My Horse Bucks!
By Jonathan Field
There are many different reasons for a horse to buck. This article will explore the horse’s motives for bucking, tackle some of the issues that might be causing him to behave this way, and offer some insights to help resolve the situation.
Bucking is often pain related. Have your horse fully checked out by a qualified professional to eliminate pain as a cause for his behaviour. After ruling out health care problems, there are still a variety of reasons for bucking. If horses could talk, here are some of the things they might say to explain why they buck:
I have a terrible rider – Get off me!
Some riders pull on the reins and dig in their spurs in order to help them balance on the horse. At the same time they ask the horse to move forward. I’ve observed this to be a direct cause of bucking.
Leave me alone – I don’t want to canter!
While not exclusive to young horses, many young horses can be hesitant to go forward. These horses will often buck because they are so sucked back that the cue to go forward brings them to the height of their resistance about going forward, which causes the buck, kick out, or balk and suck back.
If I buck, my rider will stop.
These are the clever ones. Mostly with a green rider, when the horse throws a little buck or a jump into the ride, the timid rider wants to slow down or stop. The horse quickly learns how to play this game.
I love to buck!
My young horse, Little, bucks with a hint of joyful glee in his eye. If he’s really fresh during warm-up on a long line after time off, he will run around playing, jumping, and throwing in some bucks here and there.
I’m okay with this as he’s just being a horse. This is the reason I do extensive warm-ups from the ground, moving the horse all over and through each gait before I get on, especially if my horse has been off for a while.
I don’t like saddles and/or riders.
This horse generally bucks for two reasons: cinch or placement issues, or both of these reasons at the same time.
Cinchiness: Horses are claustrophobic by nature and this tight wrap around the belly can be quite offensive.
Placement issues: When the horse sees and feels the saddle or the rider on him, he wants them off.
Both: Even more difficult, some horses start bucking because they think the cinch has grabbed them and then something has jumped on their back, so they buck harder to get everything off!
I’m outta here!
The “out of nowhere” buck – just when everything seemed fine – could be caused by a wasp sting, a pinch of the cinch, or possibly an unsuspected care issue. It can also come from a buildup of tension, for example, when the rider is drilling on some exercise and the horse has simply had enough and is trying to tell the rider to let up!
I’m outta here with imagination!
This starts with a spook, then a whirl, quickly followed by bolting a few hundred feet, and then a few good bucks just before he can get his feet completely stopped. I didn’t invent this one. A lady recently told me that her horse did this with some regularity - wow! The answer here is about feeling the anxiety in the horse before this happens, backing off to get the leadership and connection, then starting again. Often the rider is not paying full attention to the horse and the changes happening under them. Remember, just because the horse was fine a minute ago doesn’t mean he will be fine around the next corner.
Before I ride – and especially if I don’t know the horse – I do an extensive warm-up. I will move the horse on a long line through the full range of motion, taking extra time for canter. Forward is the key. Many times, horses that suck back and become sticky are showing the signs that balking, kicking out, or bucking will come next.
Learn how to read the horse that is thinking and feeling freely forward, and the one that is sucked back mentally. Small spaces, such as round pens with too many tight turns, or riders who ask a horse to go forward while pulling on the bit, can cause a horse to become sour about forward movement.
Move your horse out first on a long line, and then while riding. Find a nice area where you can spend more time cantering. If you don’t feel at ease doing this, then ask a competent rider to help the horse become comfortable in the canter so you can become more confident. I often see riders who lope or canter only a few laps of the arena at a time. Make it a goal to build up this gait during every ride until you can easily lope or canter for ten minutes.
I am frequently asked whether to stop and bend the horse when he bucks, or send him forward. Like most things to do with horses, it depends. Whether I’m riding or doing ground training, I will almost always ask the horse to go forward to move him out of it. If I feel the horse’s urge to buck continuing to build while riding, I will quickly take it out of him by bending and disengaging him, then again ask him to move out.
