Saturday, October 11, 2008

The "R" Word

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.


detroit dog said...

What's equally as scary as someone beating or selling their horse because it rears, is realizing that person must use similar forms of "logic" in everyday life. And so goes life....

Carrie Giannandrea said...

It it nice to hear that others are trying to "tune in" to what their horse is saying to them! I especially liked reading about what your trainer was doing to your horse! Good Call!!

Carrie Giannandrea
Dances with Horses
Formula One Farms

Cactus Jack Splash said...

Rearing is a frightening thing. I often think it is because there is something pinched and they need a chiropractor or massuese.
My grandfather work with horses who rear, I don't know if what he did would be considered the "right" way now, but it worked. He would work with the horse on the ground holding the lead 3 to 4 feet from the clip, he watched for any sign that the horse was going to leave its front feet. When he saw that he would move quickly to the horses hindquarters pulling on the lead and flexing the horses head. The horse would have to follow its nose and would turn in a circle. He would then immediately have it turn a full circle in the opposite direction. This always seemed to get the horse to think of something different and not rear. On the rare occasion it didn't work, the horse was slightly off balanace for the rear and had to try to regain its balance.
It seemed to work well for him. He worked with one horse that killed a rider when it reared and flipped. The horse ended up being a really gentle horse and was ridden up in the hills.
I wonder what the experts do now.

Grey Horse Matters said...

There's no getting around it rearing is scary, whether you're on the ground or in the saddle. In my opinion the horse is rearing for a reason and our job is to find out what the reason its and work with it. Unfortunately, so many people get too scared to handle the situation and the horse becomes labeled with a bad reputation.

I think you did a great job in handling Siete and I'm sure it's not going to happen much more before she gets the idea that it's unacceptable behavior.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

It must be terrifying to have your own horse rearing up and placing you in harm's way.
I'm glad you haven't gotten hurt.

I think some horse's do it as way to get out work or having to do something they don't want to do or are frightened of.

My instructor friend and I were working on a horse recently, trimming face and bridle path, and the horse started rearing.

It seemed obvious that he had not been exposed properly to being handled in those areas with a trimmer or scissors, or had been scared from previous experiences having it done.

He needed remedial training in the basics. His way of 'throwing a temper tanturm' was unsafe and inappropriate.

I hope you can get to the bottom of your horses' rearing issues, too. :)


LJB said...

Because Rusty used to rear a lot, I realized he is very strong in his hindquarters and well balanced. That is an asset! He loves to jump (uses hindquarters for that) and indeed he is pretty well balanced in most of what he does -- athletic!

So in horsey terms, rearing is simply movement. Foals rear, buck, do flying lead changes within their first days of live assuming they are given space to move. It is normal. What isn't normal is the judgment we put on this and other horse movements. Do we freak out when our dogs leap in the air? I suspect that if folks have established clear boundaries so our horses know how close they can come into our personal space, rearing wouldn't be an issue because we wouldn't be close enough to worry about being hurt.

I like this way of thinking: the horse offers us some liveliness, we direct it.

I'll also say that a horse who doesn't know how to back up is more likely to rear when they want to move away from something because their legs aren't taking them backwards and away. We can help them with this if they think their only option is UP.

Victoria Cummings said...

DD - So true!
Carrie - Just because a trainer tells you that it's the horse's fault, it doesn't mean you should just accept that. I knew Siete was frustrated, but I couldn't figure out why until I saw it on the video.
Cactus - I'm a big fan of circling horses who are stressed.
Lisa - It gets less scary now that I understand what I have to do when it happens. And it's not like it happens very often. Being closed in the stall was pretty scary since I'm kind of claustrophobic.
LJB - Thanks for your good thoughts on this subject - I agree with the backing up. I also think that some horses are more inclined to go UP, while others would never think of doing it.

Victoria Cummings said...

Arlene - Coming from you, it means a lot to me that you think I handled Siete well - thanks! I'm trying to understand her and help her find a safer way to let me know when something troubles her. I've found that horses with "bad reputations" very often have also had very bad experiences with people or have physical ailments that are so serious that they're just trying to let us know. OFten times, with the right person to help them, these horses can turn out to be very well behaved and willing.

