A horse may respond to certain circumstances by rearing. This may range from small rears with the front feet raised only a couple of feet off the ground, to a full rear where the horse is standing vertically on its hind legs. A full height rear poses risks to both the rider and the horse. In addition to unseating the rider, the horse may lose balance and fall over backwards.
Horses are often thought of as being over-reactive animals, although the natural behaviour of the horse is often not considered. There is a reason for everything a horse does, especially a behaviour as extreme as rearing. The problem with behaviours such as rearing is that this natural, instinctive response of the horse to a fearful situation can become a problem in the domestic situation.
The horse is naturally a social species, living in large groups. Their response to a threatening situation is ‘flight’, that is, they flee from the threat, for example, a predator. In situations where this does not remove the horse from the threat, the horse resorts to the ‘fight’ response. This may either be the use of the hind legs to kick out or rearing up to ‘fight’ the threat with the front hooves.
Rearing may be caused by the fact that the horse is in pain, possibly in the mouth or the back. The horse may be rearing in an attempt to remove the cause of the pain, e.g. the rider, or may be simply ‘fighting’ against the pain. A horse that rears regularly should therefore be checked thoroughly by a vet. The saddle and bit should also be checked to ensure these fit correctly and comfortably.
In addition to pathological pain, situations that may provoke this extreme response include too severe a bit, a rider with rough hands, confusion over what is being asked of them or fear. In these situations, the horse may not know how else to remove themselves from the situation, and resort to rearing to ‘fight’ the situation.
Through training, most horses have learnt to deal with threatening situations relatively calmly and can be ridden safely through threatening situations by their rider. In extreme situations, or if the horse doesn’t know how else to react, it resorts to its instinctive ‘fight’ response and it rears.
Through this, a horse may learn that rearing is a way of evading the control of the rider and of removing themselves from certain situations. This may progress to the horse showing this learnt response due to lack of motivation to go forward, e.g. napping (where the horse roots to the spot and refuses to go forward, perhaps away from or towards a certain place or other horses).
As well as rearing when ridden, some horses may rear when led, which is obviously a dangerous situation for the handler. Again, this may be due to pain, rough handling, fear or trying to get away from the handler.
Horses tend to give some indication of when they are going to rear, such as:
- stopping moving forward
- walking backwards
- raising their head
- throwing their head up and down
- raising the front feet slightly off the ground
This allows you to take steps to try to prevent the rear, such as turning the horse in a circle, or at least allows you to prepare for the rear. A horse that rears regularly, for whatever reason, should be ridden with a neck strap which the rider can hold onto if the horse rears, rather than holding onto the reins which may overbalance the horse and cause it to fall over backwards. As soon as the horse’s feet touch the ground, it should be ridden forward confidently and firmly.
It is better to take steps to try to prevent a rearing horse from rearing in the first place, rather than just working on how to deal with the rear when it happens. It is important that a rearing horse is schooled carefully to ensure that they are fully aware of all the voice commands and leg aids associated with moving forwards and turning. This will aid the rider in preventing a rear when the signs are first seen and in dealing with a rear if it occurs. It is important that a rearing horse is dealt with firmly but gently, as rough handling is likely to make them worse, especially if they are rearing out of fear or confusion, or due to pain.
If a horse rears because it is scared or confused and doesn’t know how else to get out of the situation, giving it something else to do can often prevent it from going as far as rearing. Horses also need to have their head raised to be able to rear and encouraging the horse to lower its head with the use of the voice should also help avoid a rear. The horse should initially be trained to lower its head in the stable for a food reward, with an associated voice command, which can then be used whilst lunging and schooling. The use of such commands are also useful for horses that rear for other reasons, such as stubbornness or laziness.
Dealing with a horse that rears when led should be carried out in a similar way to a horse that rears when ridden, by strongly establishing control over the horse with the use of voice commands. A horse which does this should always be led with a lunge rein rather than a lead rope to allow the handler to keep hold of the horse without pulling on their head, which is likely to make matters worse.