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How to Ride a “Crazy” Horse

How to Ride a Crazy Horse Dressage


Harmony between horse and rider is crucial in dressage if you want to enjoy high scores and positive comments, and a disobedient, resistant, or just plain “crazy” horse will never do well in dressage.

So, what makes crazy horses, well, crazy? And, how do you ride a crazy horse?

Let’s find out!

What defines a crazy horse?

There are several behaviors that can cause a horse to be labeled as “crazy,” and all of those behaviors have different causes and solutions:

  • Bucking
  • Rearing
  • Spooking
  • Bolting
  • “Hot”

We are going to look into each of these problems individually, but first, there are a few common denominators that you should check before you do anything else.

Things to check FIRST!

Physical pain

A very common cause of “bad” or “naughty” behavior that often goes unrecognized by the rider is a horse’s discomfort or pain. That’s often the case when the horse’s behavior changes suddenly for no apparent reason.

For that reason, whatever the variety of “craziness” your horse is exhibiting, we strongly advise that you get your equine thoroughly checked over by a vet, qualified equine physio, and experienced equine dentist before you think about taking steps to cure the problems that you’re having.

Many horses are labeled as having “issues” and being crazy, when the problems are purely down to some kind of physical condition, minor injury, gastric ulcers, or dental problem that the rider is unaware of.

Tack check

Poorly fitting tack can inflict untold pain on the unfortunate horse that’s forced to wear it day after day. So, again, we stress the need to have your saddle and girth double-checked by a qualified saddle fitter.

Also, a poorly adjusted bridle can pinch your horse behind his ears and under his chin, and a throatlatch or curb chain that’s too tight or incorrectly adjusted can cause your horse excruciating discomfort every time you pick up the contact.

There are so many different styles and combinations of nosebands to choose from that are dressage-legal that knowing how to fit them all can be a confusing minefield. Ask an experienced riding instructor or knowledgeable friend to check that your noseband is correctly adjusted and fits your horse properly.

Finally, the wrong choice of bit is a prime candidate for upsetting many horses. So, it’s a really good idea to ask a bit fitter to double-check that you have the correct size, style, and thickness of bit for your horse.

Bad management

In nature, horses spend most of their time wandering for miles, grazing and foraging as they go, and expending energy at the same time. Ideally, you should allow your horse to spend at least a few hours each day at liberty in a field or paddock where he can burn off any excess energy and enjoy a good buck and run around without you on his back!

Stable-kept horses and those on limited turnout can become frustrated and full of pent-up energy, especially if their diet is not adjusted accordingly. So, it’s little wonder that these animals can “explode” when finally taken out of their stables for exercise.

Be very careful that you don’t overfeed your horse with concentrates and high-energy forage. Choose hay or haylage that’s been laboratory tested and shown to be low in sugar and high in fiber so that your horse can munch away happily all day without having a sugar rush the moment he’s taken out of his stable.

Change of career/confusion and frustration

Sometimes, a change of career can cause a horse to appear crazy.

For example, an ex-racehorse will be used to living on a large yard with a very regimented daily routine. Take that same horse and place him on a small yard with a more erratic day, without transitioning him properly, and he will probably become stressed. Now ask that same horse to become a riding horse, learning a totally new set of aids, different tack, and a completely different job, and you can see how his confusion and frustration might be construed as craziness.

(If you need help transitioning an ex-racehorse, check out our book Racehorse to Dressage Horse: How to Buy, Re-train, and Compete Your Off-The-Track Thoroughbred Successfully in Dressage)

Bucking

A horse that bucks can be frightening to ride, especially when the bucks come from out of nowhere and you’re not expecting them.

Horses generally buck under saddle for a couple of reasons:

1. Discomfort or pain

If your horse feels a sudden stab of pain in his back, he may buck as an instant reaction to that stimulus.

How to fix the problem

Have a vet examine your horse to make sure that a problem such as kissing spines, ulcers, or a pulled muscle isn’t the cause.

If your horse is physically well, it could be that your saddle or girth is pinching him. Have a qualified saddle fitter take a look at your tack and take any remedial action that’s required to fix the problem.

Some mares can be inclined to buck when they’re in season. If that’s the case with your mare, it’s worth having her scanned to make sure that ovarian cysts aren’t causing her discomfort while she’s in season. Your vet will give you advice on what action to take.

2. Frustration and freshness

Sometimes, a horse will buck if he feels stressed or under pressure. For example, during training sessions when you’re teaching your horse a new exercise that he finds difficult.

Also, It could be that your horse is feeling fresh and gets rid of some of his exuberance by bucking, often during an upward transition to canter.

How to fix the problem

If your horse isn’t turned out, it’s sensible to lunge him before you get onboard. Often, once you’ve removed some of the horse’s freshness, the bucking will stop.

When you begin riding your horse, don’t spend too much time walking around the arena. Get straight into a brisk working trot, and give your horse plenty to think about by riding changes of rein, circles, turns, and lateral work.

Be careful not to allow the horse to back off your leg and drop his head. If you keep the horse’s head above the level of his knees, he’ll find bucking much harder. If you feel a buck coming on, bend the horse’s neck to the inside and ride him on a small circle; It’s next to impossible for a horse to buck while you have control of his neck.

Rearing

Horses that rear are dangerous. Period. So, why do horses rear?

