When Horses Act Dangerously

When horses start displaying unruly behavior, it poses serious risk to both the horse and his human handlers.

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Bucking horseWith Nicholas Evans’ best-selling novel The Horse Whisperer and Robert Redford’s movie adaptation, “rogue” horses like the fictitious Pilgrim got quite a bit of attention. Pilgrim was described as a horse with such overwhelming psychological problems that it was dangerous to approach him for fear of attack. While there aren’t many real horses with such “in-your-face” aggressive tendencies, a few such creatures do exist, although generally they’re not created by a run-in with a semi truck. The point is that rogue is a label typically used to describe a horse with significant and potentially dangerous behavior problems, such as deliberate and consistent charging, kicking and biting on the ground, or intractable bucking, rearing or bolting while under saddle. What this all boils down to is that a rogue horse is a serious threat to human safety. And unfortunately, these horses often end up with novices in search of affordable horses, who don’t yet know how to evaluate a horse’s training. What can you do if you find yourself faced with this kind of an equine nightmare?

The good news for us is that domestic horses have been bred for centuries to be tractable and trainable. So, while a few cases of pathologic behavior do occur naturally, the vast majority of these rogue horses are created, not born.

Causes of Bad Horse Behavior

Just like in humans, there can be physiologic abnormalities associated with deranged behavior such as hormonal imbalances or brain and nervous system defects. Some of these problems tend to occur with greater frequency in horses that are the products of severely restricted gene pools (inbreeding), or in horses that develop tumors in hormone-producing tissues such as the ovaries.

High levels of naturally occurring reproduction hormones can make a few horses nearly impossible to deal with. This can be a particularly serious problem with certain stallions, since for them aggressive behavior serves many adaptive purposes in nature. Successful stallions utilize aggressive behavior to defend their harems against predators, to battle against other stallions for control of mares and to drive their juvenile offspring out of the harem (a natural defense against inbreeding). Likewise, hormonal signals can distract certain mares in heat to the point of aggressiveness and make others fiercely protective of their offspring.

How Humans Create Bad Behavior in Horses

But the vast majority of rogue behavior is not a consequence of nature. Instead, it results from severe mistreatment, the lack of human handling, or by realizing that bad behavior causes good things to happen—in other words, bad training. Abusive treatment brings out a horse’s fight-or-flight tendencies, so many horses cope by behaving desperately and often aggressively. Similarly, extreme fear in a “wild” horse unaccustomed to human handling can lead to desperate and dangerous behavior.

Finally, if a horse does something dangerous and finds it gets him out of an aversive situation (such as work), he may be inclined to try it again. As with people and in particular children, if inappropriate behavior has a rewarding outcome, it will stay in the animal’s behavioral repertoire. For example, as the director of the riding program at a children’s summer camp some time ago, I was responsible for the care and maintenance of the 50-horse riding string. Many of these horses were leased out to private homes over the winter, and I had to collect them and return them to the camp in preparation for the summer season. Frosty was one such horse who was being maintained by a family at a boarding stable a few miles away. There were beautiful riding trails connecting that boarding stable and the summer camp, so I had someone drop me off at the barn so I could ride the horse back to camp. Little did I know my charge had learned a few nasty tricks to avoid working for a living and was known as something of a terrorist around the barn.

Thinking I was dealing with a child’s horse who had been used in lessons all winter, I climbed on bareback and hit the trails. Ten or 15 minutes went by and all seemed well, when suddenly and without warning he spun out from under me and galloped back to the boarding stable. I hobbled back to the barn on foot and found him in his stall contentedly munching hay. I brought him out and climbed back on. Resenting this annoying interruption of the plan for the day, he pulled the old spinning trick and within 10 minutes had again returned to his meal. I hit the ground a little harder this time and ended up with a forehead that looked a bit like Gumby’s bump. Now I knew I was dealing with a horse who had learned to use nasty tricks to get his way, so I developed a plan to curb his self-rewarding behavior with some training. Unfortunately, his conditioned response had become ingrained and he proceeded to try his usual tricks the next time I rode him. This time, however, he did not achieve the desired effect of unloading me. He soon realized his reward was not forthcoming and stopped the inappropriate behavior.

