Hoof Beats: Trouble on the trail

Pueblo Chieftain

Horses do act up occasionally, even trail horses. Often their “bad behavior” is a  reluctance to leave the safety and comfort of their herd. These horses are “herd bound” or “barn sour.” I once read an anguished post from a girl whose horse did not want to leave his barn buddies to go on a trail ride, even though some of those horses were also his buddies. Her description was so detailed I had a sinking feeling in my stomach afterwards. I suspect most other readers felt the same way, even experienced riders — that no matter what you do, your horse is out of control and dangerous. All because he doesn’t want to be separated from his friends.    

He rears. This behavior is the most dangerous because there’s no way you can convince him to stop rearing. Trainers who specialize in problem horses can stop him from rearing — as long as they’re the one riding him. If your horse rears, all you can do is lean over his neck and grab him around the neck until he has all four feet back on the ground. But the biggest danger is that while horses can easily balance themselves on their hind legs, if you lack experience, you probably don’t know enough to lean forward. If you don’t, your weight can knock your horse off balance, and he will topple over backwards, on top of you. Riders have died when this happens.

He bucks. Another dangerous behavior. But there are feel-good bucks, and I’m-going-to-unload-you bucks, and it’s important to know the difference. To be on the safe side, longe your horse before you ride. If he bucks because he wants you off his back, the usual advice is to use one rein to yank the horse’s head up so he can’t put it between his front legs and buck. If you do that consistency, you can probably train him not to.  But if he seriously wants to get rid of you, he might decide a better way to do that is to rear, instead.

He does a 180-degree spin. This horse is terrified and athletic enough to swap ends in a single stride. If your balance is excellent, not merely “good,” you can probably stay on, although you may find yourself with only one foot in the stirrup, holding only one rein. A spin usually happens so fast you can’t prepare for it. Unlike horses that rear or buck, a horse spins around because he’s frightened. He probably won’t repeat the behavior unless he encounters something else that scares him.    

He bolts. A horse usually bolts for the same reason he swaps ends — he sees something threatening and tries to outrun it. Sometimes he will spin first, then bolt  It’s scary, but this one has a fix. First, keep your cool long enough to look around for someplace flat. When you  reach it, shorten one rein enough to turn your horse. Because he carries his weight on his forehand — front legs, shoulders, neck and head — if you turn his head and neck, the rest of his body has to follow. Circle him, still using one rein — shorten it, if necessary — until he slows down and stops.

Instead of punishing your horse for his “bad behavior,” think about why he’s doing it. Maybe your saddle doesn’t fit and is resting directly on his spine instead of the muscles on either side of it. Or maybe he injured himself—it’s worth having a veterinarian check him out. As long as he doesn’t rear or buck when you go for a trail ride, but he doesn’t want to leave his buddies, teach him that being with you is more fun and less work than hanging with them. The next time you swing a leg over his back, circle him at the walk. Make the next circle bigger, then smaller. Ask him to stop and back up. Then ask for a trot and repeat what you did at the walk. Then ride him to a spot close to the barn, but where he can’t see it. You left a tub with horse treats there. Pat him and tell him he’s a good boy, and ride him home. But when you reach the barn, circle him again. Trot him in a figure 8. Back him up. From now on, whenever you ride, find a new spot to leave his treats — and leave it farther and farther away each time. It won’t take long for your horse to figure out that he likes trail riding with you — and treats — better than he likes staying with his buddies and having to work.

Joan Fry

Joan Fry is a lifelong horse lover and the author of “Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need” (The Lyons Press, Revised Edition, 2007). She can be reached via email at