My well-trained hunter has suddenly taken to bucking fits and aggressive behavior and is becoming dangerous.

Question: I have a 7 year old Appendix, who is in full show hunter training, and he is a fantastic hunter, but he has one major issue. He is a fairly dominant gelding and when another horse, no matter gender or size, passes him or gets too close (in either direction, although the same direction is worse) he bucks. I don’t mean like a baby or one time buck. It is a full bucking fit around the arena. The last time he bucked, it was because a pony passed him and he took 5 minutes of pure 4 feet of the ground bucking, and a run in with the fence to stop. He did NOT do this when I first bought and showed him. It started in June 2008 and that was 6 full months after I purchased him. My trainer and I have exhausted all of our options, and cannot find an answer as to why this started nor can we find a solution. We also thought it was me for a while, but I have been evaluated by a mental coach and my nerves are not the cause, they are a reaction to his bucking fits. Can you help?

Answer from April Reeves: I need a bit more information. What are the options you have exhausted? That way I won’t need to go over them again. Have you done any groundwork and if so what did you do? This is an easy fix but it will require time and probably someone with a different skill set. I will wait for your reply before suggesting a solution.

Reply: Options: We have tried having others (student riders and trainers) ride him, and he seems to do fine with them until he gets to know them, unless we are at a show, in which he misbehaves with everyone, he has not actually bucked with a trainer though he has attempted. We have tried turning him out with other horses to try to get him used to being around them; we have done schooling shows where all I do is take him in flat classes and get him through them, all of these work for a while but then it seems to be even worse than before. He has had chiropractic work (every other month) and back/hock/stifle injections (every 6 to 9 months) as well as medicinal injections of estrogen and one other legal drug I cannot recall the name of. None of the legal drugs have worked, so he is not on them or any other drug at the moment. Even in the pasture he is aggressive towards the other horses and will kick or rear at them when they get too close. We have tried lunging him before shows to tire him

Groundwork: The only groundwork we have done is getting him used to people and animals “invading his space” and letting him know that pushing people around is not acceptable. <—- This issue has started in the last month, and it is basically under control. No harsh punishment is used of course, all I do is tap him (like a bite of a horse would feel to him) on the cheek or neck, and suggest that he move and become submissive.

April Reeves: I see this consistently with horses under heavy stress loads of training and confinement. Because they lack social time with other horses (over 6 hours/day on their own with at least one other buddy in a large area) they often resort to challenging ‘strange’ horses as their way of attempting to be normal. While this may not be the cause, it can intensify the horse’s desire for social activity, acted out as bad manners.

Whenever a horse changes under our riding and leadership it is always because of us. All horse issues stem from the human’s lack of understanding their needs. I’m not being mean, I’m just keeping it real. This is such an important thing for all horsemen to not just remember but to fully understand. All horse issues stem from the horse not being able to act out in the way that they understand and instinctually know – not what we expect them to.

In ruling out every possible motive, has a vet checked him for cryptorchidism? I had a gelding who was cryptorchid, and it didn’t really show until he was around 6.

Another cause of a change of manners is food. Every trainer I know misses this, yet I have altered minds just by changing the food and how it is fed. There is no single feed that every horse can eat. Some make horses hot, some alter their characteristics and brain chemistry to the point of being dangerous. Instead of writing it all out here, I will give you a link to my blog that has articles on this. I can’t stress this enough though: consistency in the care of horses is everything. Altering any daily routine will change the nature of your horse. It is not in their physical chemistry to handle changes, unless you have a horse that goes to shows every week, and moves around daily, and that has accepted change as a way of life. Those horses are few and far between. How the horse works with the human during these changes is what we will discuss further.

Link to main nutrition/health page:

Link to feed articles:

One question to ask yourself is what conditions changed from the previous owner to you? Changes as in living conditions, feed, handling, riding? We always assume we are giving a better life to this new horse, but the horse doesn’t always agree.

Confinement can do more damage to a horse’s mental ability than any other single thing we do. We don’t realize how stalls go against a horses’ natural instincts and needs. While you may not be able to ‘not’ stall him (at night), if you can keep him out all day, so much the better.

