Why Horses Rear and What to Do About It

A jockey on a rearing horse
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Rearing is dangerous behavior for everyone concerned. If your horse rears, you are in danger of being unseated, fallen on or struck. A horse that rears and loses its balance can easily fall and injure itself. A horse that rears while hitched can fall on the driver and passengers of the vehicle, cause injury to itself and destroy equipment and things around it.

Even tiny hops need to be taken seriously before they turn into full-blown “Hi-ho Silver” type rearing. Once this behavior is learned, it is difficult to stop. If you’re a beginner rider, it will be almost impossible, in fact, dangerous, to try to solve this problem yourself. You will need to find a professional who can help you.

Why Do Horses Rear?

It is essential to understand why your horse is rearing before attempting to eliminate the behavior. Rearing is a reaction that can be caused by:

  • Physical pain
  • Excess energy
  • Confusion/Frustration
  • Fear/Insecurity

Before anything else, consider the possibility of physical problems. Soreness from poor saddle/harness fit and overgrown teeth are very common problems that can make a horse act badly. Poorly placed or too tight girths or cinches may make your horse cranky. A veterinarian or equine therapist, such as a chiropractor, may be able to help you find physical problems. Have a professional check for painful dental problems. There is a very small possibility a horse may have vision problems, and strange outbursts of behavior can be caused by serious problems such as tumors, fractures or organ failure. This is very rare.

After checking that equipment is comfortable and there is no physical reason your horse is rearing, consider what gaps may be in your horse’s training or yours that could cause him to be frustrated, confused or over-faced by what you are asking him to do. Are your aids consistent and does your horse understand them? Are you asking him to jump fences when he hasn’t mastered trotting poles? Are you asking for collection and working in a frame too soon? Are you driving past obstacles or into situations that your horse has never seen before? Do you have soft hands, or are you ‘riding the brakes’ with a death grip on the reins or driving lines?

Is your horse eating too much rich food and not getting enough exercise? A horse that spends most of its time out in a pasture will be less likely to blow off excess steam by rearing, bolting or bucking. Or is your horse insecure about going out alone or sick of going around in the ring and anticipating being uncomfortable?

What to Do If Your Horse Rears

Most often a horse will give some indication that a rear is coming, allowing you some split seconds to plan what you can do to avoid the behavior. Sometimes there’s no time, as in this video of a racehorse flipping over backward. If a horse rears while you are riding, keep your weight well forward and centered. Do not pull on the reins because you could pull the horse’s head back further, causing it to lose its balance and fall. Don’t touch the reins again until the horse is firmly on all four feet again. Snatching up the reins may cause a repeat of the behavior.

Alternatively, you can bail out. An emergency dismount is appropriate if you feel unsafe. You need to get out of the way quickly, so the horse doesn’t hit you on the way down. The downside of this is that if you bail every time your horse hops up in the front, it will quickly learn that this is how it can get you off of his back. Whether you stay with the ship or bail out, be aware that there is no perfectly safe way to ride a rear. No matter how you decide to deal with it, you will still be in some danger.

Preventing a Horse From Rearing

Only attempt to deal with a horse that rears while ridden or driven if you know how to do the following things:

  • How to work a horse ‘long and low,’ avoiding schooling that involves keeping a horse in frame and collection (and jumping if riding).
  • How to actively drive a horse forward.
  • How to engage (and disengage) the horse’s hindquarters.
  • How to use your hands softly.
  • How to feel if a horse is inclined to settle on his haunches and recognize the behaviors and triggers that lead up to a rear.
  • School a horse effectively, giving it 100% of your attention.
  • Keep your cool at all times.
  • Know which bits may help and, which may exacerbate the problem.

On the ground, don't be tempted to pull harshly on the horse’s head as punishment as this may make things worse. Any training that makes a horse back up or put his head up will be counterproductive. You’ll need to recognize what triggers the rear and take steps to avoid them.

What Does Not Work

On the ground, any punishment that includes hitting, yelling, yanking on the lead, throwing your arms in the air or waving a whip may make things worse. (Punishment rarely works for any behavior problem.) Old folklore that may include hitting the horse on the head with various objects or substances will not work and may prove more dangerous. A standing martingale or other tie-down may make it more difficult to rear, but not impossible, and it may make it easier for the horse to lose its balance if it does go up.

Get Professional Help

If you are a beginner or even intermediate rider, you will be safer if you get help from a professional trainer. Choosing a trainer can be tricky, as anyone can hang out a shingle claiming to train horses and solve behavior problems. Ask for references and check them out. Are the horses that come from this trainer well mannered from the ground and under saddle or in harness? Are the owners happy with the results and successful with their horses, whether they are pleasure or performance oriented? Some trainers will not want to work with a horse that rears.

Should You Buy or Keep a Horse That Rears?

If you are considering a horse for purchase and it rears while you are seeing it ridden or trying it out, don’t buy it. No matter how appealing the horse is otherwise, consider rearing a deal breaker. If you own a horse that rears consider the possibility that it isn’t the right horse for you.