Canadian horseman Jonathan Field explains what causes a horse to rear, and shares how to safely correct the negative reaction.

Photography by ROBIN DUNCAN

Reform a Rearing Horse
A horse that rears puts the rider in danger and can rattle confidence.

Rearing is a tactic some horses use to evade certain cues, and it causes riders to lose confidence in their ability and in their horse. When I first observed Laura and “Red” at one of my clinics, I knew the horse had a bit of a “bomb” in him; if you pressed the wrong button, you found yourself in big, explosive trouble.

When a horse can easily get its rider to work around or avoid issues by doing something like rearing, he learns that the rider will simply stop asking for anything that ignites that bomb. The horse’s reactions start to train the rider. Over time, the rider’s list of things he or she cannot do gets longer, and the list of things that the rider can do gets shorter.

Red had a strong and resistant brace on the right, and when asked for lateral bend to the right, the bomb’s detonator was quickly activated. In determining why any horse has negative behaviors, I first explore the possibility of a physical problem because pain can be the cause. In this case, the horse had been examined by a veterinarian and other equine health specialists to be certain there wasn’t a physical reason for the issue. Red had passed the exams, which led me to believe that the source of the problem was a behavioral challenge.

As the clinic progressed and riders asked more of their horses, Red became more animated and resistant each time he was asked to bend to the right. As I tried to help Laura, it was difficult to communicate exactly what she needed to do, and I felt I could help Laura better by riding Red myself.

Feeling Resistance
As many horsemen know, there are numerous reasons for developing a soft lateral bend, such as to balance the horse, encourage rhythm and relaxation, set up lead departures and lead changes, and so much more. Lateral bend is when the horse has an equal bend along the side of the body from head to tail. The amount of bend is determined by his willingness to “let go” along the length of his whole body. The bend is cued by the rider’s seat and inside leg and rein. It is important to have this soft and willing bend equally on both sides. With Red, he could bend easily to the left, but was resistant to bending to the right. I knew this would be my challenge.

When I got on, I asked Red to bend to the left through his whole body, asking him to cross his hind legs and disengage. No problem. When I asked for the bend to the right, however, he stuck his nose out to evade the request and then went straight up in the air. Red’s behavior told me that this was coming from a simple unwillingness to yield, not because he was scared. It was an issue of control and leadership.

This type of refusal can quickly escalate to a major safety issue, like the horse flipping over backward from the rearing stance. When a horse rears with a rider in the saddle, the rider is forced to release any pressure, which is an immediate reward for the horse. Typically, the rider will become tentative and do whatever is necessary to avoid the rear, and consequently the bad behavior only gets worse.

Reform a Rearing Horse
When Laura asked Red to yield to the right, the gelding braced and reared. His reaction escalated into a dangerous situation.

Red opted to rear a few times, and he was getting stronger and more sure of his reaction, so when all four feet were back on the ground I stepped off to address the lock-up from the ground. I wanted to ask him to bend and disengage the hindquarters, and then move forward. On the ground, I would be able to ask for the yield without putting myself in jeopardy.

Anytime I step off the horse to deal with a problem from the ground instead of from the saddle, I’ve chosen to not ride through the resistance—and my advice is that most riders should not try riding through an explosive reaction like the rear. Many times, you can get off and address the issue from the ground to get the correct responses.

I try to observe all the details when addressing a behavior so I can determine the cause, my approach, and to see if there is anything else that will help the situation. In this case, I decided to try switching from the hackamore to a soft rope halter. With a rope halter, the softness of the material is better for asking for lateral bend because of the clear signal from the side. While the tack doesn’t train the horse, sometimes considering a different piece of equipment can help you communicate more effectively.

When I asked for the yield from the ground, Red displayed the same avoidance tactics and tried to rear again. On the ground, I’m able to take more time to be firm and clear with the horse. In this case, I showed Red how to yield to the right softly and willingly. Yielding the hindquarters was an important part of this lesson. By asking for the hindquarters to yield and the inside hind foot to cross in front of the outside hind, we take the power away. This yield disengages and de-powers the horse. It is difficult to rear, buck or bolt when the hind feet are crossing.

To ask the horse to yield on the ground, I first asked for the head and neck to bend toward me. While maintaining this bend, I reached back with my other hand and asked for the hindquarters to move away. After about 15 minutes of this lesson, I stepped onto the horse again—but only halfway into the saddle in case he reared. From the half-mounted position, I asked him to disengage his hindquarters until I felt that with a rider, Red would make the connection from what he learned on the ground to having a rider in the saddle. To test my teaching, I then put my leg over, settled into the saddle, and asked for the same yields to the right and left. Red was willing to yield both directions and worked with me the remainder of the ride. At that point, I felt Laura could safely work with her horse again.

Reform a Rearing Horse
LEFT: Instead of putting myself in danger if Red flipped over, I opt to work on the horse’s right side on the ground before getting back in the saddle. RIGHT: Before trusting the horse completely, I test his willingness to yield to the right side from a safe half-mounted position.

Training on the Trail
The next day I took the group on a trail ride. It was uneventful for Laura and Red as she asked for bends and disengagements to the right around bushes and trees, and while just going down the trail. Even though the horse’s resistance diminished after the clinic, a somewhat lessened brace to the right remained for a while. Predictably, this transformation from rearing to yielding took a number of sessions. My advice to Laura was that she continue to incorporate many bends into Red’s day.

Laura reported that two weeks after the clinic the horse tried similar evasive tactics on the left side. This confirmed my initial diagnosis that Red was simply choosing to take control by throwing something else at Laura, rather than reacting out of fear. It did not escalate to the rear, and he eventually “let go” after Laura repeated the same lessons on his left side. I recently had Laura and Red in another course and was happy to see that Red has maintained a balance in his carriage with no more resistance or rearing.

It is important to be aware of when a horse’s reaction crosses the threshold of what you can safely work through on your own. Don’t overlook the obvious, and address problems from the ground so you don’t ever feel as though you’re riding a horse about to explode. The level of reaction Red was displaying can quickly become quite dangerous, and at that point I encourage riders to seek assistance from a professional.

JONATHAN FIELD is a horseman and clinician based in British Columbia, Canada, where he lives with his wife, Angie. His method of horsemanship is influenced by working on one of Canada’s largest cattle ranches, Quilchena Cattle Company, and studying horsemen like Pat Parelli, Robert M. Miller, DVM, Craig Johnson and George Morris. Field has demonstrated his methods at the Mane Event in Red Deer and Chilliwack, British Columbia; headlined the 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013 Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, California; and represented Canada in the 2012 & 2014 Road to the Horse competition. For more information on Field, visit


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