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Riding the Unpredictable Horse

By Juliane Dykiel

Working in the horse training business, I’ve seen a number of good riders lose confidence because their horse has reacted unpredictably. Whether the horse has spooked, run away with their rider, bucked, bolted, or reared, these 1000 lb animals can intimidate us in a heartbeat.

There are three main ways to prevent unpredictable behavior: 1) Desensitizing, which means exposing your horse to a scary object such as a tarp, plastic bag, umbrella, or scary noise early on 2) Establishing your role of herd leader and gaining your horse’s respect, which prevents rude and rebellious behavior such as bucking and rearing, and 3) Knowing what to do, and being prepared for, when your horse becomes unpredictable.

Horse Desensitizing

Juliane and Zip

Desensitizing is about teaching your horse to become accustomed to scary things. The goal is to teach our horses to think instead of react when confronted with new and unfamiliar objects and noises. My horse would bolt every time someone opened an umbrella, so I took the time to desensitize her to umbrellas. Now, I don’t need to worry when it rains!

As for establishing your role as herd leader, start on the ground by getting control of your horse’s feet. This will gain you their respect. A good way to start is by teaching your horse to back up. Getting a horse to respect your personal space is one of the best ways to gain respect.

The one-rein stop is a great way to stop your horse if it begins to run off with you and doesn’t listen to stop aids, or if it just stops listening to you over-all. It is important to prepare the one-rein stop at home from the stand still, then walk, then trot, and then canter, so that the horse understands what it’s supposed to do when you pick up the rein.

To learn more about how to desensitize safely and effectively, gain respect with groundwork exercises, and learn tricks like the one rein stop in case of emergencies, I would recommend the help of a good trainer. You can also sign up for our blog or “Like” us on Facebook to stay up to date with our free training videos.

No matter how much preparation you do, however, there will always be a risk of unpredictability in horses. So, in addition to the one rein stop, what else can you do when a horse becomes unpredictable?

Well, I was riding a green horse the other day, a quarter horse who was rescued from slaughter by Ainslie Sheridan, and has been through a lot of misery. Perhaps these experiences have taught her to be unpredictable in incredibly specific situations, as well as how to use her head – she is one of the smartest horses that I have worked with. In many ways, however, she is also one of the easiest. She is a quick learner, and she will go days without any resentment, leading to us being able to do things beyond her training level, such as leading trail rides with students and going to the beach.

Because of the fact that she had been so easygoing, I let my guard down with this green girl and she bucked me off in a single time at the beach, with what seemed like no warning. We had barely any problem in rides prior to this one, and the beginning of the ride, in which she got introduced to the ocean, went flawlessly. After being bucked off, I got back on. Several weeks passed with no sign of rebellion or disrespect from this horse, and it seemed like our problems were over.

I’d learned my lesson at the beach, however. From now on, I was sure to not let my guard down. The other day, I was riding her on the trails behind the barn with Ainslie and she said to me, “Wow, Dolly hasn’t bucked in a while, has she?” I acknowledged that she hadn’t, but this reminded me to be on my guard.

Horse at the Beach

Dolly at the Beach

So what does “being on your guard” mean? Well, I started listening to and paying attention to what she was telling me. When she was happy, her ears would face forward, and her stride energetic. However, I saw that she was irritated when I felt her sucking back, her back tightened, tail flicked, and she started tossing her head slightly. This led to a shortening of my reins. After all, horses have to have their heads down to buck, and keeping her head up at the stage was sure to help. Also, I sat deeply in the saddle and looked up, so that a single disturbance wouldn’t get me off (Working on your seat via lunge lessons and sit-ups is also a great way to prevent falling off…), yet tried to remain relaxed and confident.

Sure enough, Ainslie had saved me by mentioning the bucking. Two minutes later, I noticed the now-familiar warning signs. Dolly was annoyed about something. I wasn’t sure what, but I knew what was to come from it: she began sunfishing: huge, uncontrollable bucks designed to get the source of annoyance, me, out of the saddle.

So if once you’ve done everything that you can to prevent it, and done everything that you can to ensure that the horse doesn’t succeed in getting you off, how do you actually deal with the bucks when they happen?

