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How To Stop A Horse From Rearing: Groundwork

By Jeffrey Rolo

In the Part One and Part Two of this series we covered methods that will help keep you safer when a horse rears while horseback riding, as well as corrective actions that will remedy that behavior. In this article we will learn how to handle a horse that rears while on the ground.

Before discussing the corrective actions I want to make a quick note about advice I've given in the earlier articles in this series. I stated that when a horse persistently rears under saddle due to defiance that it's best to address the problem on the ground. The same horse may or may not rear while on the ground, but whether he does or not is irrelevant. Groundwork is about gaining mental control over a horse by establishing yourself as a gentle, yet firm, pack leader. Once you achieve this point, the horse won't rebel against you and as such the rearing should become a thing of the past.

So if you're starting groundwork due to a horse rearing while riding, and you find that the naughty horse doesn't rear while on the ground, continue with the groundwork just as you would any horse in training. Work through the basics until you establish yourself as the leader. (You can find several articles about round pen work elsewhere in this site if you're interested.)

With that said, the focus of this article will be on a horse that rears while on the ground. The two most common causes of this type of rearing will be overenthusiastic youngsters spending off excess energy or rebellious horses trying to establish themselves as the boss. Fear can also prompt rearing while on the ground, but usually a horse that becomes frightened while being led will elect to bolt to the side away from the perceived threat. Rearing from fear is more common under saddle since the bit and riding gear makes them feel a bit more "cornered."

Luckily although rearing is frustrating and potentially dangerous, it can also be very easy to control while on the ground. If you control the horse's head, you control their ability to rear – it's just that simple. Okay… nothing is ever that simple, but the basic fact holds true.

While doing groundwork you want to focus heavily on making the horse drop his head on cue. There are two reasons for this, one obvious, one not so obvious. The obvious reason is that if a horse is lowering their head they can't possibly be raising it simultaneous… but that theory only goes so far. If a horse puts his full strength into rearing, chances are good he can overpower your downward pressure depending on his age and bulk.

The second and more important reason why lowering the head helps prevent rearing is relaxation. When a horse is frightened or tense he will raise his head and tighten his neck, but when a horse is relaxed his head will drop lower and his neck and chest muscles will relax. Many times once a horse drops his head upon request he will by default begin to loosen up.

Practice this over and over again until he not only drops his head upon request, but also keeps it lowered once you release pressure. Repetition will be your friend, and eventually if you lower his head anytime you feel your horse tensing up the rearing problem should go away altogether.

If your horse is the nervous type that reacts to perceived threats by rearing then you want to work on diverting his attention to you. There are other articles on this site that will show you how to train a fearful horse and make him gain confidence through you, so I'd recommend checking them out if the cause of your horse's rearing is nerves. Keep his mind engaged on you, make him trust you, and he'll be far less likely to react strongly to nearby "threats."

Sometimes a defiant horse will not drop his head as requested and you'll need to escalate your insistence that he cease his rearing. For this stage I would recommend carrying a riding crop (or better yet a dressage crop since they are a bit longer – you don't want to be too close to a rearing horse). Anytime your horse rears, smack him hard on the chest or front shoulders with the crop while commanding him to cease his rearing in a menacing growl. I would recommend using a consistent one-word command such as "down" or "stop." Always use the verbal cue with your physical corrective action, because the verbal cue will be far more effective in the long run.

Some trainers will sharply yank a horse's head downwards when a horse rears, and this can be effective if you are able to overpower the horse. I'd only recommend it with colts and fillies, not problematic adults. Some leads have a chain length, and some trainers will wrap the chain length of the lead over the nose of the horse's halter to gain additional leverage while yanking the horse back down. I recommend extreme caution before doing this, because if you apply too much pressure you can hurt your horse's nose pretty badly. This technique is best done with slow and steady pressure rather than a sharp yank, and I'd actually recommend against using the technique entirely unless you are very experienced.

I'll close this article with two thoughts. First, always be aware of your distance and positioning when dealing with a rearing horse. Never stand in front of the horse or too close to the horse's side. You want to position yourself about even with the horse's shoulder approximately one outstretched arm's length away from his side. Improper positioning can lead to being struck by your horse's front legs.

Finally, always react to rearing quickly and firmly, leaving no room for compromises. It's a behavior that can eventually lead into a very problematic habit, so there can be no room for overlooking it.

With patience and proper procedure, chances are high you can stop your horse from rearing both on the ground and under saddle. Just take things slow, maintain control and don't make the mistake of going overboard with corrective actions.

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