A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training

(This series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)

BUCKING: ‘A sudden humping or arching of the back with the head and neck lowered, usually kicking out with the hindlegs or jumping/bounding forwards/sideways with an arched back and ears laid back (Waring, 2003). Bucking is a manoeuvre that evolved to dislodge predators. Persistent bucking is a manifestation of conflict behaviour to the rein and leg cues (McLean), 2005b).’

In ‘Equine Behavior: a Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists’ (2nd edn.), Professor Paul McGreevy describes bucking as: ‘Leaping forwards and dorsally [upwards] with speed while arching the back and descending with the forelegs rigid and the head held low.’

In ‘Academic Horse Training: Equitation Science in Practice’, Dr Andrew McLean and Manuela McLean give this description: ‘Horse bounds forward and upwards, often landing with head thrust down, and kicks both hindlegs up simultaneously.’

Reference to various other equine dictionaries uncovers similar descriptions and I’m sure we’re all too familiar with bucking – one of the most dangerous things a horse can do when being handled or ridden by people. Of course, we love watching horses buck and play with their friends, in the field, when it is taken as a sign of joy, but seeing someone being bucked off is another matter. Serious injuries with long-lasting results, and even deaths, have resulted from falls off a bucking horse. Determined bucks are extremely difficult for even the best horsemen to sit; I understand that professional rodeo riders are not expected to stay on a bucker for more than 11 seconds.


‘Academic Horse Training’ tells us that bucking results from training flaws that can lead to conflict behaviour. (See below.) The information given on p282 is: ‘Inconsistent responses to stopping, slowing and forward signals [aids], incorrect application of negative reinforcement.’ (See below)

Conflict behaviour will be covered in this series in its turn, and has a fairly long description in the glossary we are following. It is usually accompanied by hyper-reactivity, with the horse behaving in a self-defensive way and showing a level of fear, not merely excitement. Briefly, it arises mainly from confusion due to conflicting aids, such as driving the horse on with the legs and applying significant bit pressure at the same time. During their earliest training (known as foundation training), horses learn that pressure from both legs means ‘go’ and pressure in their mouths from both sides of the bit means ‘stop’, ‘slow down’ and, later, ‘shorten your stride’ or ‘rein back’. This early learning sticks with them, so conflicting aids, such as ‘riding a horse up to the bit’ and ‘riding forward into halt’, which use leg and bit pressure at the same moment, are bound to confuse them.

This results in uncertainty: the horse becomes more or less frightened, he will probably go faster and take shorter steps and maybe ‘paddle’ in preparation to flee (the flight-and-fight response). Up goes the head, down goes the back and out go the hind legs. Adrenalin begins to rise and surge through the body. The horse may merely stiffen up and soldier on (any lightness he had going out of the window), and he may tremble. If he can’t cope with it all, he may buck, rear, bolt or shy.

Because hyper-reactive horses try to get their heads up (an instinctive response to help them see what the danger is and protect their vital heads), some people strap them down, bit them up and hold them in to prevent this reaction rather than re-train their horses correctly. When horses are forcibly prevented from showing their flight-and-fight response, some, according to temperament, develop ‘learned helplessness’ (having learned that they are helpless to improve their situation), probably a type of clinical depression, and continue working but in a dull, brow-beaten, robotic way.

To me, the kind of abuse I have described is just as serious as inflicting physical pain through whipping, spurring and jabbing in the mouth, deprivation of food, water or shelter, and working when sick or in pain.

Negative reinforcement in equine and equitation science is used in the mathematical sense of taking away or subtracting something unpleasant, such as pressure, to reward a horse for doing ‘the right thing’ (what we were asking for). Removing the pressure confirms to him, teaches him in fact, that the way to remove that particular pressure is to do what he has just that instant done. The important points to note are (1) your aid must be stopped the instant your horse responds as you wish so that he associates it with the right action from him, and (2) he will associate your reward (stopping the aid/pressure) with whatever he was doing the instant before you stopped.

This means that, for instance, if you give him a correct aid to stop (basically, bit pressure/vibration but no legs) and he stops but you keep the bit pressure on, then he swings his quarters to one side and then you stop the pressure, you have rewarded him for swinging his quarters. (Incidentally, crooked halts like this are a sign of too much bit pressure, driving the horse into the bit pressure and, as described, incorrect negative reinforcement or not stopping your aid the instant he halts (precisely, the instant both forefeet become stationary). They are also a sign that the horse has not learnt to stop from light pressure and in self-balance. He may not have been allowed to learn this because of strong bit pressure and being driven by the legs up to his bit.)