Well, the first thing to do to prevent bucking is to get the horse’s head up, which is easier to do with shorter reins. Then, what most people don’t realize is that it’s very important to drive the horse forward. It might be scary for people to ask a horse to move faster when all they want to do is stop their horse and have it calm down, but horses absolutely can’t buck when running in a straight line. Then, once the horse is going normally forward again, a one-rein stop is possible, then you have the option of getting off and doing some ground work with the horse to establish respect.

However, I was on terrible terrain and had another horse in front of me when this happened. This proves that driving a horse forward is not always a safe option. Also, if I had been taking a student out on a trail ride, running off with the lead horse would have been sure to scare them. Therefore, I chose the second option: to do a one-rein stop directly. This helped me re-gain control of Dolly’s hindquarters and I put my leg back and made her spin around in a circle, pivoting on her inside front foot. Dolly soon learned that going around and around in a circle was much more difficult than trying to buck and that standing quietly was the better option. Here is a video that trainer Hadrien Dykiel made that shows this exercise.

Preparing for these exercises ahead of time is key. I had prepared for this at home by teaching Dolly to yield her hindquarters in response to my leg moving back, which helped quite a bit. Asking your horse to spin around will help stop most negative reactions. Since it is such a helpful safety net, however, it sometimes encourages one to skip steps. I once hopped on a horse I had never prepared with groundwork before, and since he did not know to “give” like the one-rein stop requires, or yield around my inside leg, I was unable to stop him from bucking and crow hopping and had to do an emergency dismount. Therefore, despite this safety net, please learn from my mistakes and do your homework: prepare the horse for a safe ride by desensitizing, teaching him the one-rein stop, and doing the proper ground work.

However, what happens if the horse ends up getting you off, despite all of this? No one has the perfect reaction time or seat, so there is no guarantee that a horse won’t succeed in bucking you off. If this happens, and if your state allows you to, make sure that you, or someone, has the horse work after the accident, so that the horse does not learn that bucking off his rider results in the end of a work session. You do not want to reward your horse for his behavior. This happens all the time when a horse bucks a rider off, and the rider is too scared to get back on. In that case, ground work or round penning is a great alternative to getting back on that lets the horse know that he is not the winner.

I hope that this “yielding-the-hindquarters” method will help some of your problems and make you a more confident rider! Remember that even if you do all of your homework, a horse is an animal, not a machine, and can always be unpredictable. My experience with Dolly left me nervous – I found it scarier with her than with a horse who does this all the time, because of the sheer unpredictability. Remember to always be on your guard, do your homework, and stay tuned for more training videos!

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6 thoughts on “Riding the Unpredictable Horse

  1. I am SO EXCITED about this blog. What a gem. I just recently rescued a Thoroughbred mare from being slaughtered (for no good reason by the way–the owner said she didn’t run fast enough) and she’s chestnut and 16.1. She’s absolutely gorgeous and incredibly intelligent. She loves sugar cubes and carrots, of course. But she’s very very stubborn; I think she thinks she’s funny. She’ll pin me up against a wall when I’m walking her, then stop, and chew on her bridle. Any help would be appreciated. xoxo, Pola

    • Hi Pola, I’m glad to hear you adopted her! They’re such nice horses, your horse is lucky to have found you. I would recommend doing some groundwork exercises, starting with backing up so she knows to respect your space. These horses are so athletic and big, I’ve found teaching them the concept of personal space is really important. Once they understand to respect your personal bubble, I’ve done a lot of desensitizing with off the track thoroughbreds to help them settle down a bit. The track teaches them to be over reactive, we need to help them relax and think!
      I hope this helps, feel free to e-mail me at Hadrien@AllHorseStuff.com anytime.

    • Hi Pola — there are some trainers who would disagree with me, but I’ve found clicker training great for tricks, but for real discipline, natural horsemanship, like the exercises Hadrien was talking about, is key. For this reason many clicker trainers combine their methods with Natural Horsemanship methods. Some trainers would disagree, but I definitely feel way safer establishing my boundaries with Natural Horsemanship methods before moving on to Clicker for the fancier stuff.

      –Juliane

      • diana acheson on said:

        Really good advice..well done Juliane; very sensible and it makes total sense. I like your style.

        Really like the Palamino in the blog; looks like a great horse!!

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