Bucking is the term used for when a horse kicks out with both hind legs at the same time. Bucking can often unseat a rider, especially an inexperienced one. It can be dangerous to ride a horse that bucks, therefore it is useful to know why a horse bucks and how to deal with it. Bucking can be a normal behavior in a herd situation, but could be a sign of pain in a horse under saddle.
Why do wild horses buck?
The natural response of the horse to a threat such as a predator is to flee from the threat flight. If the horse is unable to outrun the predator, it attempts to fight it. A predator may try to bring a horse down from behind or may attempt to attack the vulnerable belly of the horse, and the most successful way of fighting off such a predator is to kick out at it with as much force as possible.
Horses may also buck during an aggressive dispute with another horse in the social group.
Horses in the wild may buck due to high spirits, for example, when showing play behavior. This is most commonly shown by the youngsters of the group.
Why do domestic horses buck?
Some domestic horses buck due to high spirits and this tends to be shown at the start of the exercise session or when the horse is asked to trot or canter. It is usually quite obvious if a horse is bucking out of high spirits, as it tends to stop as the horse gets rid of its excess energy.
Horses also buck because they are attempting to fight against something. The horse may be experiencing pain in its back or mouth, from the saddle or from an unbalanced or heavy rider. Horses experiencing pain may be particularly prone to bucking during trot or when landing after a jump.
It is also possible that bucking is a learned behavior, shown by the horse in an attempt to remove the rider. This could be due to lack of motivation to work or lack of reward from the rider when the horse does work.
How should I deal with bucking?
A horse that bucks frequently must be checked over by a veterinarian to ensure it is not experiencing pain from a sore back or mouth, for example. It is essential to rule this out before assuming that the bucking is purely a behavioral issue. The tack should also be checked, as an ill-fitting saddle is often the cause of back pain in horses.
Horses arch their back prior to a buck, and in order to do this, they usually lower their head. It is therefore often quite obvious when a horse is trying to buck. When they do successfully get their head down, they may give a succession of bucks which progressively unseat the rider. It can be difficult for the rider to regain their position and ride the horse forward. It is important for the rider to lean back slightly when a horse bucks to prevent them from being thrown forward onto the horses lowered neck. The extra weight on the horse's hindquarters from leaning back will also make it more difficult for him to buck. Alternatively, if a horse is bucking due to back pain, the rider leaning back may exacerbate the problem.
A horse that has learned to buck in response to pain when ridden may continue to buck in anticipation of pain, even once the pain has gone. Such a learnt response can take some time to resolve, as the horse has to now learn that it will not experience pain every time it is ridden. The horse will have to be ridden very calmly and gently to encourage it to relax while ridden, especially if the pain it was experiencing was in the mouth. In this situation, a rubber bit should be used, and the horse should be encouraged to stretch its neck when ridden so that it will learn that the bit will not cause pain and that it does not have to try to avoid the bit. The horse should be taught to go forward when the rider uses both leg aids and voice commands, and the horse must be rewarded for doing so. This can be achieved by initially working from the ground and teaching the horse to associate the word forward with moving forward.
Horses may also learn that when they bucked in response to pain, they successfully unseated the rider. They may continue to attempt to do so to avoid being ridden, due to a lack of motivation to go forward. Again, it is important to school the horse to go forward to both leg aids and voice commands. It is important to investigate the reasons for repeated bucking early on, before the horse successfully unseats several riders and learns this tactic.
Bucking due to high spirits is easier to deal with. Before attempting to deal with the problem, the feeding and exercise regime of the horse should be assessed, as reducing the energy content of the feeding and increasing the amount of exercise the horse gets may prevent the problem from occurring. If a stabled horse cannot be exercised sufficiently, it should be turned out into a field or paddock each day. If the horse persists in bucking after the feeding and exercise have been altered, lunging the horse in an enclosed area before he is ridden should allow him to release some energy without putting the rider at risk. If a horse is always allowed to canter in the same place, or every time it is in an open space, it is likely to learn to associate such places with cantering and may buck in anticipation. If this happens, the rider should continually ride the horse in these places at walk, progressing to trot only when the horse is relaxed and does not try to buck. Over time the horse should learn that it will not always be allowed to canter in certain places.