Question: I bought a 4yr old tbx gelding 3 months ago and am concerned by his behavior. He was initially very stubborn to lunge (he would rear and refuse to go out on a circle) but I managed to get him going well within a week or two. He was very friendly and easy to handle on the ground. Then I began to ride him (he was only backed at this point). He has been riding really well and learning quickly. I’ve been careful to praise him a lot and have not had much need to scold him. Then suddenly he changed. I rode him and he refused to go forwards, instead cowkicking and bucking whenever I put my leg on. He’s also started to kick out violently when asked to move over in his stable! Out of the stable, he will move over fine! The only changes I have made are bringing him in overnight and feeding him! please help! Im scared of my 17hh youngster!
Answer from April Reeves, Horseman’s U.com: I’ll be honest: this is a problem for a professional that is not scared. From here, it will take a very firm hand, and a very brave heart.
Somewhere in your training, the horse got the impression that the roles between you two had been reversed. You are at where you are because somehow, somewhere, you lost the dominant position. Getting it back may not be easy.
Just a side note – I never start any horse with an English saddle. I always use a western saddle. It is safer and will help you with your confidence when something does go wrong.
Where it may have started is during groundwork. All too often we move quickly into it, and find our horse is pretty good, so we move quickly to the riding, and skip past the groundwork or leave it out entirely. For any horse about to be broke, this is not a great idea, as it often takes many months to secure the relationship between horse and rider from the ground. I will work on the ground for 3-4 months before riding, and when I begin to ride, I add it to the list of the work I am already doing, not replace it. If it’s a horse I intend to keep, I will continue to do groundwork before many of our rides for the rest of our time together.
One of the purposes to groundwork is to ‘hunt for bugs’ – those little quirks to the horse’s personality that will come out eventually. You may not find it in the first few months of groundwork, and you may not find it in the first 20 rides, but it’s there, waiting. Those quirks may not be much at all – a smell the horse does not like; a sound, what ever. Some horses act up for a moment and then get back to brain, while others lose their brain entirely. Just when you think you know the horse, they fool you.
In your case you have found a rather large intimidating ‘bug’ that needs the help of a professional. If you let it go, you will have a horse that could hurt you quite seriously one day.
I had a similar experience not long ago. I rode a horse for the first 10 rides, and everything was wonderful. I thought he was the best little horse going. Then one day, I had to push him. He was always a bit ‘sticky’ (where they won’t move forward quick enough from the leg). One day he was very sticky, so he got spanked.
And the rodeo show was on.
First thing he did was rear (typical of a sticky horse) and then buck. This little horse was not just bucking, but pinning his ears flat back on his head, with a challenge I have not seen in a horse for a very, very long time. Unfortunately the owner did not want the horse to ever know what bucking was about, so she immediately shut the whole thing down. The next day, we only walked around with the owner leading the horse and me riding – big mistake #1. Big mistake #2 was not letting me do the groundwork at the front end, or letting me handle the horse the way I needed to.
When you come across these larger problems, you need to get on them quickly and efficiently. Sometimes it’s not pretty and you have to get after and spank Fluffy, but the horse must know that this behavior is inappropriate, and it must be done right away.
Also, when you pay for a professional to work with your horse, you must trust his/her judgment. They know what to do and what needs to be done. If you choose this route, and I hope you do, please search out a qualified trainer with a good track record.
What will likely happen is the horse will undergo a few days of groundwork to engage the thinking part of the horse’s brain (we have to teach this to the horse – it’s not his natural instinct). In order to get a 17 hand horse over rearing and kicking, the trainer will have to be a bit more forceful than what you may like. During groundwork, the horse must be asked to move – all the time. The horse should be asked to change direction often, and to move out on request. They should get to the point where they become a bit winded, as their brain often kicks in when they are tired, and they surrender to the training.
Once the horse is thinking and listening with obedience (and only then) it’s time to get on. If the horse pins it’s ears and challenges me at any time, we continue to do groundwork until the horse is listening and obedient. For the first ride, the only thing the trainer will do is to teach one single lesson – move forward with obedience. That is it. That will be the whole lesson.