I’m going to address nerves.
This is a question that can only be answered by you, not any coach. You know when your anxiety moves up. You know when your heart rate changes. No one else can make that judgment call for you. As a rider, begin to feel what changes you make internally when you handle your horse. Get to know you before you get to know him. Watch your breathing and movements. Pay close attention to who you are and what changes you make when you know you are about to ride a difficult horse. A horse can sense even the most subtle of changes.

If you have no changes when you ride him, knowing that he could go into a bucking fit at any time, then you are the only human in the world that can do this. Again, I’m not being mean. I just ask that each person evaluate their situation and get real. I have fear and emotions (how can you not?) before I ride the horses I’m asked to work with. I ride horses that rear up over backwards, or take off or buck much like yours or worse. I go through the experience of trying to release most of it before I get close to the horse. But I am human, and my heart rate changes, so I have learned to stay in a ‘quiet place’ with all horses. Any trainer who tells you they don’t have changes in their emotions before riding a troubled horse are lying to themselves.

Having said this, I think it’s in your best interest to take this horse and try to work through the initial lessons on your own first. There is more than one way to deal with your problem, and I am going to give you several to think about and try. I always say to people that what you are about to do has risk and danger to it, so think carefully before you begin. I’m not telling you that doing it yourself is your only option.

I also suggest to people that it is a gift to be able to work with troubled horses, and that you will never be able to do so if they do not show up in your life. I promise you this: you will cry. You will be scared. You will wonder why you ever agreed to do this. But I will also promise you that once you move through each process and learn, you will take with you something of such value that very few people will experience in their lifetime. It is these experiences that shape who we are.

Now for a slice of reality. Once a horse has crossed this line and has tasted the life of bucking and bolting, it is there forever. You may never see it again, but it is always there. With the correct training, it becomes a distant memory and if played out again, it’s usually not as violent but these habits do not disappear forever. It is now your challenge to ride through the rest of your years together without fear. It will also take you from one year to two years until your horse is at the point of letting most of this habit go. Just keeping it real…..

Where to start
Sometimes the most simple methods make the biggest difference. We will start with a saying you hear from every trainer, “make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy”. A simple statement but few really ponder it’s meaning. This is where we will start.

He is going to learn what a one-rein stop is. This is not a ‘cowboy’ thing. I teach this to mainly English riders for safety reasons. To begin, stand at his side by the saddle, let the opposite rein go loose, and softly, with feeling (don’t force him) ask him to move his head to the side about half way. Take the rein and hold it against the saddle, and do not move your hand what so ever. Your hand must stay locked in the position; the horse cannot move it or you will lose the lesson. If he moves around, move with him until he stops. Don’t give in to him. Don’t give up, no matter how long he moves for.

At first they often lean on the rein, and just hold their face. No matter how long it takes, do not move your hand. Eventually he will tire of this and begin to move. Release him the second he gives, even the slightest give. Drop the rein like a hot rock, and rub his neck. Then repeat again and again until he follows your hand softly and gives that tiny bit. Then move to the other side and do the same. This is a simple exercise but people don’t do it long enough, and cut out the value of this exercise before they see the benefits.

(Don’t let a trainer suggest tying his face to each side. It results in teaching a horse to lean on the bit. It’s not better or faster. It’s a lazy man’s way of training.)

Normally I suggest doing this first under saddle, but because your boy is a bit dangerous, we want him to understand this on the ground first. The horse on the ground is the horse you ride. After you have done about 10 each side x 3-5 times (depending on how stiff he is), you can get on and do the same under saddle.

Again, I harp on this because it is the whole point of the lesson. Do not let your hand move. Once the horse learns he can move your hand, you begin teaching a new thing to him: how to resist. Most horses with resistance are taught this by humans, unconsciously. He is to stand during these beginning sessions. Make sure you let the opposite rein go fully so he can bring his head around. Only bring his head half way. There is no purpose in taking it to your knee.  What you are looking for is the release. It may not feel like much at first, but what may feel small to you is a very big thing to the horse. Eventually, after a few days of this, he will become much softer. Don’t quit on him, as this is how he will learn to become safe.

