California Riding Magazine • August, 2013

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Acceptable behavior?

Question: I have friends who participate in hunter/jumper events and recently I visited the stable where they keep their horse and train. I was concerned to find out that the children and teens are coming off their horses at least once a week. Apparently, this is common but I find it scary and dangerous. I would like your opinion of this situation. Is this acceptable?

Answer: This type of situation is found in all disciplines although it may be more common in the hunter/jumper world. The horses are strong on the hand and are often pushy on the ground. They can be hard to stop and tend to get upset which results in bucking and rearing. These behaviors seem to be accepted as I found out many years ago when I traveled to work on horses. I was working with a horse that refused to cross the creek. I rode out for about a mile when the horse began to buck. We got through that and worked at the creek where the horse did quite well. When I told the owner that the horse had done well at the creek but bucked on the trail, he laughed and replied that the horse always bucked and then would get over it and continue on. That was acceptable behavior for the owner.


A lot of people accept rearing, bucking, pulling on the hands, refusing to stop, and the horse spooking at everything. For me, these are not acceptable behaviors. I do want to emphasize that this mentality is not just found with english riders. I have western horses that come in for clinics that exhibit the same behaviors and the owners tolerate this nonsense. The horses are not obedient, quiet or relaxed, and neither the riders nor the horses are safe, can learn anything new or have any fun.

A horse needs to be quiet with good ground manners. The horse should stop without pulling on the rider's hands and a gag bit, which is often considered standard jumper equipment, should not be needed. Around here, we jump horses using one of my hack-a-pulls instead of any type of bit in the mouth. It comes down to standards for behavior, what is acceptable. For me, it is always safety first. If you get hurt enough times, you are going to be less inclined to spend time with your horse. Soon the horse doesn't get out enough and the situation is compounded. We lose incentive for working with the horse when we get hurt. It can lead to neglect if we are not around to see that the horse gets hoof care, vaccinations or has been injured. So, my rule is safety first for the rider and secondly for the horse.

Backing up

What we must do to prevent this downward spiral is set standards for behavior. We all know that horses are born to buck, rear, kick, and strike. This is normal behavior for a horse. If you watch them in the wild, every herd will mix it up until a pecking order is established. This is natural and horses carry this behavior over to humans because it is the only language they know. We don't speak that language and they cannot understand or learn ours. We must learn their language and we do that by setting standards. We must be the dominate (partner) one in the relationship.

Children should not anticipate being bucked off when they go to their weekly riding lesson. If this behavior continues, it would be better to find another barn. It is not safe, it is not acceptable and there are barns that do school the horses so that they are pleasant and safe to ride. The horses have gone through de-spooking so their emotional levels are down.

Most horses that come here for training are uneducated. A horse may have been under saddle for years but if he has not been trained, he really doesn't know anything and he will revert to natural behaviors when he is confused or upset. Our job here, and your job as a handler, is to teach the horse the proper way to respond when asked to do something. That means our requests must be clear and consistent.
If you don't know what the standards are or you don't know how to train your horse to meet proper standards, find a barn or a trainer who does. However, it is your responsibility to learn the standards. Once you know the standards, it is also your responsibility to follow through.

neducated and even educated horses will test you. If you are not educated or you know what to do but are unwilling to follow through when you give a cue and the horse fails to respond, your horse will never reach the standard.

Stopping and backing

Follow through is simply correction when the horse does not respond properly. It is not punishment. For example, if you are leading your horse and he steps into you, you stop the horse and back him up to get him out of your space. If the horse is not willing to back, you must stay with it and apply the amount of pressure it takes until the horse backs up. This may mean that you carry a crop and tap the ground in front of the horse, or if he still does not back away, tap his legs. You are not beating the horse, but you are increasing the pressure until the horse yields. When the horse steps back a step or to, stop immediately and continue leading him. If he crowds you again, repeat the process. Horses learn by pressure and release so repeat the process as many times as you need to. Soon you will be surprised to see how your relationship with the horse has changed. You have become the dominate member of the relationship. This builds trust in the horse and is a building block for additional positive learning.

Charles Wilhelm