The buck stops here: Getting to the bottom of this dangerous behaviour in horses

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A jockey in Sweden rides out a buck.
A jockey in Sweden rides out a buck. Photo by ratexla (protected by Pixsy)

Bucking horses have unseated riders for countless generations. An energetic buck may be an essential life skill for a rodeo horse, but for most riders it is an unpredictable and dangerous behaviour that can result in serious injury.

Getting to the bottom of a buck isn’t necessarily easy, and there are often no quick fixes, researchers Sue Dyson and Katy Thomson write in a just-published review.

Dyson, an equine orthopaedic specialist, and Thomson, an equine veterinarian with an interest in orthopaedics, said identification of a likely underlying cause can lead to a treatment and management plan which may involve a team approach with paraprofessionals, such as a physiotherapist or chiropractor.

The pair, writing in the journal Equine Veterinary Education, note that there is limited information about how bucking behaviour should be investigated by veterinarians.

They set out to define bucking behaviour, review previously published research, describe their personal observations, and lay out an approach to clinical investigation and management strategies.

The pair described bucking as an upward leap, usually in addition to forward propulsion, when either both hindlimbs or all four limbs are off the ground.

Causes include excitement, exuberance, defensive behaviour associated with fear, learned behaviour through negative reinforcement or a reaction to musculoskeletal pain.

Specific causes of pain include an ill-fitting saddle or girth, thoracolumbar pain, girth region pain, sternal or rib injury, nerve-related discomfort, sacroiliac joint region pain, referred pain and primary hindlimb lameness.

“Any of these may be compounded by a rider who is fearful, poorly balanced or crooked,” the pair wrote.

The pair stressed that there is a variety of different sources and causes of pain that may lead to bucking.

Determining the underlying cause requires a comprehensive clinical assessment, including assessment of saddle fit for horse and rider, and the suitability of the horse–rider combination.

“In some horses, identifying a primary pain source allows targeted treatment to resolve the discomfort, but careful retraining is crucial.”

In other horses, bucking may have become a learned behaviour, perhaps initiated by previous pain or fear.

The authors stressed that an understanding of learning behaviour is required for successful rehabilitation.

Researchers describe bucking as an upward leap, usually in addition to forward propulsion, when either both hindlimbs or all four limbs are off the ground.
Researchers describe bucking as an upward leap, usually in addition to forward propulsion, when either both hindlimbs or all four limbs are off the ground. Photo by lostinfog

Early on, the input of a skilled horseman, accustomed to working with difficult horses, may help. The authors noted there were several YouTube videos that provide fascinating insights into training.

“However, it must be emphasised that retraining needs to be slow and progressive. Rider safety must always be of paramount importance.”

They stressed the importance of matching rider ability with the temperament and movement of the horse.

“If an underlying pain-related cause cannot be identified, then working together with a skilled behaviourist may be of benefit.

“However, it has to be ultimately recognised that there is a minority of horses in which dangerous bucking behaviour cannot be resolved and for which retirement or euthanasia are the only options.”

The recognition of pain and learned behaviour in horses which buck. D. Dyson and  K. Thomson. Equine Veterinary Education, 16 March 2021, https://doi.org/10.1111/eve.13466

The full review can be read here

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