Lori Skoog said... are getting some good comments on this post. Don't give up on your horses...I too believe that they are doing this for a reason, it is not always just because it is "spring." There are times when you have to go back to the beginning to get a horse back.
Being prepared and watching for signs of rearing will definately give you a better shot at staying safe. Not only do trainers make gross mistakes, so do some vets. You know your animals the best.
Today the farrier was here, and the 31 year old Belgian HAD THREE ABSCESSES! I can't believe it.

Anonymous said...

I dont understand how anyone could be around horses, in any sane capacity, and recommend that someone should force a horse to make a bad decision, then discipline the horse for it. That is idiocy. I am glad that you are wise enough to know that. You are on the right track with your horses and dont let some knucklehead convince you otherwise. I apologize for my anger.

Le Cheval Endiablé said...

I was much interested in your post. At the club, when a horse rears, generally we make it turn round on a circle until he slows down.
Sometimes, the horses rear for they are happy to go out after having staying in the barn for a long time.
As they don't put their head down, it is not dangerous.
I have fallen a few times when I was little, because of rears. It is sure it is not a good memory. But the more the time goes, the more I learn about riding and I can stay on the horse.
Have a good sunday.

Pony Girl said...

I have to tell you an interesting story about rearing. I was watching a trainer work with a mare that it's rider was having a hard time getting to simply back up under saddle. The mare was a sweet, mellow mare that the trainer had trained herself so she knew this mare knew how to back.
The mare refused to back and the trainer kept pushing her. Suddenly the mare reared up. The horse twisted sideways and kind of fell, and the trainer was able to bail off to the side unharmed. Then, she got on and tried again, and the mare still refused and did the same thing. Here is where I think things went really wrong. She got driving lines and started working with the mare,trying to get her to back from the ground. She was using the longe whip to encourage movement, repeatedly. The mare kept refusing and eventually would explode and go up. Then the trainer "flipped" her on her back (with the saddle on) by pulling her over with the lines. I was just sick and almost in tears. The trainer's theory was that if you flipped a horse once when they reared, they usually wouldn't rear again. But this happened a few more times. The trainer couldn't figure out why the mare was "doing this to herself." At this point the mare's mouth was also bleeding from the bit. She finally stopped and said she would have to have a vet check out the mare. YA THINK? Shouldn't she have decided that before this point? You know why the mare wouldn't back?? Turns out she was IN FOAL. And the owner did not even know it! It must have been an accidental impregnation while she was boarded somewhere for a few months. The mare was actually quite "overweight", so they thought. Now, I know this trainer and she is a good person and a decent trainer in a lot of ways, but she did a lot of things I did not agree with, especially since I tend to follow more natural horsemanship, and this was one image that stuck in my mind and really bothers me to this day. That foal could have potentially been aborted with that mare flipping onto her back.
I had a pony that reared when I was a kid, and I followed the books and magazines and tried to hit him in the middle of the ears when he went up. I was 13 and didn't know any better. It didn't work and luckily he never flipped over with me, we ended up taking him to an auction because we didn't have the resources to get help and he was so dangerous. My cousin had her mare flip over on top of her on a trail ride once. Rearing is one thing that would shake my confidence to the core. If My Boy started it, I would have to enlist a trainer, but I would not allow anyone to intentionally flip my horse. The causes of rearing are usually legitimate, and there has got to be ways to overcome it in a way that makes sense to the horse.
OOps, sorry I wrote so much in your comments, this is just a story that I've kept inside for a long time because it was so disturbing to me, yet it felt good to write it out!Maybe I'll have to do a post about it sometime!

Victoria Cummings said...