Retraining the Rogue Horse

Unless there’s an underlying physical problem, most rogue behavior can eventually be turned around with patience and cautious, consistent training at a pace determined by the horse’s comfort level. As John Lyons states, proper training should leave the horse calmer at the end of a lesson than he was at the beginning of it. Recognize that in certain cases, reforming a rogue may be a dangerous undertaking best left to a calm, experienced and patient professional.

So what is the best course of action to take if your horse’s behavior qualifies him as a rogue? The first step is to rule out any physical causes for the behavior. This can best be achieved through a thorough examination by a veterinarian. The cause of many behavior problems can be identified by careful palpation and blood screening tests. Once the source of the problem is found, there may be a medical solution that your veterinarian can bring to your attention. If the cause of the dangerous behavior is related to reproductive hormones, the solution may be as simple as castration for non-breeding stallions or hormone therapy for mares.

If you’ve ruled out physiologic problems and you’re still left with a dangerous horse, try to figure out the cause. Can you uncover a history of abuse in your horse’s past? Has the horse been neglected? Was he a victim of training shortcuts and brought along too fast? Understanding the nature of the problem can help you form a successful training program to solve it. Honestly assess your own capabilities. Do you have the patience, knowledge base, physical ability and time to solve the problem yourself? If not, seek out a reputable trainer with the experience your horse needs. Don’t sell the horse until the problem is resolved, unless the buyer is completely aware of the horse’s problems and has both the experience and the commitment to work them through. Remember, “problem” horses usually get passed from hand to hand without getting fixed, ending up mistreated, put down or worse—killing someone.

It may be too late to change the events of a horse’s past, but you can certainly influence his future. The behavior you see today does not have to continue. Bad habits can be changed, training mistakes can be resolved. Believe in the ability of your horse to adapt and reform. Horses, like humans, are never too old to learn, and generally, unlike some humans, horses seem more willing to forgive.

Further Reading
Is Your Horse Unsafe
Reasons for Behavior Problems
Training Right the First Time

77 COMMENTS

  1. Anyone, including an amature can handle a problem horse. Go slow, use common sense, consult a trainer in your area and get them to work with you on a regular basis to correct the horse’s handling. With a little bit of time and patience, most (not all) horses become wonderful friends for years to come.When all else fails, its worth the time and money to send the horse to a trainer.

  2. well i’ve been working with a appaloosa horse on his behavor problems, he just never wants to be ridden and threw me at leasdt 7 times but every time i just jump right back on till she finally calms down……it’s a slow process to get some horses trained. But finally shes coming around after taking some of your training tips!!the artical was great btw!!!!!

  3. an article everyone should read i had a horse i was going to sell then realized that the problem could be fixed with a little work. if i had sold hime he would of hurt someone or got hurt.

  4. This is a very good article and though for some people I would have liked to written out a bit more descriptive in some areas. The basic is there for most to understand. However it did leave me asking one question that other people may not think of and it may play a part in the retraining of such a horse as a ‘rogue’. Does age matter?

  5. Hello,
    My nane is David Brooks and I have a four old thorobred Guilding who is okay until he is tied to the trailer or a stall and you are putting the saddle on him, that is when he will start to pull, rearup and act dangerously. This continues until he breaks the lead rope or he gets loose and runds away. There is not a problem catching him again just when he is tied. Your comments/suggestions.

  6. A good article. I’d like to see more about dealing with typical vices – like rearing or bucking, though, since there is VERY few truly MEAN horses. Most horses only act up to test the rider, or act out of fear. But thanks for the article.

  7. a good starting place but, were it a sandwich I’d have to say NOT ENOUGHT MEAT. I really expected a bit more depth. As you said this ain’t the movies it’s real life. A bit more on the different problems and possible solutions. Bear in mind that some of your readers may be looking to you for help and may not be able to turn the horse to a trainner. A lack of information can lead to frustration, not helpfull to anyone. When someone reaches out for EXPERT advice, they need to walk a way calmer and more confident.

