“He just likes to play around a bit when you first saddle him” or, “Once he gets it out of his system, he’s just fine.” How many times have you heard a horse described this way? These are phrases used to describe horses that are cold-backed. Horses that don’t play nice, don’t try to please, and may full on buck until they are fully warmed up. For whatever reason, I tend to get quite a few of these in as problem horses and a customer asked me to compose a few thoughts on them. While I will refer to things I do when starting colts to avoid these issues, a cold-backed horse is not a green colt with 4 rides. This term refers to a horse that has had enough riding that bucking should no longer be excusable. The “Cold” part refers to the action being at the start of the ride. Cold backed horses don’t buck after an hour, they buck right away. Bucking later in a ride is a related problem, but wouldn’t be called “Cold Backed”. I will note here that an actual unseen physical problem (pain) can indeed be the cause of bucking, and for the purposes of this article, we will assume that we have already ruled that out.
First of all, yes, they do exist. Most of them are man-made, but there are definitely horses that have a genetic propensity to buck. There was an old cutting mare that one particular family owned and I probably started 10 of her colts. These were from at least 4 different studs and varied between fillies, geldings, and a few stallions. ALL of them would buck. And believe me, after the third one, who was the worst of the lot and really gave me a run for my money, I was on a mission to solve the issue. The remaining ones bucked too, though, despite extended groundwork and everything I could think of to do to them. At least I had a year to heal up between ‘em. The mare would still buck today if she were still around, and both she and her colts won lots of money. They simply had that streak in them. For a few decades now, rodeo broncs have been subjected to careful breeding programs just as other types of performance horses are. There can be big money in bucking. So, just as there are definite man caused reasons for bucking, there IS a definite genetic link to bucking as well.
The bottom line is that some horses that no matter what you do, what their past was, or how they are prepared may buck. Some horses, no matter what you do, what their past was, or how they are prepared will never buck. Period. People saying otherwise are either trying to sell you something, or showing just how inexperienced or na´ve they are. Every single great horseman that you can think of has produced horses that will buck today. Right now! Since this article focuses on these horses, it may sound as though this issue is more common that it really is. True cold backed horses are not very common at all. Our goal is to minimize the man made causes that may open that door, and to make those who just plain are cold backed manageable, which a good hand can usually do.
This is a fairly textbook example of a buck. Notice the outstretched back legs.
So far, I’ve been using the word “buck” in a very generic sense, but allow me to define it now. Bucking, technically, is the specific act of a horse jumping up and kicking out with the hind feet. They can have very little forward motion, or lots or forward motion, but kicking out is what makes it bucking. Some of them kick out fairly low and level with the ground, while some kick up so high that you feel like they are going to flip over frontwards. Either way, it’s bucking.
This horse is a textbook example of Crow Hopping. Notice all four feet pointed at the ground. No kicking out.
We also sometimes here of a horse who Crow hops. Crow hopping, technically, is when a horse jumps into the air, usually the front end before the hind end, but all four feet remain pointed at the ground. It’s like riding a living breathing pogo stick. Boing! Boing! Boing! Again, they can have little or lots of forward motion. They can jump up 8 inches or 4 feet but they aren’t kicking out. Some people will go on about how a horse who is kicking out is expressing a different problem than one who is just simply crow hopping or that by kicking out they are showing back pain, yada, yada, yada. For the purposes of this article there is no practical difference between crow hopping and bucking, and I will henceforth refer to all undesirable actions in this realm as bucking. Both can get your arm broken and I highly doubt that in the midst of either you’d be puzzling as to which you are riding currently.
So, what is going on with those man-made cold backed buckers? We will look at this from two different angles. The first will be things that may be going on with our tack and tact to cause reasons for the horse to buck. Think burr under the saddle pad type stuff. The second will be scenarios involving the horse’s mind and disposition.
I trained a horse years ago that we had gone through everything we could think of to cure of bucking and had gotten to the ‘just accept it and move on’ phase, as he was a pretty talented cutting stallion (not by the aforementioned mare). My everyday work pads are felt type pads and when it came time to show, we moved him into the nicer plush wool pads. The bucking ended. It turned out that the stallion had very sensitive skin which the felt pads irritated. His skin irritation, which was not to the point of being visible at all, was the sole cause of the bucking.
I have had similar problems with horses being “Cinchy”. This type of horse dislikes the tightening of the girth and will frequently blow up before you even get on him. As with the scratchy pads, we do need to make sure that the girth is not irritating his skin. I recommend good quality mohair girths as they are the least prone to do this when kept clean. I do also like the neoprene and other space aged material girths, but have found them to be a bit more prone to gall a horse, especially those who have not been saddled regularly and the skin isn’t toughened up. The sure ‘nuff fleece girths seem like a good idea until you leave the arena. They then become magnets for sticks, briars, cockleburs, and all manner of undesirable flora fodder.