Lori - Yes, I do believe that you know your animals best and need to listen to them. So sorry to hear about Joe and his abscesses.
SMR - I've seen too many trainers force a horse to make a bad decision and then punish them for it. Very depressing.
Cheval - Thanks for stopping by. It's hard for horses when in some barns, they are confined too much in those small stalls. Silk is a changed horse - so much happier - since I've owned her and made certain that weather permitting she and Siete get out every day into wide open spaces to move around freely.
Pony Girl - What a story! It's awful treatment like that which makes me want to take that trainer and flip her on her back over and over to see how she likes it. How crazy! No wonder it haunts you. It's stories like this that motivated me to write about rearing - People often seem to go insane when the horse rears and do terrible things to punish the horse without looking at what the cause of the action is and without taking responsibility for themselves having done something to cause it.

jme said...

great post! it's so refreshing to hear from a horse person with such a sensitive understanding of horses and this misunderstood behavior. though some horses do rear out of aggression, more often they are simply frustrated, scared or excited - being able to understand the horse's motivation and address it accordingly is so important in order to handle it effectively.

i am dismayed by people who think selling a horse is a solution to a training issue, or those who say 'hire a trainer' but neglect to mention that a lot of trainers don't know how to deal with it either, and can often make the problem worse!

rearing can sometimes be more scary when you are on the ground than when riding, but it sounds as if you have handled the situation correctly - keeping a horse moving or turning it just prior to a rear is one of the best ways to avoid the problem, so long as you can stay clear of the front feet.

the only suggestion i'd have for anyone who knows they are handling a horse in a situation in which it might rear is to, as you mentioned, wear gloves, a riding helmet, and use a longe line to lead the horse so you are more free to move to the hindquarters or to drive the horse forward and away from you at a safe distance (especially in the case of a horse that is threatening or being aggressive) should things get scary.

i can't help but think that people beat their horses out of fear and their feeling of helplessness. having a safe plan beforehand can take some of the panic out of a rear and let you handle it more calmly and effectively, so it is unnecessary to resort to more extreme measures. as always, common sense and patience get us a lot further with horses than abuse...

Victoria Cummings said...

Thanks,jme - I wish there were more trainers like you! I've been waiting for your response and I totally agree with what you're saying - good advice - I hope it helps someone out there who's read this if it ever happens to them.

smellshorsey said...

You are so brave. I'm very impressed with how you handled this dangerous situation.

You can also stop bucking by anticipating it and moving forward. I guess doing the same with rearing is a great solution -- if you can anticipate it. But getting bucked off is one thing -- crushed is another.

I was foxhunting a rented horse (I'd ridden him before and was thinking of buying him) who started rearing whenever he wanted to go and I held him back, for example, to let the people in front of me clear the jump before going myself. I tried to relax and pretend it wasn't happening -- fortunately, he never went sky high but high enough to be worrisome. When I couldn't negotiate an affordable price, I guess I was on some level grateful that I didn't have to worry about the rearing. I never rode him except on foxhunts. It probably wouldn't have been a problem in other situations. It's so dangerous -- I'm not sure people are over-reacting or being smart when they realize that they can't handle it. Probably most horse (and other) problems could be solved with understanding, studying the situation and patience.

Strawberry Lane said...

Scary, but, as usual, you handle situations well!

Very interesting replies you are getting to the subject of rearing.

Heather said...

When I first got my gelding, he would pull back and rear anytime he was tied. He broke 3 lead ropes in the first 2 weeks I had him. His rearing was sometimes random, sometimes I could tell what had 'spooked' him. He always reared because he felt trapped. Once I figured that out I began to try new things. Eventually, the temporary solution was to teach him to ground tie for grooming. This worked very well but wasn't practical. I found the Blocker tie ring on and gave it a try. Boomer has responded really well to it. Just having the extra give and freedom has done wonders. He has pulled back on it, but never to the end of his rope and he hasn't reared since we started using it. Sometimes I can be a slow listener, but now I know Boomer was trying to tell me that he doesn't like being confined.

Carrie Giannandrea said...


I use blockers...on the trailer, at the wash rack and in the barn. I like that it gives but won't let them get away. They learn that being tied is not going to hurt them and eventually, I don't have to use them. You can set up your wrap on a blocker for the amount of "give" you want.

Very cool device and I recommend them.

Carrie Giannandrea
Dances with Horses
Formula One Farms

Victoria Cummings said...

I love the Blocker tie rings - If you've never tried them, check them out!