  8. We have a mare – who fits the roque description. This mare is on a herbal remedy for mares. When she tries to bite, our response is the pouring on of “love”. She has not been abused, over faced, a custom made saddle was done for her, her teeth and health is good, she has regular turnout and regular work – yet we are faced with a biting, kicking, rearing, bucking horse on a regular basis. When do you do the “right” thing and have them put down before someone is killed?

  9. The horse I would love to buy is wonderful but he seems to spook once in awhile and does not like you to touch his ears! It seems to scare him. He is a stalion around 6 years old.What would you suggest, how would you help him?

  10. I have a horse who is exhibiting dangerous behaviour at horse shows in the show ring – rearing to avoid completing patterns. I am working with him with a trainer and outside the ring, we have all but eliminated the problem. Inside the ring is a different story! Reading your article has encouraged me that we can correct the problem, and that I am probably going about it the right way!

  11. I HAVE A HORSE THAT SPOOKES VERY EAZY SHE SOMETIMES SCARES HER SELF….IAM RECOVERING FROM A BROKEN BACK ….HELP I JUST DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH HER AND I WILL NOT SEND HER AWAY WHO KNOW HOW MENY PEOPLE HAD HER ALREADY

  12. A ‘trainer’ told me once that my horse was a ‘killer’, which I knew was ridiculous. It took a lot of patience training him though. I spent a year working with him three times a week in 20 minute training sessions before I ever rode him. The first time I got on his back he didn’t even flinch, and once I started riding him he has never bucked. I was in no rush, and for safety’s sake I took my time with him; in the end it paid off.

  13. I was looking for some comfort after my 5 year old stallion just mortally wounded my 3 year old stallion. I was wondering if it was too late for Smoky (potential rogue) to change his attitude. This article gave me hope that maybe Smoky can be retrained to not be so dominant. I have been telling my husband he needs to be gelded. Maybe this article will help convince him I am right.
    Barbara from the Bar 20 Ranch in Arkansas

  14. Great beginning to the article but it never actually tells you what to do, for example, if a horse rears to avoid work. Please get back to me on actual steps to take for this problem if you can. They never told what steps to take exactly.

  15. I found this to be too general. I would like specific help for a puller. It does not happen often, I need help discovering the trigger so I can help her overcome her fear.

  16. I appreciate the good intentions on the article; nevertheless, the possible cure for bad behavior that offers like castrating a horse is definitely not a good advice. What about the mares? What about geldings? Any vice or behavior problem should be investigate to the source from an expert and address the problem accordingly. However, castrating can’t fix something that is in the horses mind, it can’t guaranty any result. When horses act dangerously is because they have a nature tendency of run or fight that it’s trigger either by a predator or a mistreat situation by humans. Predators in the open wild, humans when domesticated. Castrate is only a procedure where vets clinically remove the testicles and at the same time cut and seal the sperm cords so the horse would be unable to reproduce and stop the testosterone hormone which make the horse look aggressive when come close to a mare. But any bad behavior prior to that will remain in his memory until a trainer would work with the root of the problem.

  17. Has any one ever had a Gelding that just out of the bue became agressive towards a mare and foal (6 weeks) This gelding has been at my friends barn for several weeks…pastured next to this mare and foal with 2 other geldings.Also stalled next to each other nights. The gelding broke thru 3 rows of fence and attacked the mare so horribly that they could not save her. Looking for some feed back on this. PS The foal is unharmed however horrified. An older broodmare has bonded with him.

  18. I just aquired a retired polo mare with a 2 month foal at her side- her ground manners are great but i was given the number of the previous owner and called to get further background info- i was met by a very hostile women who stated the mare was only sold to be a brood mare and that she was dangerous to ride. She refused to elaborate as to why this mare was a danger – i have noticted she is very sensetive around her mouth- im at a loss of where to start to find and hopefully fix the problem or abuse this mare may have suffered.