Focus on feeling when the horse is getting ready to buck. He will give signs, such as shortening his stride, getting irritated, resisting forward, dropping his head, or a variety of these moves. Sometimes it all comes very quickly but often there are preemptive signals, if only slight. If this happens with some warning, I will try to get his thinking to change by moving him out, taking him in another direction, or changing focus. Sometimes I will put obstacles in the ring to get his focus on something different – keeping in mind how angular and hard these objects are in case I land on one. Everyone gets bucked off now and then!
If the intent to buck persists and I’m not able to change his mind while riding, I’ll quickly step down and, with a long lead, insist that he moves out. He can buck if he needs to as long as he gets going. I’ll send him on this lead back and forth, left and right around me, until he can walk-trot-canter transition smoothly over and over, with high respect and a focus more on listening to my requests than wanting to buck. This may take ten minutes. When I feel that his mindset has changed, I will step right back up and carry on with my ride. Sometimes arranging to follow another horse can help get him moving forward.
Do not avoid the bucking issue. Maybe some of these points will help, or maybe you’ll need professional guidance for a while to get over the worst. If you don’t deal with the bucking issue it will come up at the most inconvenient time – such as when all your friends are looking!
This is a four-year-old unridden range colt that I started a few years back. Even after an extensive ground training program to prepare him the best I could, he still had a lot of reaction to the cinches and saddle on his back. Jumping in the air and bucking was his go-to game. Photo: Angie Field
After the first few jumps, and keeping him away from me, it was time to ask him to go forward. Here I am behind the drive-line (wither area) and positioned to have him move out. I was glad to have the round pen edges to control his path so he didn’t drag the rope out of my hands and get away. Photo: Angie Field
A short time later I can start directing him quietly on the line, just like I had done many times before he was saddled. When the horse is back to thinking again, I find it valuable to find a purpose, to help him learn and try some new things. He can focus on what he is doing and learn that packing a saddle that’s tied to his back is okay. Not long after this I ended the session by pulling the saddle off and giving him a break. I would rather do several short sessions with improvement than one long one. Photo: Angie Field
After a long break, then an additional warm-up with a new saddle, I decided to go for a short ride in the round pen at walk. I will often change saddles, pads, and locations to keep a horse mentally flexible. As you can see, he is much more relaxed at this time. I am riding in this halter because he has not yet worn a bit and I don’t want to add too many new things at once. All his ground training was done with the halter, so the same halter is the easiest way for him to relate to the lessons of following a feel and being guided. I like to do at least the first 20 or 30 rides with the halter or hackamore before transitioning slowly to the bridle bit. Photo: Angie Field
The next day started out with only a few jumps and light bucks, and then forward, happy and free. Allowing him to spend some time moving through each gait, I was pleased to see the acceptance of the saddle and the responses to my asks. Photo: Angie Field
A nice stretch and slow ride in the round pen. Photo: Angie Field
Now we have gone into a small yard to travel out and over some natural obstacles. The goal here is to keep the momentum and find things for him to think about without overstimulating him and causing fear, or without going too slow and causing boredom and disconnection. This horse was ridden for a few more days here at the James Creek Ranch, then sent back to one of the big outfits to be on a cowboy crew where he was ridden long days working a herd of cattle. Photo: Angie Field
A Word of Caution
After years of dealing with hundreds of horses that buck, from colts on their first few rides to older horses that buck for any number of reasons, I must stress that it can be very dangerous for a novice rider to tackle this problem.
I strongly advise that most bucking situations should be handled by a competent professional who is good at dealing with them. Find someone with experience starting colts, who is very good at getting the behaviour to stop without causing more fear in the horse as a result of what they do. Do not have someone try to fight and “break” the horse of this; rather, they need to re-direct and teach the horse to be confident and to think his way forward when he feels tight or worried. If handled this way, there will be a long-term solution as opposed to the horse returning to bucking soon after the training, and possibly becoming even more dangerous and explosive.
Having started hundreds of horses under saddle and having dealt with even more horses in clinics and expos, I know that to get past bucking you will very likely need to ride a few bucks. This is a hard knocks educational program. I have been bucked off many times and never assume a horse won’t try to keep my ego from swelling.
Ride safe and stay “Inspired by Horses!”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.