The image of a bucking horse is a staple at rodeos. It creates drama when watching a Western. It can also be a real pain in the back, neck, and other areas of the body should a rider be bucked off a horse.
What causes a horse to begin bucking? Is it really a problem behavior? Or is it a natural instinct that overwhelms the training of the horse?
Horses Can Buck in Several Different Ways
When most people think of bucking, they picture a horse that places its weight on its front legs. Then the horse raises the back legs upward and kicks out backward with as much strength as it can muster.
Some horses may buck multiple times with varying levels of height and strength with a similar motion. Others may choose to use short kicks instead of long and powerful kicks as part of their bucking technique. Some horses prefer to buck while they are running. Others prefer to buck when they are standing still.
There can even be a twisting motion included with the bucking. Some stallions can jump and twist with so much strength that it appears they are performing a pirouette. Being caught on the back of a horse that is in the midst of a powerful buck can be a scary and potentially dangerous situation.
That is why knowing what causes the horse to buck is such an important part of the riding process. Whether one is an expert or a beginner, understanding the reasons behind bucking can help to keep this behavior under control.
Do Horses Buck Because They Think It Is Fun?
Bucking is a natural form of play for horses, especially young male horses. If you see a herd of bachelors out in a pasture playing together, there’s a good chance you’ll see some playful bucking going on.
That mechanism is similar to the way some dogs play with each other by biting on another. The behavior may cause harm, so it may be unwanted, but the purpose isn’t to cause harm. The horses just want to have fun.
Bucking can also be a response that is generated by fear. Horses have a very intense fight-or-flight mechanism. Although we see them as being large and intelligent creatures, horses have a prey mentality. They are in a state of perpetual nervousness, especially if they are not used to human social contact and have large pastures without protective features for them.
The first instinct of the horse is to run away. If the horse feels like it is cornered or there is no place for it to go, then fighting is the only mechanism left for survival. That is when running turns to bucking.
Bucking is often seen as being an aggressive behavior, and it can be if the horse is attempting to establish dominance with people, horses, or other animals. Bucking, however, is often a defensive mechanism. It occurs when the horse cannot run from a fight and it is fearful of what may happen to it.
That’s why “breaking” a bucking horse by riding it is usually not a good idea. Although it may cause the horse to give up, the breaking process doesn’t resolve the fear issue that caused the horse to buck in the first place. You literally have a broken horse that doesn’t care if it survives in this situation. Is that really the right approach?
Bucking When It Happens Because of Discomfort
Horses may also begin to buck, even when there isn’t a personal history of it, when they experience something that makes them feel uncomfortable. This may be their hide rubbing uncomfortably against a saddle or blanket; a command from a rider that they don’t want to follow; or an issue that causes them to feel frightened while outdoors on a ride, like encountering a snake on a trail.
For many horses, bucking tends to be a one-off experience. It happens because a specific event triggered the behavior. If that trigger can be avoided in the future, then the bucking behaviors will not reappear.
Bucking becomes a problem, especially when it is associated with discomfort, when it occurs in a frequent or persistent way. Horses that buck frequently tend to experience a lower trigger threshold over time as well, which allows the bucking to be easily elicited.
Discomfort can lead to the initial bucking behavior, but it can also become a learned behavior that the horse relies upon. If bucking provides relief of the discomfort on repetitive occasions, then the horse will rely upon the behavior to find future relief as well. That can be particularly dangerous to riders if the horse feels uncomfortable with the presence of a saddle.
Can Bucking Be a Behavioral Problem?
Bucking that is caused through negative behavior reinforcement can turn into a behavioral problem instead of an environmental or discomfort response. The horse can learn that bucking stops them from being subjected to other unwanted actions or activities.
Let’s say a horse is being taken in from the pasture. It doesn’t want to go because, like many horses, it is investigated something that has piqued its curiosity. As the owner, you are insistent that it is time to head into the stall. You grab the lead and just as you’re about to walk the horse, the bucking begins to happen.
What happens next? If you stop trying to bring the horse in, then the horse has just learned that bucking will let it get what is wanted. You were stopped in your action. Maybe bucking the next time could gain some extra oats? More pasture time? So, the behavior will increase.
Learned bucking can be retrained. Alternative behaviors can be offered to the horse and understanding triggers can foster a deeper relationship with the animal. By anticipating when they will occur and how it will happen, discomfort can be eliminated. Unwanted activities can be avoided. That can reduce the pressure the horse feels, which will eventually lead to it lashing out in some way.
It is important to remember that horses have a sense of humor. Some might buck just because they think it is funny. They have no concept of the danger that their kicks may cause. Unless there is a clear discomfort trigger or the bucking is a clear response to an unwanted action, a good approach to take is to assume the horse is bucking because it wants to play.
That means it is a social response. Give the horse more time, teach it alternatives to gain your attention, and you may very well see a cessation of the unwanted bucking behavior.