  19. I am dealing with one of my Gelding we got back from a trip we were on for 3 weeks in france and he is a different horse. He Bucked me off to the point where I thought my neck was Broken. ThanK god it was not. He Bite me 4 days ago in his stall and Drew Blood threw my shirt and now He keeps his ears pinned back at all time’s. I am very worried and concerned for My horse. Any help from anyone would be Great.

  20. Last year my daughter took her 5 yr. old paint to a weekend horse camp. When she took him out of his stall and into the arena for lunging he reared up on her. Instead of an experienced adult helping her correct the problem they made her put him away. When I was told about this I got very anger. They more or less taught this horse that if he wanted to get his way all he had to do is jump up. I told our trainer what had happened and he was also ferious. Horse camp is for kids to learn how to care, control and ride safely. Well after that her horse still every once in a while jumped up at my daughter when ever he felt he didn’t want to do something. Thank god our trainer taught my daughter what to do if he did it again. Now he’s back to being a good boy and my daughter has learned what to do if he ever tries it again.

  21. There are similar issues with dogs. People dont spend the time to teach a dog to properly walk on a leash or even take them to a training class, so the dog ends up pulling, barking, nipping, etc. And just like horses, dogs with simple behavior issues, instead of being retrained, ends up in a shelter.

  22. My horse definitely isn’t rogue but I have learned that he is petrified of a crop, stick, bat, lunge whip, whatever you want to call them. He will stop dead, back up, and pull on the lead. It can be very dangerous if he thinks he is going to get hit. Apparently he was abused before I got him at least judging by the way he reacts.

  23. I have gotten a few young horses that were very fearful of a stick or anything that looked like one, so what ever they are afraid of I would put in the pen, stall, feeding areas, so if they wanted to eat, they had to eat with a whip in the same bucket. It usually worked to help them get over their fears.

  24. i do not understand why my horse will buck me or even throw me after 5mins he want me off. i don’t know if is he bitt or what. what can i do. he do not get along with other horses and is always seperated because of his behavior. how can i get him to get along with 5 mares and 1 other gelden? and ride him!

  25. i have a 5 year old gelding that i recently aquired he is very mellow but also very lazy about an hour into a ride he will lay down on me to get out of the ride. He has checked out health wise does anyone out there have an idea as how to change this behavior? I am afraid he might hurt someone one day if i am not there to let them know about his bad habit.

  26. I have to say as I train behavior hores’ I have found some act dangerous more out of fear then aggression but some have come around and others well they are not able to go to a good home but I still believe when they get that bad who is at fault?? horse or old owner??

  27. I have a 6 year old and a 10 year old who have developed the buck undersaddle. Now I know they do it to get out of working. I also know now that they can be trained and can get past it. and be a safe horse to ride then find a good home.

  28. Thank you. The article is great. I have created a rogue horse, unknowingly. He came from a racetrack barely raced. Had been known to buck but didn’t with me until he figured out that it wasn’t a big deal, cause I would get right back on. Eventually I was hurt pretty badly and could not get back on at the time. Now, I scared to ride. A few experienced people have gotten on his back and he continues to buck. Nothing has been consistent in his life since I’ve had him. He’s lovely, doesn’t like people that much, loves nature and is very inquisitive. I’m almost to the point of selling him after 4.5 years. But before and if I do, I’ll take your advice of “Don’t sell the horse until the problem is resolved, unless the buyer is completely aware of the horse’s problems and has both the experience and the commitment to work them through.” Thank you.

  29. my ottb has started bucking at the canter. I havent been thrown yet, but when he does start to I make him go forward even more. SO now he only tries it once each ride, but he is starting to get the idea that buck=more work.

  30. Very good article with some great points! I particularly like the warning of not just fobbing off your problem horse to some unknowing mark.

