Let’s talk about rearing. It’s the ultimate “no-no” in the horse world, and most people don’t want anyone to know that their horse has done it. Of course, it’s also very scary and dangerous, whether you’re on the horse or holding onto a lead rope standing next to it. Worst case, which I’ve seen, is that the horse loses its balance and falls on the human. Yet, the reality of rearing is that it’s a natural instinct in a horse.
Both my horses have reared up while I was on the ground holding onto them. The first time, Silk had been injured, and the vet didn’t want me to ride her or let her run free for six months. So, by the fifth month, she was feeling better, and I had a powder keg on my hands. I was hand walking her, without wearing gloves, when she reared up and the lead rope tore all the skin off my right hand. It was intensely painful and for a long time, I was terrified of my horse. Eventually, we both healed, physically and emotionally. Silk has never reared again. I think that she was just so frustrated and didn’t think I could understand what she was trying to tell me.
When Siete was born, I used to joke that her mother told her, “If you want to get our human really freaked out, just rear up.” Sure enough, when my little horse was only a few months old, she reared up and got her leg caught in the lead and slammed down on the ground, bruising her shoulder. Fortunately, it wasn’t a serious injury and she scared herself enough to not do it again for a long time.
Unfortunately, last summer, while we were working with a trainer here in our own backyard, Siete started rearing again. It wasn’t a wild, frantic rearing. It was more dainty, like a circus pony. But, Silk was right. It totally freaked me out. The trainer didn’t know what to do. She asked her “mentor”, who was a very well-respected dressage trainer, what she does when a horse rears. The woman replied, “I sell it.” That was the stupidest response I’d ever heard. I knew that my horse was trying to tell me something and I just couldn’t understand it.
I videotaped the trainer riding her and sure enough, my horse reared again. When I watched it several times, it appeared that she was using her legs, urging Siete to go forward, and at the same time, pulling back on Siete’s mouth. That was the end of that trainer. Soon after, it was also determined that Siete had a bad case of Lyme Disease, which was causing a lot of soreness in her legs. While I was taking care of her illness, I decided that I needed to learn more about what to do when a horse rears.
I discovered that there’s not much helpful advice written about it anywhere. Most books just say it’s very dangerous and you should hire a trainer right away. The most important thing I learned was that when a horse’s feet move forward, it can’t rear. So, if you can catch that moment of anticipation before it happens or if you can push the horse forward while it’s happening, you’ll just have a prancing horse and not a rearing horse. Circling the horse is also good because eventually the horse slows down when it gets dizzy. Most important, and most difficult, if I’m on the ground, I step towards the horse’s shoulder. Every instinct makes me want to jump away, but that actually just gives the horse more room to keep rearing.
Siete doesn’t rear often. I can count the number of times she’s done it. Most recently, in the last week, we’ve had two incidents. One was when she wanted the carrots that my mother was waving at her and I insisted that we had to go into the barn. That time, we were in an open area, and I took a deep breath, stepped towards her shoulder and as her front feet hit the ground, I made her move forward in a circle. It was a huge moment for me, a real milestone.
The second time, again after my mom was waving more carrots, I managed to get Siete back to the barn. She reared when I was in the stall with her and I instantly yanked on the lead rope as hard as I could and yelled at her. She put her head down, licking and chewing. My heart was pounding. The next time I led her into her stall, at that same spot, she thought about it again, but I found some kind of energy force in me that was as strong as I could muster. I could tell that she felt it and backed down. Since then, she’s been calm and everything is normal again.
When I read White Horse Pilgrim’s blog the other day, the subject of rearing was being discussed. An inexperienced owner in the barn where he boards his horses has a fancy dressage horse that has begun rearing. This owner was told to find a young rider, make the horse rear and then beat the horse. How insane is that? There was a great response from JME that really reassured me that I was not alone in my feelings on this subject. The horse is doing what it’s instincts tell it to do when it gets so frustrated that it can’t communicate any other way. The people are the ones who need to take a long hard look at what they are doing to cause the horse to respond this way.
My horses have reared, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to sell them or beat them. I’m going to figure out what’s wrong, try to help them feel safe and find the courage to deal with this scary problem. Horses rear, and rather than act like it’s some kind of shameful black mark against them, it would be more helpful if the “experts” in the horse world gave some good advice about what to do when it happens.