So, assuming that we have a good quality, scratchy thingy free girth, let’s take some care about how we cinch it up. First of all, make sure that it is positioned well. Some people have their girth too far forward and it will catch and pinch loose skin around the elbows and chest when tightened. I know that I jump when pinched, how about you? I also want to be sure that my horse remains calm and relaxed when I am cinching up. An experienced horseman can see that blow up coming, because the horse shows tension before. I pull my latigo snug (which is about four holes looser than making the horse look like a peanut, and probably two holes looser than most people do). I do not get the cinch by any means tight. You should easily be able to put your entire hand between the latigo and the horse, for now. I then walk away and let them settle for a minute. Horses that have learned to suck in air and hold it are merely protecting themselves from being overtightened. Thank the Lord that they aren’t bucking too as they are asking you to treat them this way as well.
Actually, during my normal training day, they get snuggly, but not tightly saddled, then they are hobbled out to graze and relax with the saddle while I ride another horse. When the horse is relaxed, snug the latigo up a hole or two, but NOT SUPER TIGHT. I then move them around some. That may mean simply walking to the arena 150 feet away. I then retighten just before actually stepping up there. This give the horse’s back, saddle, saddle pad, and girth a chance to marry into a homogenous package and keeps your horse more comfortable. They should be fully relaxed through the entire process. This is a good pattern.
A horse that is already cinchy will benefit from lots of ‘ropes around the belly’ exercises before saddling. It is also important to keep in mind that many of these horses always buck when saddled. This is what we call a pattern. Break that pattern. Saddle him up. Don’t over tighten him. Unsaddle him before he takes a step. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Spend an hour one day saddling and unsaddling your cold backed horse, never letting him get to the point of bucking. Do it until your arm hurts. Break the pattern of his tension when being cinched up. Had a good ride and some time to kill? Saddle, cinch, unsaddle some more. Break the pattern of tension associated with being cinched up. Pet his heartgirth every time you walk past him. Replace that tension with comfort and your cinchy horse will melt away.
Saddle fit could be an entire book unto itself so I won’t get too much into that side except to tell a short tale. There was a family who brought their 20 something year old ex-show horse to a trainer that I worked for briefly in college. The horse would set back and break rope, halter, or rail in his attempt to get away. They unloaded him already saddled and we put a ride on him. He was a cranky old cuss. After the ride, as the trainer was talking to the people, I took the horse to unsaddle him and wash him off. Pulling off the saddle pad revealed four different sets of old white haired saddle sores. All of them marked on either side of and directly on the top of the withers, and a few more old scars on his belly where the girth goes as well. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR. He was an old horse and had a high wither, but I have never that many old saddle sores. He wasn’t trying to break lead ropes, he was trying to avoid massive pain. Poor old boy! This was nearly twenty years ago and I can picture this horse today as clear as looking at him live.
Now that we have dealt with some of the things we can do to set up and avoid tack related causes, let’s get to the mental and emotional causes of bucking. In my experience, there are two main reasons why horses buck. Scenario 1: the horse is not “with the handler” and is actively looking for ways to get out of what is being asked. This is almost always a leadership issue and these horses are frequently easily solved, but much of the future success lies with each individual handler. If the former rider is unable to fulfill the leadership role, that rider may continue to have the issue with the horse, even when I have no issue with them at all. You’d probably be shocked at the number of horses brought to me because they buck that I can’t make buck. This can be a frustrating situation and that horse will be forever labeled ‘Needs Experienced Rider’. Scenario 2: the horse gets overexposed to pressure that it cannot handle and goes into a fight or flight reaction. In somewhat over simplified terms, the answer to both scenarios is the same. Better Leadership and working on handling pressure.
Let’s look at the first scenario. From the horse’s point of view you are an oddly shaped member of his herd. It is noteworthy that horses NEVER choose their own herd. Their herd is always a matter of situation and circumstance, both in the wild, and at you boarding stable. Don’t fret over it. What matters here is that your horse does not see you as below him in the pecking order. I do talk about leadership (and somewhat strongly at times), but this is really a fairly basic and unavoidable skill if you want to get anywhere with horses. Once you get it and apply it, I’m done talking about it and we’ll move on to other things. I’m not one who wants you to constantly be out to DOMINATE your horse. Let’s say that your horse sees himself as number 17 in the pecking order in his herd. It matters not one iota if he sees you as number 16, number 3, number 1, or the most dominant herd member conceivable in the entire world. Just so long as you are above him, you’re good. If you are below him, you are very literally at his mercy (an emotion that animals generally lack) and are considered cannon fodder to be sacrificed to things like starvation and wolves when the going gets tough. In short, this type of horse is merely exhibiting spoiled and disrespectful behavior. Spank him. Move his feet and move on. This is a horse with a people problem. I will note here that what matters in this scenario is the person and horse’s relative dominance. A person with this issue may not at all be a novice or timid rider. They may, in fact, merely have a very dominant horse. This is the kind of situation in which having this horse may push the rider up to a new level, or squash their confidence if the gap is too big to overcome.