  31. This was an extremely helpful article for my research paper about horse abuse. It gives novices great facts about why their horse is acting “rogue” and the best way to solve that problem: patience, calmness, love, and care for that horse.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  32. problem horses can and will always be around and i agree that many get passed to many people and never fixed have 2 in my barn that were that way now they ride and drive great and can even be trusted with kids. just take time and patience but they can be turned around

  33. I had a horse several years ago that was born on my property from my mare and stallion. He was beautiful, but was so afraid of everything he was dangerous. After 3 vets advised me to put him down, I hired a trainer just for him. She made very little progress, so I sent him to a horse whisperer who kept him for 2 years and he finally gave up on him and gave him to a young woman who just loved him to bits. He put her in the hospital shortly after with several broken ribs. He was kind of lucky that people liked the look of him so much, that he kept getting 2nd chances instead of being put down. It makes me very sad to know how much time and money was wasted on this horse, when a good horse could have been saved from slaughter.

  34. Horses will never be fully “safe”. But I feel that the best way to make a socalled “safe” horse, is to let a horse be a horse. Don’t back them too early. Take it slow but don’t shelter them too much and understand how a horse ticks and do things in a way that a horse is going to recognise and pick up on. We alter horses by makeing thier flight response almost nonexistance, we force a prey animal to face “preditores”. The least we can do is teach them that you have it all under controll by doing things in a way that a horse will understand. As for the horse with special needs, i think letting them be a horse goes double, but there are always exceptions. We got a Paso Fino stallion about a year and a helf ago as a severely nurotic horse. They had to run him from the trailer into the round pen and you didn’t dare go within 10ft of the pen becuase he would charge and try to attack. In trianing he was nippy so his socalled trainer beat him day after day in the head with a 2×4. Then when he went back home he was put in a dark stall with minimal human contanct and no horse contact, so he bacame horse agressive as well as human agressive. When he went after the owners Girlfriend she said “It’s me or the horse” and thats how we got him, we got him for free. If he was never beat and was well trained, he would sell for over $50000 in today’s economy. Now after being at our farm for 1yr and a half he is finally out in the pastrue with geldings and doing very well, but he is skiny from sever ulcers and he’s still pretty nurotic. But he’s not as poeple agressive, granted we wouldn’t tell just any person to go in his pasture and get a horse out. only 3 of us are allowed to handle him. He has gotten this good by being allowed to just graze and be a horse with other horses and has been shown that we don’t want to hurt him, but don’t hurt us because we wont take that. I hated that horse when he first showed up, but over time watching him get better and learn Iv’e began to love him becuase he is a great example of what letting a horse be a horse can do for a horse. So there is my whole novle that could be summed up by just saying “Let a horse be a horse!”

  35. Idk… I had a mare that had the crazy breed into her… Her dad was crazy, she was, and so was her full sister. She wasn’t afraid to hurt herself to get her way.. let alone the person riding her! The funny thing is her father was worth $50k as a non-competition horse because of his breeding! Isnt that ironic..

  36. Good Artical..lots of useful information just like every other artical on horse channel!! I read articals on here daily and always find somthing to improve on my training and just being a better well rounded horse owner and person

  37. Actual fact – I purchased a 7 year old QH mare who seemed docile when I tried her, but in fact she was so starved she could barely move. Within a week of eating properly she displayed all the symptoms of psychosis, probably from repeated abuse. She reared, backed up, froze up, offered to kick without warning.
    I’ll just give the time line here. Two years to make contact. Another five years to re-educate her. Now, ten years later, she is a joyful and loving pleasure horse who still, can flip back into a zombie mode when stressed…but we have implanted triggers to abort her life-endangering actions.
    Patience, and believe in yourself. These horses can be saved and become wonderful and loving partners. But it’s very, very long.

  38. Over the years, I trained many horses. Without a doubt, the most common cause of dangerous behavior was overfeeding either with grain, alfalfa hay or vitamin supplements. Horses do very well on grass hay, free-choice minerals and a salt block. Repeatedly, people who overfeed keep going through horses convinced each time that they were cheated, instead of accepting that they are creating the problems with their feeding program.

