We have a Quarter Horse mare whose mother was a bad flipper in the starting gate. She has two half-brothers that were also bad in the gate. All of these offspring were trained by different individuals. This spring, she had a filly that tried to flip over backward at 20 minutes of age when we tried to dip her navel. Her first reaction to anything she doesn't want to do is to flip over backward.

Due to the life-threatening consequences of this bad habit to both horse and rider, could you please present some possible solutions to this matter? I'm afraid that when we attempt to teach the filly to tie that she will damage her neck and/or break her pelvis if she breaks the rope and flips over backward.      Jenn, via e-mail


In certain lines, this tendency does seem highly heritable. And it is not just the ordinary rearing that is provoked by mishandling, but rather, as you say, a tendency from the start to express fear or resistance by just popping up to avoid ordinary procedures. We have seen these "aerially inclined" and "overreacting" lines in breeds other than Quarter Horses, too. For example, I can think of some Thoroughbred and Arabian families, and even ponies, with a tendency for rearing and flipping over. Just like with your foal, the behavior is often present at an early age, so it is not likely just the result of being mishandled.

I work with a family of four full-sibling Shetland-type ponies--three colts and one filly. The mare's previous offspring by a different stallion did not have this tendency, and her last four foals, all with the same stallion, do show the behavior.

Their tendency to rear to avoid ordinary procedures and to jump to escape pressure was evident from the first time they were handled. They were handled just like every other foal in that project, so it certainly seemed that while other foals might try to move away from pressure, these guys just popped up, and even over backward. Like deer, they could jump from a standstill, bounding out of enclosures twice their height. These avoidance maneuvers didn't quickly diminish as we gentled them as most others did, such as turning butt, striking, or kicking we see in young foals.

Over the years, I've heard and seen a lot of punishment-type techniques to "cure" rearing. Some are pretty violent and dangerous, and I personally have not seen a punishment method that I could recommend as safe and effective, or that I would be willing to try myself. It would be good to hear from readers along these lines.

I can tell you what we have found useful to eliminate rearing in the hands-on situations we are most experienced with. The four rearing ponies, for example, are totally in our care and on a behavior research program. So, we can and have decided to simply avoid provoking the rearing when they are young.

We know that rearing is self-reinforcing; in other words, it usually leads to successful avoidance of the procedure or restraint. If you just keep trying, the animal gets rewarded over and over for rearing, and a great principal of behavior modification is to peacefully stop the avoidance cycle. This is easier said than done, and requires that you and the entire team agree and develop a bag of tricks.

In the case of rearing and flipping or jumping, we have found that it is clearly the restraint itself, or the "cornering," that pushes the rearing or jumping button. At least in the few individuals I have personally worked with, it seemed that they were not nearly as averse to the procedure itself as to the restraint.

For example, for lifting their feet or for an injection or blood draw, we work without a halter or lead in a small paddock. We use positive reinforcement to reward tolerance of the procedure, or to distract slightly from the procedure. Without restraint these animals have cooperated nicely.

I realize that a domestic horse can't go on forever without restraint, but we have the impression that avoiding the restraint and the rearing when they are young is helpful as they mature. The 2- and 3- year-old colts seem to be maturing out of the rearing tendency.

In the meantime, we have avoided battles, and every necessary procedure has been accomplished peacefully within a reasonable time. Sometimes it goes even faster because we don't have to halter them, just walk up to them and begin working.

We have not yet tried to tie them; since they stand for anything, we haven't needed to go there. But the two older colts might soon be ready to test that. I realize this is totally impractical for your race training situation, but since we can go slowly, we have. And it certainly has worked nicely.

Another situation in which we are faced with rearing is in breeding stallions, either when starting novice breeders or when correcting specific breeding behavior problems. In those situations, the available history might not be complete, so we are not sure whether the horse is one of those special "aerially inclined" individuals or whether he is just one of the victims in which injudicious discipline at the head has created the problem.

Careful evaluation of thousands of hours of stallion handling has left me with the impression that most rearing in the breeding situation is inadvertently provoked by the handler jerking at the head restraint. Then it becomes a vicious cycle. As the handler begins to anticipate rearing, he sometimes (inadvertently) prompts the horse to rear by cranking up the restraint or jerking.

So, when we are faced with a rearing stallion, our first tack is to try backing off on the restraint at the head, at least temporarily. If we had been using a chain shank over the nose or under the chin, or over the tongue like a bit, we try with a cotton shank over the nose or just attached to the lower ring of the halter. We make sure the halter is a well-fitted, sturdy breeding halter. We then try to make sure there is no jerking or pulling at the head. The rearing usually subsides to a safe, workable level, then once the stallion learns the routine, the rearing and other undesirable behaviors "evaporate."

When they don't, we go to Plan B, which is to creatively reorganize the situation or protocol to avoid the rearing.

For example, we are working now with two stallions that tend to rear during the washing of the penis when in the breeding shed with the mare. It's a pretty common scenario. It seems to be overenthusiasm or frustration because of the necessary delay. So, we either do the wash before the mare is brought into the breeding area, or we wash the stallion outside the breeding shed, or even in the stall if they are ready there.

For me, the starting gate situation is a greater challenge. To avoid the flipping you have to acclimate the animal so well to the situation that fear doesn't push the button for rearing and flipping.

The starting gate situation is not easy to model. You can practice all you want, but the real event is so much more complex and potentially fear-inducing that it's really not the same. Again, maybe readers have useful ideas they could share. Finally, but very importantly, it would be inadvisable to introduce tying to a horse until this type of rearing problem is well-resolved.

(Editor's Note: Please send comments to editorial@TheHorse.com and put "Rearing" as the subject line.)

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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