Why do horses rear?
Horse rearing is a term used to describe the action of a horse lifting its front end while standing tall on its hind legs. For riders, a horse rearing can be terrifying, particularly for novices. There are several reasons why a horse might rear. Identifying the cause can help to reduce the frequency and lower the risk of injuries and accidents.
The most common reasons why horses rear include:
Before you think about behavioral reasons, it’s always beneficial to try and rule out pain. Rearing can be a reaction to fear or a sign of aggression, but it can also be caused by pain. If your horse is rearing and this is uncharacteristic of them, take a moment to check them over and make sure they’re not experiencing any discomfort.
Here are some examples of issues that could cause a horse to rear due to pain:
- A poorly-fitted saddle
- Girths that are too tight
- Underlying health issues
- Dental problems
- Poor vision
- Holding the horse too tightly
If a horse is in pain, it may panic or feel more anxious and its natural instinct may be to rear. Identifying and addressing causes of pain and underlying health issues can help to prevent rearing and make horses more comfortable and content.
Lack of training
A lack of training on the part of both horses and riders can contribute to rearing. Inexperienced, exuberant horses tend to get over-excited and this can cause them to rear up and misbehave. If riders don’t have sufficient training, this can also result in horses rearing, as they may not be saddled up properly and they might be holding on too tight.
Fear or stress
Just like humans, horses can experience stress, distress, panic and fear. If a horse is spooked by a sudden noise, another animal or a change in their environment or the conditions, for example, their natural reaction may be to rear.
Boredom and lack of stimulation
Horses that spend a lot of time out in the field interacting with humans and other animals and those that have a balanced, healthy diet are less likely to rear than horses that are kept in stables for hours every day and those that are over or under-fed.
A lack of stimulation and boredom can cause horses to become restless and when they do get out, they may be boisterous and more eager to let off steam.
What to do if your horse rears
A horse rearing can be a scary sight, even for those who have been riding or looking after horses for many years. Horses will almost always be safe when they rear, but the same cannot be said for riders. It is not uncommon for riders to fall, and the risk of severe injuries is high when falling from height.
If your horse is prone to unpredictable behavior, or you’re a beginner just learning the ropes, it’s important to learn how to manage rearing and how to try and reduce the risk of a horse reacting in this way.
- Disengaging the hind end
In many cases, riders can feel that the horse is about to rear just before they move their bodies. At this point, it’s beneficial to try to take swift action to diffuse the situation and try to prevent the horse from rearing if possible. The key lies in a movement known as ‘disengaging the hind end.’
This sounds like a technical term, but in the most basic language, it means turning the hind end of the horse either to the left or the right. You can do this by pulling on either rein to bend the neck and using your body to turn and adjust your position in the saddle.
You can practice disengaging the hind end when your horse is standing still and rewarding them when they follow your lead instead of rearing up. Always use one rein and avoid pulling on both, as this will elevate the horse’s head and encourage them to rear.
- Keeping your balance
If your horse is already rearing and you don’t have any time to try and persuade it to stay calm, the best course of action is to sit tight and try and maintain your balance. Keep your weight forward in the saddle and try to lean towards the horse’s neck. Resist the temptation to pull on both of the reins, as this will pull the horse’s head back, which could result in it falling and losing balance.
The last resort if you don’t want to risk staying in the saddle when your horse rears is dismounting. If you think that an emergency dismount is the best option, carefully jump off the horse and then move away as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t catch you as it comes down. Ideally, it’s wise to avoid this option if you can as your horse may decide to start rearing every time it wants to be free of its rider.
How to prevent rearing
Many people love to ride horses and they want to be able to enjoy riding out and going for walks in the countryside or laps of a field with jumps without worrying about rearing, kicking and falling.
There is an inherent risk when riding horses, but it’s also possible to try and take steps to prevent horses from rearing and to reduce the incidence of rearing. Here are some tips to prevent rearing:
Training is beneficial for every horse, as it can help horses to learn good behavior, induce calmness and enable horses to understand how to manage fear and stress. Training should be encouraged from an early age, but it can be helpful later in life if you buy or adopt a horse that hasn’t been through training before and you’re worried about rearing.
- Building strong, trusting relationships
There are usually two reasons why a horse rears if it’s not in pain. These include not wanting to do something or expressing fear or anxiety.
The relationships we build with horses can play a vital role in influencing positive behavior and reducing the risk of horses rearing or kicking out. It can take time for horses to trust their owners or riders and it’s worth putting in the hours to make sure your horse feels comfortable around you.
Do groundwork together and try to establish yourself as the dominant party in the relationship. It’s important that your horse respects you and understands and responds to your cues or commands.
- Learn how to handle your horse properly
If rearing is a problem, you can take steps to handle the horse and try and discourage it from displaying this type of behavior.
It is crucial to understand that it is only safe to try to handle your horse if it is rearing if you have experience. If you have the relevant experience and expertise, you can undertake training exercises with your horse to try and prevent rearing. To do this, you should know how to:
- Work the horse ‘long and low’: this means elongating the top line of the horse to strengthen the muscles that support you and increase suppleness and mobility.
- Drive the horse forward without being aggressive or forceful
- Engage and disengage the hindquarters of the horse
- Use your hands softly: soft hands in riding relates to maintaining control while relaxing the hands. The hands shouldn’t be tense or tight.
- Recognize the causes and triggers of rearing and displaying frenetic or aggressive behavior
- Keep calm when your horse is rearing or threatening to rear
Seeking professional help
If you’re not an experienced trainer, or you’ve never ridden a horse that is prone to rearing in the past, it’s critical to seek expert advice.
Professional trainers have expertise in recognizing triggers, identifying causes of rearing and teaching horses and riders how to react in different situations. If you’re looking for a trainer to help with horse rearing, ask for recommendations, read reviews and testimonials and have a chat with trainers before you make a decision to gather more information about how they work and what they would do to help you.
It can also be helpful to visit facilities and meet trainers in person to see if the horses they work with are happy and find out more about the techniques they use and their track records.
Should you buy or keep a horse that rears?
Horse rearing should be a red flag unless there is an obvious reason why a horse has become distressed, for example, a sudden, loud noise that caused them to panic. In some cases, horses react to situations or triggers that are beyond anyone’s control, but if a horse is rearing in a safe setting around people it is used to, this is a sign to avoid buying that horse.
Rearing can be very dangerous. It’s particularly important to avoid buying or keeping hold of a horse that rears if you are inexperienced or you are looking for a horse for a novice rider.
Horses usually rear because they are anxious or they panic. Pain can also be a common cause of rearing, particularly in horses that are usually placid and calm. If you are worried about a horse rearing, it’s wise to consider training the horse or seeking expert advice to identify possible causes and prevent rearing.