Other causes of bucking

Anything which causes pain in the back can cause bucking, the most common being an ill-fitting saddle, or girth. Other causes are fear of inappropriate riding techniques (anything which causes pain, fear, distress, not necessarily in the back area); anticipation of distressing work, pain and confusion under saddle; back and girth-area injuries; a high-energy diet and insufficient work or freedom and, closely related, feeling fresh on a cold morning; also, insect bites. Some horses develop the habit of bucking under saddle, often because the original cause, such as bad riding or an ill-fitting saddle, has not been remedied or was not remedied promptly.

Prevention is always better than cure but prevention should consist of removing causes and retraining correctly, not just plastering over the cracks by physically preventing the horse bucking. Because fear responses, of which bucking is one, are difficult to eradicate because they are connected with survival, it is far better to train effectively and correctly so that the horse has no need to develop this method of self-defence, barring uncontrollable outside influences.


Horses often, but not always, give some warning of an impending buck. To buck, a horse is believed to need to raise his back and lower his head and to buck anything like hard he must also be stationary (although see later). If you are riding a known bucker, keep his head up somewhat, without creating too firm a contact which could have the opposite effect of that required, and keep him going forward, so he cannot buck so effectively, and may decide not to do it at all. Bridging your reins jockey-style by making a loop of them between your hands, or simply firmly knotting them about 30cm/1ft from the buckle, will form a barrier which will hit the base of his neck if he does buck and you are thrown forward, helping to break your forward impetus.

As for sitting, or standing, to a buck, some people recommend that you sit down firmly and securely (!) in the saddle, others that you lean slightly forward, dig your knees into the saddle and use them as a pivot so that the movement goes on beneath you without disturbing your balance. In any case, get your horse’s head up as soon as it starts going down and you sense a buck is coming.

(It is not actually true that horses cannot buck with their heads up and need to be stationary. You only have to watch rodeos on YouTube to see this.) I used to believe it until I had a horse who could do it at the gallop with his head in the air. My shoulder has never fully recovered from hitting the ground from that day to this. I do believe, though, that it is only habitual, experienced and accomplished buckers who can do it.)

Equitation science is a continuing process of research and development, and has come up with a very useful technique to ‘disconnect’ the horse’s mind from any active, unwanted behaviour, like bucking, which the horse might perform, including shying, skittering around, scooting off and so on. Bring the horse to a halt – all feet still – by firm means and fair, with a bolt stop if really necessary, and count 13 seconds, that is full seconds … ONE banana, TWO bananas, THREE bananas … and then walk on again as though nothing had happened. This is very effective. Also, remember – don’t get angry. The horse will sense it and be more inclined to defend himself from you.

Obviously, any kind of rough treatment such as whipping the horse during, or even more foolishly, after bucking (as stupid as hitting a horse when he’s over a jump) will only make him worse as it is this kind of treatment which can trigger bucking in the first place. If you need to vent your anger somehow, go and kick a few bales of straw. (My father used to recommend kicking a brick wall, so that the pain would teach One some self-control!)

Children may not be strong enough to get a pony’s head up, so their ponies may need a length of strong cord fastened to the front dee of the saddle on each side, passed through the loops of the browband and tied to each bit ring. It should be adjusted so that the pony cannot get his head low enough to buck, that is, with his poll below his withers. It can be discarded after retraining.


Retraining consists mainly of revising the horse’s responses to the ‘go’ and ‘stop/slow/back’ aids, in-hand and under saddle, so that he will do these movements instantly, reliably and from very light aids. Further work to help ensure obedience and manoeuvrability would be to re-train quickening, lengthening and stepping sideways, all from very light aids and instantly. To find trainers to help you with this, if necessary, see below.

LEARN MORE AT: The Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), EquiSci for the UK (www.equitationscience.co.uk), the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au) and the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk). Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine, ‘Equine Behaviour’. A hard copy costs £3.50 and a digital copy (include your email address) costs £2.50. Please make your cheque payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ and send it to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see the advert in your copy of Equi-Ads). For lessons and clinics in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com

Author: Features Editor

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