If he walks off, which they usually do for the first few times because they don’t get the lesson right away, don’t move your hand. Just sit there quietly, stay upright and centered, keep both legs off him and the opposite rein loose and go for the ride. He will walk around and around in circles, until he quits and stands. When he gives and you feel no weight in your hand, release him fast.

Try about 5 times per side, about 4-5 times.

Once this lesson is working, begin to walk him around, keeping a fairly loose rein. Then do the same stop again at the walk. As you ask for the halt at the walk, draw your energy and weight down into your seat and stirrup. The horse will feel this and eventually pick up on it, but you need to incorporate that plus the one-rein stop at the same time, at the beginning. It will teach him to draw his legs up under himself .

Change sides so that the horse does not get sore on one side. This is also a valuable exercise for lateral work and suppleness. I do this at a stand still with every horse, every time I get on. And you should do it every time you ride, regardless of how advanced you get with your horse. You can never overdo this exercise, as it gets the horse flexible and ready to work at the movements you ask. It is not difficult for him, and is a natural movement for any horse. Just put a carrot by your knee one day and watch how flexible he can be! Carrot stretches.

Now you will take it a step further and teach him to shut down immediately.

You will let him out on a loose rein at a trot about 4-5 steps and bring his head around the same way you did at the walk. Once he gets this lesson, you will find he shuts down the minute he feels his head coming around. When you get to this place, you are becoming safe. It’s important at this time to stay off his mouth and allow him the freedom to move his neck.

Sometimes training is not a linear process, but a process of going back and fixing holes in their training. Who would think lateral flexion exercises can stop a bucking horse? I truly believe (and have proven it many times) that if a horse is started properly, no one can undo it. You may add some nasty habits, but good foundation training is always in there, somewhere.

If, during the trot, he does not shut down nicely (manners), move back to the walk. Always go back a step or two – never move forward if the horse is not getting the lesson. When horses are not quick to learn a new exercise it’s because the past ones have not been done well enough and long enough.

When asking the horse to stop during the trot and canter, do not pull his face with force. Ask him to follow a feel and gently but with confidence turn him in to stop. If you pull too quickly you run the risk of him falling. Safety is always first. You never have to take his head to your knee.

When he is comfortable being shut down at the trot, move into the canter. Always remember to keep your legs off the horse, sit tall and sink weight down through your center, and keep the opposite rein loose.

Why does this work?
Horses seek comfort by nature. He may want to get going into his little fits, but once the head comes around he will feel discomfort from the process and settle for standing. If you have to pull him around in a one-rein stop, it is no where near as comfortable as when you are purposely performing these exercises. His neck will be stiffer as he is headed straight up and out. It also ‘disengages’ his hindquarters so that he is incapable of bucking or running.

I use this with every horse. It is my safety net in times of trouble. It has kept me alive in some situations. I have had to ride a horse out doing this for over 15 minutes. He almost fell down from being so dizzy, turning at full speed, trying to launch in the air. They will usually shut down before they fall though. I just relax and remember my little saying: I can ride much longer than you can run (or turn around in circles).

If you find you are moving along one day and he suddenly leaps into the air, you will have to be very fast at bringing his head around. This exercise only works when you do it, and if your safety is in jeopardy, bring his head around with all your force. What you will eventually learn to feel is the horse’s beginning movements into the buck, and you will instinctively draw his head around before he escalades into larger movements.

I have two great articles, very long reads, that have this exercise in it plus quite a few others. You may want to read them through. There are groundwork and saddle exercises that will help your little bronc find happiness with 4 legs on the ground.

Basic groundwork and saddle work:

Connection and collection work:

Once you two become a bit safer, try introducing him to another horse beside him at the walk. If he tries anything: any movement of aggression or anything that’s not good behavior, shut him down with a one-rein stop and let the other horse walk on. Again, we are going to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

Eventually he will let this habit go, or at least think twice before doing it. I own one of the most beautiful horses I have ever ridden, but the story of how we got there would shock you. He was the ultimate bad boy, and like you, I tried many things (and almost gave up), but I followed my own advice and today have a horse that baby-sits students. The second he even sees my hand begin to run down the reins, he shuts down by dropping his head to the side and standing. That only took 3 years. But do remember, it’s still there. My horse does think about it, even positions himself for the big rodeo moment, but then remembers the discomfort associated with it.

