The Buck Starts Here
by Scott Thomson
One of my least-favorite calls is someone asking me to come "get the buck out of my horse." This call usually follows an accident that's resulted in an injury, ranging from sprains and bruises to breaks and concussions. Most of the time there is also a loss of rider confidence and a renewed mistrust of the horse.
I had such a call recently, and the caller even offered me $25 for the chance to break my neck. After I unrolled my eyeballs from the back of my head at this opportunity not to be missed, I explained that this is not the kind of work I do. When asked why, I said, "Because the buck isn't in the horse, the buck is in the human." You can imagine the response to that comment.
I get the most enjoyment in my business working with people who want to understand the nature of the horse and how to solve problems using the techniques and philosophies of natural horsemanship. Someone who thinks there is a one-shot magic bullet that can solve a problem with a horse, especially a dangerous one, should probably be riding a lawnmower and not a horse.
My experience with bucking horses started pretty quickly, actually only one hour into my first ride on my horse Cody. Even before that, I watched my wife make four trips to the ER in six months from bucking accidents with her horse, a horse she actually bought from her trainer. Unless you're a professional cowboy paid to ride a bucking horse, a bucking incident can leave a lasting impression and ruin a lot of underwear.
I consider myself lucky to have a great laboratory for studying the behavior of horses. Through my volunteer training work at End of the Road Ranch Horse Rescue (www.endoftheroadranchnm.com or www.facebook.com/eotrr) I have more than 25 horses to play with. I get to experiment with different techniques and different horse personality types, and I get to take my time as there is no owner looking over my shoulder, wondering when it will be "safe" to ride their horse.
I spend a lot of time at the ranch just watching the horses in the herd, observing their interaction and communication. You know the one thing I never see? A bucking horse. Sure, on a fresh cool day with a little wind, one of the younger geldings might take off with some youthful exuberance, throwing in an "I feel good" buck or two. Other than that, you just don't see that behavior in a herd.
What has been especially interesting is how this varied group of horses has behaved as we have handled them. Many of the horses, especially the ones from the PMU factories, have never really been handled. Although some are as old as 9 or 10 and look completely mature, they really don't have the physical strength or conditioning to carry a rider. Some of the horses have obviously been ridden before, started too young and handled roughly, now with physical or emotional issues that make being ridden again a scary thought. Some have been involved in horrible riding wrecks and were given up on by a previous owner.
Yet, as we've brought these horses along we haven't had a single incident of bucking, from initial ground work to first saddling to first rides.
The relative calmness we've had with these horses makes me wonder what happens between the horse in a natural state — an animal that is a follower, who looks for a no-pressure safe environment, good leadership, and who spends only one percent of its time above a walk — and my pretty pony who just bucked the owner off. The obvious variable — the human. So, is the buck in the horse or in the human? Every horse has the ability to buck as a basic instinct, primarily as a survival technique to get rid of a predator, but I contend that for what we want to do with horses, we're responsible for the behavior.
My operating philosophy at the ranch, and with private owners, is twofold. First, always do things with the best interest of the horse in mind. Teach him in a way that makes sense to him and go at his pace. Second, to paraphrase something I heard from John Lyons, focus all your energy, teaching and praise on the behavior you want, and the behavior you don't want will magically disappear.
Whether starting or rehabbing a horse, or trying to fix a bucking problem, the first thing I do is look at pain and overall conditioning as possible or potential causes for unwanted behavior. I've seen numerous bucking and rearing problems go away after thorough equine dentistry — not just a basic float to take off a few points and hooks but looking at bit seats, occlusion, TMJ, etc. Your vet or chiropractor can assess the back, and if your farrier is worth anything he or she should be able to tell you if discomfort is starting at ground level. Think about how you feel if your teeth hurt, your back is out or your feet are killing you. Now think about how you would react if someone jumped on your back and asked for a ride for a couple of hours.
Obviously the quality of tack is part of this equation. I've seen saddles that fit well sitting on pads that haven't been cleaned in years or with girths that are so dirty they resemble sand paper. A comfortable horse is a lot safer than one with a sore growing under a pad or girth. Are the bits or headstall set-ups appropriate for the confirmation of the horse, the level of training and the skill of the rider? A severe bit in the hands of a novice rider will almost guarantee upward movement rather than forward.
Maybe the issue is the rider. How good is his seat? Is she out of balance and leaning forward? Does he ride with a death grip on the reins, practicing the classic "whoa go" approach that probably causes more bucks and rears than anything else? Is she clamped on the horse with legs and hands, a sure sign to a claustrophobic flight animal that it might be time to lose this creature and get out of Dodge?
Working with the horse, I have one "secret" worth mentioning. At no time during the process do I become disconnected from the horse. I've never understood why so many people do ground work with the lead rope, then for a first saddling or first ride, they take off the lead. I've seen some pretty big names do great ground work, then put a saddle on, unsnap the lead and watch the horse go bucking around the round pen. Seems contradictory to spend time gaining the horse's respect and trust, and assuring him you'll always be there, and then unhook him to let him go figure out the saddle on his own. I want the horse to believe we're in this together every step of the way.
Same for first rides or getting on a horse with a history. I always use a second person I trust to handle the lead rope so the horse has a visual that is consistent with the ground work. The person in the saddle can just stay calm and balanced, reducing the chance of scaring the horse. From there, first rides will be more like pony rides with a trusted human guiding and walking with the horse on the ground. This includes duplicating a lot of the basic ground work, but now with a rider. This forces the horse to stay focused on the ground person and to worry less about the rider on his back. After this, the transition to safely riding on your own seems to go pretty smoothly.
Approaching an existing or potential bucking problem from the viewpoint that this may be a human teaching and understanding problem — rather than inherent bad behavior in the horse — takes more time and isn't as exciting as a backyard rodeo ride. But it can lead to a stronger and safer riding partnership. When you're at Silver City's pro rodeo this month, look at how much human effort goes into making a horse buck for entertainment, then tell me where you think the buck really resides.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.