I'm about to lease a horse, who the owners say is 'cold-backed'. Apparently he dips or humps his back when first under saddle, sometimes bucks, and is better when you lunge him for a bit before mounting. Is this a physical (medical) thing, or a training/behavioural issue? Any suggestions?
Sue, via email
All over the internet there are examples of people saddling horses for the first time and letting them buck. Many famous trainers hold clinics and demonstrations and think nothing of having young horses bucking around when they’re first saddled.
It’s time for everyone to realise that a horse bucks with the saddle in his early training because he’s frightened and terrified, and he fears for his life.
A horse that bucks with the saddle in his early training is no laughing matter and it should never be fobbed off by saying, “He’s gotta get used to it” or “It’s the scariest day of his life but he’ll soon get over it”.
Your horse is the result of this thinking. When a horse bucks even once with the saddle, it’s burned into his mind forever. Some horses will handle this stressful situation better than others.
In your horse’s case, the terrifying memories come flooding back every time he’s saddled. He reacts as he first learned by humping or bucking.
No one can erase your horse’s memory or any other horse’s memory. No one can say “Forget the time you were frightened out of your wits by the saddle. Just remember the lessons when everything went fine.”
Your horse’s problem is behavioural – he’s simply reacting a she learned during his initial training.
You must aim to always saddle him without him bucking. Firstly, before you saddle him, always lunge him to get rid of any excess energy out of his system. Trot and canter him for a few circles, bring him in to you and rub his head, then ask him to trot and canter a few circles in the other direction.
Also, teach your horse to stand and bring his head to you while you saddle him.
Leave the girth relatively loose at first and make sure he keeps his attention on you as you saddle him.
Next, ask him to walk a very small circle around you, about two metres in diameter.
Keep his head bent right around to you so that you can stop him before he bucks.
After he walks a small circle, rub his head, then move to his off side and ask for the same small circle – again make sure his head is bent right around to you. You must teach your horse to concentrate on you and what you want, instead of him worrying about the saddle.
When your horse walks a few circles in either direction, tighten the girth gently and ask him to trot the same small circles in each direction. Keep contact on the lead so that you can pull him around and stop him if he tries to hump or buck.
Every time you can saddle your horse without him humping or bucking, is one small step towards building his confidence.
He may never be one hundred percent relaxed and reliable, but he’ll improve if you’re definite and consistent every time you work with him.