Thanks for your question. It is one that I have been asked numerous times! Whenever horses are displaying less than desirable behavior, the solution is not found only in the “WHAT” the behavior is, but in the “WHY” the horse is displaying it.
To look for the right solution, we need first to be a little more specific about your horse and what exactly is happening. How old is your horse and how experienced is he over fences? Did this begin rather suddenly or has it been part of his response to jumping or your leg from when you started with him? Did it start with something less (maybe ear pinning or reluctance to keep going forward) and progress to bucking? Does it happen every time you jump or use your leg, or does he do it when he’s particularly fresh? Or, perhaps, only at the end of a long lesson or a long day at a show?
I always want to first be sure there isn’t a physical cause for objectionable behavior—especially if a horse has been doing a job happily for some time and then begins the new behavior. Anything from a poorly fitting saddle, to gastric distress or teeth problems, to an ovarian cyst in a mare can be a reason for a horse to buck, kick, or pin ears and shake their head. A rider that lands on the cantle of the saddle or doesn’t allow freedom of the head and neck in the air can also produce irritation that manifests with this behavior. Be sure to listen to your horse and assure he isn’t telling you of discomfort in the only way he can.
If you are sure there is no physical trigger, it is still a display of what your horse is feeling about what he is doing. For example, it is not unusual for a younger or greener horse that enjoys jumping (or an older horse that is especially fresh or hasn’t jumped in a while) to play after a jump. This might take the form of a head shake, a squeal, or even an exuberant leap in the air. The answer to these behaviors is taking the time to take the edge off your horse before starting to jump, together with assuring that your horse will be responsive to your aids when you ask him to listen to your requests on the landing side of your warm-up fences. “Taking the edge off” does not mean lunging to the point of exhaustion. This at best is a short term fix and will take its toll on soundness if used too much. Better to try to arrange for regular turn-out for a high energy horse, or even give him some controlled gallop under saddle to burn off a bit of extra energy before asking him to settle down and go to work. Then be sure your horse is listening to your quiet aids by using lots of transitions within and between gaits.
If you suspect your horse might be fresh when you start to jump, make your first jumps over something tiny out of the trot and plan for a downward transition immediately after the jump—before your horse has a chance to scoot off or play. You do not stop the playing, it is far better to prevent it happening in the first place.
With especially strong horses, it can help to jump the first jumps positioned so that you can go four or five strides in a straight line toward a solid portion of arena wall or fence. Keep the horse absolutely straight and indicate a halt with your upper body and seat. But rather than using strong rein aids to halt your horse, let the wall assist you. When he halts at the exact place you have directed him too, let him stand quietly for a few moments and reassure him he did right thing. Repeat a few times until he is doing a nice halt in the right place in a relaxed manner. After he understands you can hold him straight toward to wall until he is listening to you, you can then permit him to turn the corner and continue on.
If his behavior is not high spirits or a desire to rush off after the jump, it is likely the bucking or kicking out is a display of irritation and ill-temper. Some horses discover that this behavior serves to buy them a bit of time to do whatever they choose to do rather than what you are asking. I can assure you that punishing a horse by kicking him, swatting him once or twice with a stick or (worse yet) pulling or jerking on his mouth for bucking or kicking out is futile. These actions will only prompt your horse to anticipate what you are going to do and become stronger (and often sneakier) with his own behavior.
Bucking or kicking out after a jump can happen two ways—your horse pulls his head down after the jump with some bucks thrown in, or, your horse bucks or kicks out because he is a bit lazy and has learned you will pull him to a stop when he bucks. If he wants to run or buck you must educate him that the time after the jump is NOT free time to do whatever he feels like. Most riders focus a lot on getting to the jump and once they are over it they are no longer ‘riding’ (giving the horse any direction as to what you expect of him). It is easy for a horse to learn that this is “free time” for him to do whatever he wants!
When you take back control of that time, by giving your horse clear direction of what you ask him to do, he will learn to listen to you and no longer take the opportunity for extra antics. It doesn’t take anything fancy—just ride in a specific direction, do a specific turn, or make a clear transition—anything that he must execute for you. Remember your riding AFTER the jump is just as important as your riding BEFORE the jump. On a course, the departure from one jump becomes the approach to the next one. When warming up or jumping single jumps or lines, always have a plan for what you are going to do after. This will keep him in the habit of expecting direction from you.
If your horse is a bit on the lazy side and he bucks or kicks in order to not go forward, after a jump or just as a reaction to your leg, this is a different problem. First, it is important you realize your horse is not trying to be ‘bad,’ he is simply doing what he feels makes his life better at the particular moment. A horse that kicks at the rider’s leg when asked to go forward has chosen to delay, or maybe even avoid altogether, exerting himself by going forward. He simply didn’t feel like going forward at that moment and has discovered that kicking or bucking can be done instead. Rather than punishment for his bad choice, you must consistently enforce consequences for his actions. He needs to discover that when he ignores your aids asking him to go forward, the consequence is one that he doesn’t like—he will have to go forward even more. I find a spur doesn’t work well on these horses, they don’t actually make the horse go forward (at least without the kicking) and, instead, it is necessary to educate your horse to respond to a milder leg aid.
Most often you need first to forget about anything else except getting your horse going FORWARD from a clear but soft leg aid. There is an excellent exercise for this, HOWEVER, it requires a rider who is secure, has good control of their aids, and won’t be unseated by a horse scooting forward or getting into a forward gallop. They also must be aware that keeping one’s own attention consistently forward, toward where you want your horse to go, is essential when using forward aids. Nervous or insecure riders don’t do well on horses who have learned this sort of resistance to any use of the leg and should not try to use this exercise!
First, prepare well at the walk by adjusting your rein to a suitable length and assuring that you are centered. Then apply leg for your horse to trot immediately off. If he doesn’t respond to this single request, do NOT increase your leg, instead give him one cluck as a reminder, and if he is not trotting forward nicely, have your reins in one hand and use your stick quickly and repeatedly (behind your leg) until he is cantering well forward. These three things happen promptly: One, Two, Three. Keep the slaps with your stick coming quickly and for as long as it takes for him to be cantering well forward. The instant he is clearly moving himself forward, stop with the stick and reward him with a pleasant canter in a light seat, a soft transition back to the trot and walk, and then a pat on the neck. This works best if you are relaxed but definite with your single leg aid, immediately followed by the cluck, and then, if the stick is required, turn instantly into a bit of a ‘wild-woman’ that surprises him by chasing him forward in response to his inattention. Use the stick top scare him not hurt him. As soon as he is moving—on any lead—you morph right back into your ‘nice’ self.
You may have to repeat this a few times until he gets that he needs to pay attention to your polite leg aid and that you will no longer just keep up with kicking and using your spur however long it takes for him to move. When you no longer have to kick him, he will no longer resort to kicking back at you! Remember, it is not punishment – when he isn’t attentive the consequence is the appearance of the rider who just won’t quit until he is exerting himself a lot.
Once this kind of horse understands, it is important to do VERY frequent transitions forward and back—both between gaits but more so within a gait. Ask him to really go forward but only for a few strides when he responds nicely, then let him relax a bit for a short time before repeating the “up transition.” You want your unenthusiastic horse to figure out that responding promptly means not having to work too hard for too long. The way for him to make his life easy is to be attentive.
Good luck with your project! I promise it will be well worth the effort to have a horse that is enjoying working with you and not simply saying “No!” to your requests.
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