Retraining the delinquent horse

Retraining the delinquent horse

Not every horse is perfect. Some develop dangerous habits that can scare or hurt a rider. Rather than give up, you will need to understand why a horse does it and retrain them. A little time and energy can create the perfect riding horse, and give you back your confidence.


Rearing is usually a fear response from a horse. If they feel cornered or there is something in front of them they need to escape from, they will rear to defend themselves and escape. Some horses become persistent rearers. This can be due to pain, so the first step is to check the horses back and mouth is OK with a specialist. If tack doesn’t fit properly, it could also be pinching. In a lot of cases a horse will learn that rearing is a way to escape doing something, or has been mistreated so it becomes a natural response to anything – a way of getting control back.

If your horse starts to rear, lean forward. Turn them in a tight circle so they know rearing is not the only option. Being able to turn will show them they cannot escape by rearing, as well as keep their weight on the floor. Also train them from the ground in the same way. If they are scared of clippers or wormers, use your body language to ease any fear. Don’t approach them head on, and keep the item low. Square your shoulders so they are horizontal to the body. If they attempt to rear, apply pressure and turn them to show they are not trapped. It will take time, and you will need to be patient.

Running away

When a horse is spooked their instinct is to run. Being on a runaway is a scary experience, so if your horse starts to do it regularly out of exuberance it can make many riders stop hacking. If your horse is spooking at the same object on every ride, you will need to lead them to the spot to investigate whatever is scaring them. If it is caused by things such as plastic bags, place them around the stable yard and get them used to the way they sound and move.

If your horse regularly runs away without any stimulus, you will need to check what they are fed. If you are feeding them too much grain they will need to run off the energy. Lunge them before you ride so they can burn off any excess exuberance. Also make sure schooling focuses on improving the breaks, with you using your seat and legs to help stop him.

When on a spooking horse, try not to hang on the reins. This will make the horse raise his head, and in some cases add to the fear. Pulling only one rein can also overbalance them, making them fall onto you. Balance yourself in the saddle and hold onto the neck strap if you have one. When the seat is balanced apply the legs and use your weight to get the horse into a rhythm. Use half halts on the reins to get them to listen. If they are nearing a road or another dangerous situation, you may need to consider an emergency dismount. If you concentrate on schooling and building trust with your horse, it is more likely you will be able to control the situation.


The most common source of nipping is as a horse is getting saddled. If tack doesn’t fit properly, or the girth is done up causing pinching the horse will start to nip in response. Over time this becomes a learned response, a warning, even if the tack is changed. To change the behaviour, you will need to show them that the saddle and girth is no longer painful. Groom them often around the spine and girth area. Always saddle slowly and carefully, keeping a loose girth which you will slowly hitch up. Some people also use a citrus spray, which is sprayed at the horse’s nose as it moves to bite. The smell stops them, as it is unpleasant.

Never hit your horse. Nipping is actually how a horse will play with its herd mates. It is just unfortunate that a nip hurts our skin. Retaliating will make your horse look for another way to win the game. The more you retaliate, the more the horse sees it can dominate you. The Alpha Horse in the herd is the one who is calm, confident and doesn’t react with emotion. If you continue to react, then the nips will turn to bites. As he obviously wants to play, make sure you provide him with toys he can mouth and play with. Also, stop feeding treats by hand. This can only cause accidents.


Trying to lead your horse can sometimes become a battle. They will walk through you, lead you off to grass and rush through gates. The bad news is that if they do this they do not see you as the Alpha in the herd. In the wild, even when spooked a horse will avoid running into the Alpha. You will need to start to establish your position, and get them to respect your space. Do not use fear!

Start by getting them used to being moved. Use your body language to move them, as you would when lunging. If easier combine it with your lunging session. Wearing a halter and long lead rope, practise moving them in every direction – forwards, backwards and sideways. Also get them to move their hindquarters and forehand. Make sure you are in a school, or ideally a round pen.

When you have got him to listen to your body language, start to lead him loosely. Take him through a gate, with you in front at a distance. Turn and face him as he gets halfway through so he stops. Then back him up. When walking alongside, use your arm to block him from getting too close, or swing the end of the lead rope so he keeps his distance. If he spooks stop, give him space and then let him return to you. You will need to practise this often so it becomes a habit. Once learned, do it occasionally to help you both learn what to do if he does spook.

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