.  When he rears, there is nothing you can do, and so he gets relief from whatever pressure he was feeling while he is airborne.  This begins the cycle of rearing to get free from pressure, and it will only get worse.  While I certainly recommend getting help from a professional trainer who is skilled in helping rearing horses, I can also offer some advice.

First and foremost, consider the head gear you are using to ride your horse.  If you are using anything that will cause claustrophobia with multiple points of squeezing pressure, this needs to be your first change.  Such pieces of tack include but aren’t limited to any form of a shank or curb bit.  A shank-bitted bridle will cause pressure in at least 3 locations - the mouth, chin (from a curb chain or strap) and poll (from the head stall).  A mechanical hackamore, while many people will use this to keep a bit out of the mouth, will squeeze the nose and lower jaw together, also putting pressure on the poll, effectively causing similar leverage pressure that can make your horse feel claustrophobic.  Even bosal hackamores can create leverage pressure that has the potential to cause the same issue, although usually not nearly as severe.  Most of these pieces of tack create squeezing pressure and can create a desire in your horse to escape it, at times contributing to the rearing issue.  So, first and foremost, I would ride in a snaffle bit with little to no squeezing pressure or leverage.  The O-ring, or sometimes called Loose ring, snaffle is made to only cause pressure in the mouth on the jaw.  The D-ring (or D-bit) and eggbutt snaffles add slight pressure to the poll, but it’s relatively very little, and I am a proponent of them as well.  They, unlike the O-ring/Loose ring, won’t have the tendency to pinch the corners of your horse’s mouth.  I personally use both O-rings and D-rings when starting to ride my horses in a bit.  

Another tool that people will use to keep their horse from having a high-headed posture, which sometimes is used to correct rearing, but can also lead to the rearing problem as well, is the tie down.  While there seem to be some benefits to a tie down during steer roping, I don’t recommend them otherwise, and I don’t train any horses with a rigid tie down, or even something like a martingale, also used to control the horse’s head position.  If you teach your horse to “give” to pressure from the bit and collect well from the hips to the poll, it’s rare you would ever need a tie down, and you will teach a lightness in response to picking up your reins that is rare if your horse is restricted by a tie down.  

Besides the tack when riding, it is important to understand how to correct the behavior by teaching your horse to respond by standing quietly when asked and moving forward in the direction and at the speed you want.  Achieving this safe behavior requires extensive ground work and riding, both sensitizing and desensitizing, so that your horse listens to you as his leader and does not get flustered or become afraid during riding in any environment.  Your horse specifically becomes “frustrated” and begins to rear.  He may have pent up energy that needs to be released, and you may also be contributing to the problem by trying to restrain his movement.  When I have a horse that doesn’t want to stand still, I will ask him to move until he decides he wants to stand still.  It’s really very simple, but with some horses, and without enough knowledge and experience, can be more difficult to carry out.  

As with any horse problems, I start from the beginning and establish the fundamental ground work and riding skills that generally create a horse that no longer has the problem.  Your horse’s frustration and tendency to start to rear will most likely disappear when you follow Reata Horsemanship training methods. 

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In my horse training program, I focus on both sensitizing (asking a horse to respond to my cue by doing something) and desensitizing (asking a horse to relax to things that would otherwise scare them).  I desensitize my horses in training to the stick and string, flag, and plastic sheet, both standing still and while moving.  It’s a gradual process that helps horses learn to not fear or run away from things that otherwise they are naturally afraid of.  I also sensitize my horses on the ground, teaching them to be calm, collected, and responsive to multiple cues and exercises.  A few of the techniques/exercises I will teach on the ground are: 

  • Lungeing (yielding hindquarters and forequarters to stop and change directions)
  • Backing Up (5 different cues to create multiple ways to back up)
  • Lead Beside (circle and straight)
  • Yielding Hindquarters and Forequarters
  • Forward Bending 
  • Forward Bending to Hindquarter to Forequarter Yield Transitions
  • Pass Through near the fence and near and over other objects
  • Side Passing on and off the fence
  • Lateral Flexion at the stand still
  • Yielding to Rope Around the Rear
  • Make sure your horse can do these with and without a saddle
  • Many horses, especially those that bolt or buck, will also get training with rope pressure on the legs and flank, and will learn to yield/give to that pressure instead of trying to flee it or buck it away.
  • Desensitizing to rest with the stick and string, flag, and plastic sheet
  • Desensitize to walk over plastic sheets and tarps
  • Desensitize with the flag and plastic sheet during lead beside at the walk and trot

Once I’ve taught my fundamental groundwork, both sensitizing and desensitizing, I will advance to working in the saddle.  As mentioned above, I like to use a snaffle bit on all horses I train to emphasize lateral bending to relax and stop.  Make sure to go to a snaffle bit when training your horse not to rear or bolt after a spook.  A few of the exercises I will do in the saddle are:

  • Standing still to mount
  • Lateral flexion at standstill
  • Hindquarter Yield at standstill and at stop from walk, trot, and canter
  • Forequarter Yield
  • Backing slow and fast straight and in circles
  • Sidepassing on and off the fence
  • Vertical flexion at standstill, walk, trot, and canter 
  • Forward bending at the walk and trot
  • Serpentine exercise at walk and trot
  • Follow the fence at the trot and lope
  • Rollbacks while following the fence
  • Rollbacks off fence while trotting and loping circles
  • One-rein stops at walk, trot, and canter
  • Straight to the Fence
  • Demagnetize Exercise
  • Buddy Sour/Barn Sour Exercise
  • Shoulder In/Out off and on the fence
  • Figure-8’s 
  • Figure-8’s with Shoulder In
  • Desensitize with flag at walk, trot, canter
  • Desensitize with dragging plastic sheet at walk, trot, canter (Note: This set of exercises requires great skill and knowledge of ropes and desensitizing, and should only be practiced under the direction and supervision of a competent Reata Horsemanship trainer experienced in this technique)

While there may be a few exceptions to the rule, most horses I train get all, and sometimes more, of the ground work and riding in a round pen and arena I’ve explained above before I begin riding them out on the urban and rural trails.  I establish skills with most of the ground work in a round pen and then get a few rides in the round pen before advancing to the arena, where I will refresh all the ground work there before riding again.  

Your horse that gets frustrated and is beginning to rear will become a cool, calm, collected, and happy partner with you when you prepare him with Reata Horsemanship Methods. Thanks for the great question!