Just a few thoughts about what you have done in the past. I don’t like other riders on my horses. I don’t think it’s healthy for the horse, and if he is bad for you he will be bad for everyone. Horses don’t discriminate. If someone can’t help you on the ground, they are not going to help, period. While I will get on a horse to show someone what to do and how it looks, it’s not my job to see if I am brilliant. I know the horse is going to test me just as hard, if not harder. Keep your beautiful boy to yourself and one good coach.

He may return to bucking after jumping. Start with small Cavaletti, so that if your horse goes into his fits after the jump, its low height will make him safe enough to stop (one-rein). Eventually that problem will disappeared too.

Other problems
There is the slight chance he may not cooperate with this fully. The only other way to get a horse out of being a bucker is to have someone buck him out. The horse already has the idea he can buck so having someone take him to the place of bucking until he realizes it does not work for him may be the next answer. This should be done by someone very competent and with a very good track record. I have seen too many horses ruined by someone who said “I can do that. I’m good at riding bucking horses”. It’s not about how well you can stay on. You have to know when to keep going and when to quit. This is only if you have exhausted every avenue with the one-rein stop, for at least 6 months of trying.

You may also need to bring in a professional who can ‘pony’ your boy next to a quiet, resilient horse. I have done this a lot, and do this with every young horse I start. Oddly enough, my best ‘pony’ horse was once my ‘bad boy’ – there is light at the end of the barn aisle. Ponying a horse is often the only way you can get a horse comfortable again around other horses. It’s dangerous and requires someone with skill and a track record of success at doing this. Horses can’t be shod to do this.

(A funny story about an old horse trainer: I use to live next to this old guy who took in horses that had ‘problems’. One day, I watched him tie 2 horses to the back of his truck. Both horses began to fight with each other, but the old guy just drove off quietly, dragging them and fighting for about 500 feet. They both realized they had to respond and move, so they both caught up and slacked off their halters and went for a nice trot down the road. I never suggest to do this method, but it did make for 2 really nice horses at the end of the trip. Those 2 never fought with other horses again. Reminds me of the ‘dog whisperer’ who ties your dog to your belt loop and makes you walk.)

As for showing, trailer him to shows you are not attending and work out the issues there before you waste money paying for classes, or hurting someone. Don’t be afraid to work him fairly hard and for a long time at a show. Sometimes their lungs have to catch up to their brain before they begin to think. Some of the loose rein exercises in the articles will help. I am a firm believer in getting a horse long and low, especially a horse that bucks and bolts. Many of them are happier when the restriction is off their face.

As for the drugs, I’m glad you’re off them. I like chiropractic work and massage therapy. I think it’s a matter of what he is on more than a matter of what to put him on. Read through the feed articles and see if there is any relation to what you are feeding that may induce his bad behavior. I have seen timothy hay or corn put horses through the roof.

Read through the groundwork articles also. There are valuable tips and exercises that will help you establish a deeper connection with him. They also go into detail on pressure and how and why it works. I talk about rhythmic pressure and application.

Whenever you have setbacks, go back to a simpler exercise. When you come to a place where the horse gets anxious, it is their way of saying ‘whoa there I’m not getting this’.

When turning him out with other horses, you may find it takes him a long time to gain his social manners, but horses learn to sort out their own problems. Humans take them away from situations far too soon before the horse has the chance to figure it out. We try to make them adapt to our schedule, which is usually in a hurry for results.

When turning a gelding out, turn him out with other geldings, and no mares around. Don’t turn him out with mixed herds. Let him adjust to how herd dynamics work with the boys first.

I think I covered everything, but if you have any other questions, please contact me again. I hope it works out for you. Don’t give up: take the time it takes. If I can rehab my bad boy, anything is possible!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s