This is about teaching the horse to be responsible for his gaits. You should never have to use leg all the time to keep a horse in a gait. There is no need to do this, but it is a habit that far too many English instructors continue to teach and ride.
For most young horses, they take to this eagerly, but if your horse is sticky and challenges you, it becomes a tougher job. Once the trainer gets your horse moving forward, he/she must keep the horse going. The horse can trot slower or fast, but must stay in the trot gait, not a walk or a canter. If he gets sticky and won’t move forward, and I suspect he will, the trainer will have to get after him without using leg. Leg won’t work – the horse is too young to understand it, and if the horse does not listen by the third attempt, the horse won’t listen to any leg pressure beyond that anyway. I use the reins and slap them behind me on the hindquarters to drive the horse forward. The further back you ask for power, the more power you will get.
This is where it may get rough. Your horse may rise to the challenge, and it will take a good trainer to move the horse out and get the horse out of the sticky pattern he is in. This takes timing and courage.
If you choose to do this yourself, I would suggest you read my article on my blog that outlines in detail, the groundwork and saddle work you need to do for foundation training:
As for the kicking out in the stall, you must get on this right away. You will have to either find someone who is comfortable with the timing of reprimanding him, or try it yourself, but you will have to mean business and not nag him, or you will have a worse problem. If the horse uses ten pounds of pressure, fight back with fifteen. When I get a big horse like this, they only kick at me once. I get after them only once, and I mean it. They never forget it. Sometimes you just have to spank Fluffy.
If you work with him in the stall and he kicks, you may get pinned in the stall. I would take him out, do a lot of groundwork with him and make sure you can touch him everywhere. If he even pins his ears and postures to kick, even in the smallest way, get after him aggressively. Do it once and mean business. I will send a horse back on his hind end by using a small dressage whip at his chest, and while it may look rough, I never have to do it twice. I want that horse to stand up and pay attention to me, not wait for the right moment to take me out. You are in control here, not the horse. Once you tie into him and send him back, let him stand for a moment and soak in what just happened. Let the horse move back with all the freedom he needs. I like to let the lead drop to the ground with me holding just the end. This allows the horse to stand free for a moment after the ‘lesson’, much like a reward with a lesson attached. Once the horse is chewing or licking his lips, I will take him back to what I was originally doing. Often they will retest you to see if you meant it. If the horse is just fishing, I usually just have to posture, but with a larger horse, I will send him right back on his hind end again, and let him soak it in for another moment.
Normally I would suggest looking the horse over for any broken bones or soreness, but it seems to be that this is more of a case of an owner not dealing with a problem correctly from the start, and because he is so big, it escalated very quickly.
Big horses are interesting to ride, but they come with challenges that are also larger. In order to deal with them, you often have to become larger yourself and rise to the challenges you may come across.
Another thing you might want to reconsider is his feed. Many horses change their attitudes with specific feeds and grains. Like us, they are sensitive and may have reactions and allergies to various products. You may have to do some research on this. I have a big AQHA gelding and like you, went through an agonizing period of groundwork and help to get this horse’s brain engaged. He was extremely challenging, and although I had help from 3 of the top Natural Horsemen, they all missed one vital ingredient to a horses temperament: feed. I spent a long time researching feed. I now feed this horse extruded (they look like dog food) with ground flax, Triple Crown vitamins and Farrier’s Formula for his crappy quarter horse feet. He is free fed hay, and has become a very quiet, well mannered individual. I like to free feed hay as it takes the anxiety out of feed time, and I always have a consistent ride. While groundwork helped, it was the feed in the end that settled the horse down into what I wanted from the start. To this day, I have never come across a horse as challenging and difficult as this one was, but if you stick to it, you will learn things very few horse owners will ever know, and it is one of the most rewarding experiences you will have. I would never trade my experience with this horse for anything.
I hope you find a professional to help you with the horse. I have outlined a program I use, but it may not be what they will do. However, make sure that the trainer does have the ability and courage to see this through. You can’t negotiate with your horse through kind words. I’m just keeping it real.