Horses provide several in-hand clues to potentially dangerous ridden behaviours, study finds

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Showjumping horses had an increased risk of rearing, and companion horses and Pony Club horses an increased risk of bucking when compared to pleasure-riding horses.
Showjumping horses had an increased risk of rearing, the researchers found. Photo by Elrenia_Greenleaf on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Will your horse buck, rear or bolt when you climb in the saddle? A fresh study reveals that in-hand behaviours may provide important clues about what may happen once you climb on board.

The University of Sydney study team based their conclusions on 1584 responses by horse owners to the Equine Behaviour Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ).

E-BARQ drives an ongoing global database of horse behaviour. Riders who participate are able to use the tool to benchmark their horses against thousands of others in terms of welfare, training and behaviour.

Nicole Romness and her fellow researchers, reporting in the journal Animals, said dangerous ridden behaviours in horses, such as bolting, rearing and bucking, are common. Indeed, in one study of leisure riding horses in Britain, their reported prevalence reached up to 91%.

Such behaviours may reflect various aspects of the horses’ immediate experience, history and health, the Australian study team said.

“They can have a major impact on human safety and horse welfare because of the common misunderstandings of unwelcome behaviour in horses and popular treatments for so-called problem horses,” they said.

In their study, the researchers set out to identify any in-hand behaviours associated with these dangerous ridden behaviours, based on E-BARQ responses.

The study team found that declining reports of bolting were associated with fewer problems loading horses onto transporters, increasing social confidence with other horses and other animals, improved leading behaviour, and increased tolerance of restraint.

Put another way, if the horse is a poor loader, tends to spook at the sight of other animals, or doesn’t lead or tie up well, it is more likely to bolt under saddle.

Similarly, declining reports of rearing were associated with fewer loading issues, increasing social confidence with other animals and increasing tolerance of restraint.

Bucking followed a similar trend, with fewer incidents of this risky behaviour linked to horses that had fewer loading problems and increasing social confidence with horses and other animals, improved leading behaviour, a greater tolerance of restraint, and increasing tolerance of head handling during bridling or haltering.

Good manners on the ground usually translate to better ridden behaviours, an Australian study has found.
Good manners on the ground usually translate to better ridden behaviours, an Australian study has found.

“Findings from the current study could help riders and trainers predict dangerous ridden behaviour before they manifest fully,” the researchers said, “allowing for remediation that avoids the escalation of force in the training of misunderstood horses and thus improving safety and welfare for both horses and riders.”

They said identification of risk factors for dangerous behaviour while under saddle can improve safety for horses and riders.

The findings highlight the importance of effective and humane in-hand training, they said.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said it was worth noting that bucking, rearing and bolting were all associated with some combination of problem behaviours inhand.

“There was no instance in which desirable in-hand behaviours were associated with unwanted ridden behaviours.

“This finding highlights the importance of in-hand training.”

Loading problems, which are associated with increased bolting, rearing and bucking, may reflect a horse with a heightened flight response, or one that has not been trained to respond effectively to in-hand cues to step forward.

“In this sense, the current data may support the view that loading problems are often leading problems.

“Furthermore, rearing has been identified as a conflict behaviour directly associated with loading in that some horses will rear as an expression of conflict when loading is attempted.”

Social confidence in horses tended to reduce the occurrence of risky behaviours under saddle.

“In this study, social confidence with other animals was a direct measure of a horse’s flight response behaviour when in the presence of non-equine animals. Horses that displayed a heightened flight response in these situations may show a heightened flight response to any novel or unhabituated stimuli.

“As a result, they may also be considered high risk for showing a similar heightened flight response when ridden. These responses could include bolting, rearing or bucking, especially if in the presence of unfamiliar non-equine animals or those it has learned to avoid because of previous aversive encounters.”

Horses that were tolerant of restraint were less likely to bolt, rear or buck. High tolerance of restraint is a good measure of a horse’s response to “stop” signals from a rope and reflects the effectiveness of prior training, they said.

“Horses with high scores in this category are presumably those that have been trained effectively in-hand, which could explain the decreased incidence of unwanted ridden behaviour if they have similarly been trained to respond to cues effectively when ridden.

Oregon de la Vigne and Denis Mesple
File image © Mike Bain

“That said,” they continued, “the direct transition from head-collar cues in early in-hand training to bit cues in eventual ridden work cannot be assumed since they act on different parts of the head.

“The current findings suggest great merit in exploring how best to ensure this transition when developing training protocols.”

Good compliance in-hand was linked to a reduced risk of bolting and bucking. “As with tolerance of restraint, in-hand compliance can be interpreted as a measure of the horse’s responsiveness to in-hand cues, in this instance when being led.

“Horses with high scores in this category are those that readily respond to in-hand cues to ‘go’ and ‘stop’, reflecting effective training, most commonly by negative reinforcement.