With this problem I usually see people who are routinely taking steps away from their spoiled and pushy horse when leading and doing regular chores. In other words instead of you moving his feet, he’s moving yours. Your horse is definitely conscious of this, even if you aren’t. When they put pressure on their horse, the horse feels free to push back. Their horse routinely threatens them at feeding time and they don’t notice or do anything about it. This horse is bucking as just another open threat to your safety in a long line of threats that are less and less noticeable. The people handling these horses seldom have the horse’s attention and frequently are nagging when they ask the horse to do something. In short, this type of bucker doesn’t really have a bucking problem at all. Bucking is merely the most noticeable symptom of a leadership and disrespect crisis.
This brings to mind a clinic that I did a good while ago. There was a lady in it who was an English riding instructor (she could just as easily have been a Western riding instructor). I noticed as she was doing her pre-ride lunging that her horse was mildly bucking with regularity and impunity (I don’t call it groundwork, because her sole goal was to get him tired). I walked up to ask her if this was a really green colt that she had today. She said, “Yes, he’s only been ridden for about 2 years”???!!!! Now, I don’t know about you, but two years of professional riding is way more than most horses ever get and that’s a ways from what I call green. So I asked her if he always bucked like this. She said, “Yes. He just has to get it out of his system. He’s playful.” I then asked her if he was “playful” in the pasture before she had caught him. She said no he was just being a horse. I could tell that she wasn’t open to my advice, so I let it go, but just so that you all understand, she had trained that horse, over two full years, to buck for 20 minutes every day. She did this by allowing it to happen at all. There’s no excuse for this behavior, unless we are dealing with one of those genetic freaks. It isn’t spirit, or freedom, or okay. Nip it in the bud. I can tell you that the buck was not strong with this one and solving this issue would have been fairly easy to do. So why in the world would you put up with it? Shut it down! Turn into a wild and raving maniac until they stop. You will have their attention and will have broken that mental pattern. Jerk, Snatch, Push, Pull, Yell, Scream, Whip, Don’t Whip, JUST DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
Scenario 2: The horse that goes into fight or flight rather easily, is a trickier situation, but is solved in a very similar fashion to the first situation. This is the true bronc. His eyes roll back in his head and he goes somewhere else mentally. Many people tend to avoid putting much pressure on this type of horse. To be effective, you really need to push him through that pressure and through their reaction to the other side. These horses benefit very well from being laid down and what has become known as desensitizing. It is extremely important that this horse is pushed and pushed outside of his comfort zone. Once he has accepted you waving that flag around and is no longer at all uncomfortable with it, you had better find a new prop.
Our goal here is not to get him comfortable with XYZ, but to get him to deal properly with being uncomfortable. You need to be a good leader and teach him to turn to you in times of stress. Mind you, him coming to you while bucking and blind is not what I’m meaning.
This is one of those areas where the methods and paint by number programs fall flat. It takes a lot of variety to fix this kind of horse. And they really need to be pushed to the other side, not babied and coddled. Not pushing them far enough, or merely getting them comfortable in some certain routine leaves a ticking time bomb that only a situation he’s not prepared for will reveal. This generally happens when you aren’t prepared either. Prepare him to deal with anything, not with certain things. The difference between using two props and getting them to ignore them and having him consciously turn to you in times of stress amounts to several broken vertebrae or a non-event.
The fight or flight horse has gone to a different place in his head. He’s not really consciously here anymore. This horse will run into things. This horse will do things that can get him and you hurt. This is the state in which the horse may come back and attack the fallen rider also. Avoiding this extreme is exactly why we want to get a horse to a consciously thinking state rather than a reactionary state with groundwork. If your horse does go fully reactionary, you really need to do something fairly drastic to wake them up. A slight pick up of a rein is not going to register at all when they are in this state. I would say that most people would be surprised at how much it can take to wake them up from this. Think back to some old black and white movie where someone started to panic and someone with a calm head slapped them or threw cold water in their face. Wake Up! For this reason, this type of horse should only be handled by pretty experienced people until they have become more confident and less reactionary.
When you see a trainer or experienced rider dealing with a problem horse, there can be times when it seems that they are using an awful lot of pressure. I hope now that you understand why, and that while you can certainly use too much pressure, or use it improperly, it can also be a very effective tool to push a horse through a dangerous issue. Nagging at them through something like this will only serve to prolong the danger, sometimes indefinitely. Plenty of problems persist for years that could be solved in 5 minutes a day for a week. Don’t Nag!
I’ll let go of this bone now, and I hope that I have cleared up some bucking misconceptions for some of you and given you a tip or two to keep your horse happier and more comfortable. If anyone else has a topic that they’d like for me to write on and on and on about, please send me a message or email and I’ll do my best. There really are quite a few tidbits on this subject that I have left out do to the length that this one had already gotten to, so if you have a specific scenario question, feel free to ask away and I will go a little deeper in your specific direction.