Bucking, Shying and other Attention Deficit Disorders

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

There may be a few enthusiastic riders out there who look forward to the challenge of riding their horse through a fit of bucking or shying when they mount up. Most of us, however, would prefer that our horses never did either one while we are on their backs.

Whenever horses start behaving badly, we try to give them the benefit of the doubt. The horse that bucks may have a saddle or girth that’s pinching him uncomfortably. Or he may simply be high on life and feeling really good. The horse that shies may be hypersensitive to noise or reacting to the excitement of a windy day. Or he may be in need of a lot of patient “spook proofing” to build his confidence and recondition his responses to unfamiliar sights and sounds. The horse that backs full speed across the arena when his rider asks him to go forward may be trying to escape a severe bit or a rider’s unrelenting hands.

More often, however, behaviors like bucking, shying, standing up or that unrequested backing are the horse’s way of evading something the rider has asked him to do and that he understands perfectly well how to do. If the rider does not recognize what has happened and take measures to correct it immediately, the horse learns that evasion has its rewards. He doesn’t have to do whatever it was he didn’t want to do. Better yet, if he frightens his rider badly enough, the lesson may end altogether. What a deal!

In our training program, we take horses through four stages of learning. First we show them what we want them to do. When we’re sure that they understand what we are showing them, we begin to ask for it. When the horse consistently does what we ask, he has reached a level of sophistication where we can tell him what we want and expect to get the correct response every time. At this stage in the horse’s training, if he does not do what we tell him to do, we can enforce our request with stronger aids without upsetting his training program one bit.

If the horse bucks or backs because his equipment is hurting him, it would be unjust to enforce our request. However, if he’s bucking because he’s having a tantrum or shying at the barn cat out of high spirits and we fail to enforce our request, we reinforce the evasion. Today’s evasion quickly becomes tomorrow’s bad habit.

The best way to deal with an evasion is to ride the horse forward assertively. The idea is to channel the horse’s evasive energy into forward movement. The average rider finds this a scary thing to do when their horse is behaving badly, however. And if they don’t have an independent seat, they may not be capable of riding the horse forward assertively. Their fears allow the horse’s evasion to succeed and a bad habit gets started. Our students get a lot of experience riding horses like these when discouraged owners send their horses to Meredith Manor for “reform school.”

Upper level riders like a horse that’s bursting with energy because they can direct that energy into the horse’s work. Less skilled riders may want to make sure an energetic horse has plenty of turnout time during the day or at least before their riding sessions begin so the horse can spend its excess energy playing rather than evading. If your horse has developed a persistent evasion, you seek help from a trainer who can return him to ranks of solid citizens and improve your riding skills to build your confidence.

The best way to prevent the occasional evasion from turning into a regular bad habit is to keep the horse’s attention on you at all times. Attention is a learned habit for both the horse and the handler or rider. We start our young horses with a groundwork program we call heeding because its goal is to get the horse to pay complete attention to its handler at all times. At the same time, students learn to put their attention completely on their horse. If you are physically with your horse but mentally thinking about the what kind of pizza you want for dinner or what song you want to download from your computer, you are not paying attention to your horse. So why should he pay attention to you?

When you cultivate the habits of paying attention to your horse every moment you are with him on the ground and of bringing his attention back to you whenever it wanders, those habits carry over into your riding. To ride well, you must pay attention to every stride the horse takes, stride after stride. When you give your horse that level of attention, you start to automatically pick up on and correct those small losses of attention on the horse’s part that are the beginning of an evasion. Then a full blown evasion simply never happens.

Just like people, different horses will have different attention spans. Young horses have short attention spans just like young children. So their lessons should be short enough to end on a good note before they get too tired to pay attention any more. Some horses are more focused while others tend to get distracted easily. Developing concentration—both your own and that of your horse—is a skill that is just as important to good riding as developing balance or understanding the aids.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

If you are serious about the horse industry then MM is the place to go!! Loads of hard work that pays off in the end!
Stephanie Wittek: 1996 Riding Master Graduate