1. Blocking

Some horses start rearing when the rider’s contact is too fixed and blocking. The rider tries to drive the horse forward into the contact, but the horse has nowhere to go. If the horse is sensitive or hot, he may try to escape the rider’s confusing aids by going up.

How to fix the problem

Assuming that your horse’s teeth are in good order, his bit fits him properly, and his tack is correctly fitted, and there are no other physical reasons for this behavior, then you need to focus on your riding.

If you’re trying too hard to persuade your horse to work “on the bit,” your hand may be too blocking and fixed. Work on developing an elastic contact, not a hard, blocking one.

Revisit the scales of training, and make sure that your horse is working forward from behind through his back before you try to soften his poll and encourage him to work in a rounder frame.

2. Overexcitement

Although most horses don’t find dressage especially exciting, “hot” types often do. Sometimes, if a horse is so hyped up that he doesn’t quite know what to do with all that energy, he may come behind the bridle and rear.

How to fix the problem

Direct your horse onto a circle, ease your hand, and ride forward to encourage the horse release the pent-up energy and follow the contact, not hide from it.

3. Napping

Rearing can become a habit in horses that nap. Basically, the horse refuses to go where the rider directs him, planting himself and rearing when the rider tries to drive the horse forward.

How to fix the problem

Napping often happens when the horse has no respect for the leadership of his rider. In that case, you may need to go right back to basics. Lots of groundwork, longreining, and lunging should be carried out before beginning a complete revision of the horse’s training under saddle.

Spooking

Horses spook at many different things in many different situations, sometimes with no apparent logic behind their behavior at all.

In the dressage arena, the horse might find the presence of a car somewhat alarming, or perhaps the buckets of flowers at each marker could trigger a spook, especially on a windy day.

How to fix the problem

Make sure that you’ve worked-in enough before your dressage test. If your horse is completely attentive and concentrating on you, he will be much less likely to spook at things.

If possible, do plenty of hacking and trail riding as part of your horse’s work regimen. Hacking out exposes your horse to lots of different sights and sounds and can really help to desensitize a spooky horse.

Finally, continue the desensitizing process at home by creating a “handy pony” course in your home arena, containing as many spooky objects as you can find.

Think flowers in buckets, cones, balloons attached to sticks, umbrellas, banners fixed to the fence, and a bright blue tarp on the ground held down by colored poles. Start by leading your horse around the course, then move on to long reining him, and, when he is confident, school him in the arena under saddle.

Bolting

A horse that bolts can be extremely frightening to ride, especially if there’s no indication that he’s about to take off with you.

Although bolting in dressage tests is a rare occurrence, that can sometimes happen while the rider is working-in, especially where the warm-up area is outside in a field, such as in horse trials dressage.

Horses bolt for various reasons, including:

  • A saddle that pinches
  • Physical pain
  • A sudden loud noise or frightening sight

When a horse bolts, his flight response goes into overdrive, and he runs in blind panic to escape the perceived danger. Unfortunately, if the rider becomes unbalanced and clings on for dear life, that can make the problem worse, as the horse will keep on running until he dislodges the frightening burden that he’s carrying.

To permanently cure the problem, you need to work out what’s causing the behavior and take appropriate action.

What to do if your horse bolts

First of all, it’s important to understand that you will never beat your horse on brute strength alone, and a tug-of-war will only have one winner! Also, if you’re riding an ex-racer, the harder you pull on the reins, the faster your horse will run; that’s what he’s been trained to do.

The safest way to control a bolting horse is to go with him, turning him onto a large circle, gradually decreasing the size of the circle as the horse slows down and you regain control. Don’t make the turn too sharp, as the horse could slip and come down. Use your leg and seat to keep the horse balanced, and try not to tip forward.

If your horse takes off with you on a narrow trail where you can’t turn a circle, you’ll need to employ the “pulley rein” technique.

Use one rein to bend the horse’s neck but without turning him, applying leverage with just one hand. Push your heels deep to anchor yourself, and brace your fists against the horse’s neck in front of his withers. Using opposite reins, pull smoothly up and back, directing the force toward your chest. Keep your hips slightly closed so that you can anchor your fists and give you leverage.

As you regain control, talk calmly to the horse and reassure him that everything’s okay and the danger has gone.

“Hot horses”

When correctly schooled and contained by a skillful rider, a “hot” horse can have excellent presence in the dressage arena and often has presence to burn. However, the difference between a “hot” horse and a crazy one can be a fine line.

How to fix the problem

Sometimes, horses that are hot by nature can be calmed by providing them with plenty to do in the form of transitions, changes of direction, and riding complicated patterns. But a horse with that kind of temperament needs an experienced rider, especially in the early days of the horse’s training.

All too often, dressage judges see talented “hot” horses ridden by inexperienced, over-horsed riders, which is usually a recipe for disaster. In a nutshell, when buying a horse, always choose one that suits your ability and experience.

In conclusion

With a few notable exceptions, all “crazy” horses can be relaxed with a little thought.

It’s important that you first carry out the basic physical checks, tack checks, management checks, and rider checks as outlined above, and then turn to your building blocks of training.

If you are still having difficulty with your horse, then we recommend enlisting the help of a qualified and experienced equine professional.

Do you have any other tips or experience of riding “crazy” horses that you’d like to share with us? Tell us your story in the comments box below!

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