  39. I like your article, but I had a rogue mare, I raised her so knew all about her!! She never came in heat, we had the vet check her, everything was ok, Dad turned her out with a Stallion in our corral, seeing if it might help her come in heat?? Well we spent 20 min getting them apart, the Stud, an older one we had, quiet going and good mannered, went after her and was trying to kill her, no doubt in my mind!!! Dad and I decided she would go to salebarn, I hated to do it, but she could act up for no reason at all, aggressive she was so bad!! My mare had been at my Dad’s and foaled this filly, she was not abused except I found my little bro had put my mare and another one in a little pasture, well away from seeing often, and I went to get her, my mare was so weak and thin, I was so upset!!! I took my mare home, this filly was 3 mo old and we picked her up and put her in the trailer she was so weak!! They only thing we could figure, this must have caused the behavior of this mare as she got older, she was never abused,taken well care of, but we never could figure out exactly what was wrong with her after she got to be 3 she could not be trusted, you held her halter when leading her, she would strike out with her hind feet trying to kick me??? I worked with her a lot, gentle, brushing, and just TLC after I had gotten her home as a foal. So what ever was going on in her brain, she was not to be trusted ever, I had 4 stepchildren that came over a lot, and I didn’t want them to get hurt, the other horses I had were very well mannered and gentle, they learned to ride on one of them. I just was too worried this mare would hurt one of them or one of my 2 children, we sent her to sale barn, no papers,and warning of her manner of being unpredictable. I know she went to the meat market, but I just could not keep a untrustworthy horse. Has anyone else ever had this happen to them?? It wasn’t the feed, she had plenty of pasture. I went through everything trying to figure out what to do with her, for over 6 months, then I let her go.

  40. I need advice. I sent my 13 year old gelding for professional training. We have been riding him on and off for years but he really seemed to not be getting “it”. He has always been a safe horse for us. My kids, beginners and their friends have ridden him. Anyway, when I got him back from the trainer. She told me that he was now strong and confident and knew what he was doing. I had been sick and was unable to ride him for 5 days after we got him back. He tacked up fine but when I got on was totally unresponsive. My daughter then got on (a huge mistake!) he bolted within seconds of her getting on and went beserk bucking, he threw her and continued to buck and bolted out into the pasture (he came within inches of trampling her). When I called and told the trainer she said that it was natural because he was so full of confidence and that he was now the pack leader. I told her that I disagreed and that said that a horse that is well trained listens and obeys. She got very angry with me when I told her that. What has she done to my horse?

  41. Hi I have been riding a friends mare now for about three months. She hacks out very calmly but doesn’t like going infront with others and doesn’t like going on a hack to new places, she just stops and won`t move.
    Ridden her for lessons in the ménage without a problem,walk, trot and canter.
    However, took her to a dressage competition at the weekend, its the first for her and for me for at least six years. In the outdoor school where there were other horses she spooked and then bucked and then a few seconds later she bronked half way down the ménage. Any clues as to her behaviour?

  42. Great article, my horse has been acting up so i read this article and I think it may be her hoof because it’s cracked badly. I have been treating it well though it is impossible to get rid of the crack because sadly she was born like that.

  43. I have a 24 year old gelding getting worse every year he has attempted to kick me more than a few times and actually kicked once he has run me over has pushed me into the fence and broke boards what do I do? He has health issues and anxiety issues. He is fine as a pasture mate but not rideable do to his health. Some people tell me I need to get rid of him because he is dangerous but I have had him for 6 years and hate to think about getting rid of him but I’m afraid of him and hate the thought of being afraid of him even more please

  44. I adopted a mare and she is sweet but very spoiled.She for no reason will rear up on me and knee me in the back when I walk away from her. She uses her knees not her hoofs. She does not think she should be lunged or ridden but petted and loved on and given snacks. Why does she so this and how to correct thank you

  45. Please everyone, don’t think that simply reading an article such as this and resolving to “be patient” or take tips from a distant source will fix your training issues. And be careful about whom you send your horse to for “training,” so you don’t end up with a worse problem when you get the horse back. Check references on your prospective trainer and watch him/her for a while with different horses. Then realize when you get the horse back that if you cannot replicate the conditions under which your horse was worked during training, you might not be able to handle that particular horse on your own afterward and may be better off selling to a more knowledgeable/skilled person and purchasing a horse whose mindset and established training level better matches your time, skill, and ability.

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