These horses likely showed a decreased risk of bolting and bucking because they have also been trained to respond to “stop” and “go” cues effectively when being ridden.

“Again, this finding is accompanied by the need to study the optimal means of transferring in-hand cues to ridden cues.”

Such an investigation may reveal why rearing is not associated with compliance when led in-hand, as might be expected.

Poor tolerance of halters and bridles was linked to a greater incidence of bucking. This could be linked to head shyness or could reflect resistance to head restraint.

The correlation, they said, could indicate that a horse has not been properly habituated to equipment, or might be experiencing pain in the mouth or poll region made worse by the use of a halter or bridle.

“It is possible this pain could also trigger an escape behaviour response, such as bucking, when ridden.”

The study team also found that increasing age was associated with decreased risk of rearing and bucking.

“As horses age, they become more habituated to various kinds of stimuli that may have previously elicited fear. They have also likely had more time in training both in-hand and when ridden.”

The authors said some associations between ridden behaviour and breed or country of origin are difficult to explain.

Increased bolting was associated with several countries of origin (Belgium, South Africa, Sweden, Britain, and the United States, among others). Increased bucking was associated with horses from New Zealand.

Such findings could reflect the impact of differing riding environments, housing circumstances, training preferences, differences in hyper-reactivity due to genetics, or other unidentified factors. “More research in this area is needed.”

Warmbloods were at increased risk of bolting when compared to crossbreed horses
Warmbloods were at increased risk of bolting when compared to crossbreed horses, the researchers found.

Similarly, Warmbloods were at increased risk of bolting when compared to crossbreed horses, whereas gaited horses were at decreased risk. “These findings could reflect breed predispositions,” they said, or could reflect differing management practices for different breeds.

Rearing and bucking showed associations with several different ridden disciplines.

Showjumping horses had an increased risk of rearing, and companion horses and Pony Club horses an increased risk of bucking when compared to pleasure-riding horses.

Showjumping horses were twice as likely to rear as pleasure-riding horses. “This difference could be attributed to the more frequent pressure from conflicting motivations that show-jumpers are likely to encounter when compared to pleasure horses.

“For example, if a showjumping horse is presented with an especially aversive obstacle, the rider will be cueing the horse to go, while fear of the obstacle will be motivating the horse to stop its advance. Thus, rearing may manifest as a conflict behaviour in this type of situation.”

Overall, the incidence of rearing in the current study was low when compared to bucking and bolting, with fewer than 400 of the 1584 respondents reporting horses that had reared, and the remainder of respondents reporting horses that never reared.

“While this finding is interesting, further study would be needed to determine the relatively low reported incidence of rearing.”

In conclusion, they said unwanted behaviours on the ground associated with more bolting, rearing or bucking included loading problems, low social confidence with horses or other animals, low compliance in-hand, low tolerance of restraint and low compliance with haltering or bridling.

“When dealing with unfamiliar horses, these behavioural problems in-hand should be checked for and remediated before ridden work commences (or resumes), since they may serve as warnings of dangerous behaviour under-saddle and allow riders to avoid injury.”

The full University of Sydney study team comprised Romness, Kate Fenner, Jessica McKenzie, Ashley Anzulewicz, Bibiana Burattini, Bethany Wilson and Paul McGreevy.

Romness, N.; Fenner, K.; McKenzie, J.; Anzulewicz, A.; Burattini, B.; Wilson, B.; McGreevy, P. Associations between Owners’ Reports of Unwanted Ridden Behaviour and in-Hand Behaviour in Horses. Animals 2020, 10, 2431.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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2 thoughts on “Horses provide several in-hand clues to potentially dangerous ridden behaviours, study finds

  • December 19, 2020 at 12:56 pm
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    It should be obvious that if you cannot handle a horse on the ground you should not get on their back.

    Reply
  • December 21, 2020 at 10:30 am
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    How about a horse that slings their head around? Our primary farm stallion did that for several hours for the 1st few times ridden out in the open after being ridden in the barn with no problems. We of course knew since he was of Seattle Slew lines by a stakes winning Kentucky bred sire we figured he would be difficult! We utilized mother natures HIGH , HOT temps as our ally! When we began riding outside the barn for the 1st several rides we made sure it was > 100f! He would sling his head for awhile than would quit & then we would just ask for him to go forward at a walk. Later he would recover & do the head slinging bit. But each time he would become better as we continued riding him just at a walk. Unfortunately he would recover from the heat sometimes faster than we would! Gradually he began to walk & trot & canter without use of a whip or spurs or a stock saddle which we NEVER have used to teach a thoroughbred horse to be ridden. Now he goes straight down the county road in front of our farm very good much to the worry of our neighbors where on quiet Sundays we ride him as far as a mile away from our farm. Of course we allow him to eat some of the delicious grass & dandelions growing along the road.

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