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Safety and Crow Hopping Horse

15 August 2011 No Comment

Safety and Crow Hopping Horse
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Question
Hi,
I have a 3 1/2-yr. old Appaloosa gelding, which we recently purchased. He was started young, by the previous owners and worked on a ranch. He has settled in nicely with us at a boarding stable and is usually ridden by my 12-yr. old daughter. They get along really well and he is a notably quiet young man.
We use him for quiet trail riding in the foothills of the Rockies, usually walking with only occasional trotting. He is very good on the ground, friendly and willing. My daughter does Parelli ground work with him and he faces up beautifully and is very responsive and calm. Basically, he seems like a typical Appaloosa (according to the breed standard anyway!) and has been a real joy to work with.

Just one question, given that I am not experienced with young horses, I wanted to see if my experience with him last weekend is significant. I rode him last weekend (I am 37, with 12 years experience riding as a teenager) and all was well until we were in an open area (enjoying the view). I admit to daydreaming and not paying close attention, when suddenly he crow-hopped 2-3 times and tossed me off. No harm done, however, I am wondering if I should be concerned about my daughter riding him? He has never so much as offered to do anything like this, his only fault seems to be being too pokey and laid-back. I did get right back on and ignored the whole thing (except that
I stopped daydreaming!), he was his usual self for the rest of our ride (he bucked at the beginning).

My feeling is that he is fine, but as a mother I would like to get a second opinion on the subject.

Thanks so much,
Darlene

Answer
Hi Darlene,
It sounds like you found yourself and your daughter a nice young horse that for the most part is very much a gentleman! I don’t really have a favorite breed of horse, but if pressed to choose a breed that I like a lot, I’d have to say Appaloosas. I’m not so much into the spots and color patterns, as I am their air of confidence, (sometimes bordering on a huge ego! lol), their zest for life and also their ability to be playful at times while still demonstrating maturity even at a young age. They usually as a rule are confident horses and at times will take over the leader spot in a twosome if the other member of the “team” doesn’t take on the leadership role. However, once established that the human is the leader and the horse is a very high second-in-command, most of the Appaloosas that I’ve ever trained will go out of their way to try and please you and they are also very brave, loyal and devoted. My first horse Star, whom I was together with for 23 years until she passed away with her head cradled in my arms in 1995 was 1/2-Appaloosa and she was the greatest horse I will probably ever have the privilege of knowing. Through many trials and tribulations, and also many great, grand adventures, she taught me about courage, responsibility, dignity, love and trust and although she passed away several years ago, I still think about her everyday!

To answer your question: I’m not sure I’d be overly concerned about one isolated incident of crow hopping or bucking with this horse, as long as it didn’t seem premeditated or extremely aggressive. He is still young and I would have had to have been there to truly see if anything occurred to cause him to do what he did; maybe some young horse exuberance, or he felt “goosed” by something on a leg or his belly (perhaps a weed tickling him?), or maybe something pinched him. While I’m not an advocate for doing much riding at all on 2 and 3-year-old horses, it doesn’t sound to me like you or your daughter are over-doing it with your primarily walking trail rides. If he was being “pushed” either mentally or physically, I might say he is showing you the stresses of too much while he is too young, but I don’t believe that is an issue here.

It’s hard to say, but in my experience with thousands of horses at this point in time, if you’re riding along and a horse has a little episode of “something” like bucking, rearing or running off, unless the horse has a pattern of biding their time and waiting for the rider to relax (or daydream!) and then acts, something usually, but not always, occurs to cause the behavior and there are most often indications or forewarnings, even if very subtle, that something is going to happen. An exception might be a little spook caused by a rabbit running out of the bushes or something of that sort, but unless the horse follows through with bucking or running, spooking is often a non-issue because nothing else occurs after the spook. If bucking, crow hopping or rearing occurs “suddenly”, we may think and think after the fact and not come up with certain behavior before the actual incident. Sometimes however, we will remember a certain way the horse acted right before they bucked, or reared, or ran off that should have clued us in to something getting ready to happen, but because we ignored it, the horse reacted and we got dumped. If we had acted upon the warning signals from our horse, we could have then cautioned the horse, or reassured them that everything was all right and the actual negative behavior might not have manifested at all.

I have re-trained many horses that had developed into a pattern of dumping their riders whenever they didn’t feel like doing something, sometimes even just being ridden lightly, and they developed into this pattern after 3 or 4 episodes of tossing people. A physical exam showed nothing wrong from a chiropractic standpoint, and no dental problems, or mechanical problems were in evidence either, so it very definitely was a training issue at the point they came to me. Usually the first time the unseating of their rider occurred, it was innocent enough on the horses part, and even typical, in that the horse may have spooked and the rider grabbed them with their heels to try and stay on and the horse went into react-mode of running and/or bucking, they “followed-through”. A second time that it happens might also be accidental, or even innocent again and the horse may have been as surprised as the rider that the person was off and on the ground. But… after the second time, often a pattern will begin to develop and emerge of using minor scenarios of a bird flying out of a bush, or the rider clipping the horse accidentally with their heel, or any number of other subtle things as an excuse to spook, shy, buck, run-off, etc, because the horse has figured out that it’s pretty easy to toss people. If it’s nipped in the bud at this point, most often it won’t progress further. If however it happens a third and fourth time of dumping the rider, the behavior as an evasion to being ridden at all, or ridden certain places or in certain circumstances, can begin to be conditioned onto the horses brain and it may become more difficult to extinguish the negative behavior.

I do understand your concerns for your daughter’s safety and if you aren’t already doing so, condition your daughter toward always wearing a secure and sturdy safety helmet with a harness. We can mend broken arms and legs, but a broken head is a whole different story and having been witness to serious head injuries, it is not something to take even the slightest chance with. I don’t have children of my own, but I am ultra protective of my students, both junior riders and adults, and since I primarily teach/train green horse/novice owner combinations, being thrown can be more of a reality then with a more seasoned and trained horse/human pairing. We take precautions and are very careful, but as I do tell my students, if you’re going to ride horses, it’s not a matter of “if” you get thrown, it’s a matter of “when” you will be thrown. I don’t say this to them to scare them so much as to indicate that riding does carry with it risks that certainly won’t occur if you don’t ride at all, but through education and observance of safety precautions, and also learning how to read the individual horse and be an “aware” rider, the risks can be minimized. With education and the exercising of good common sense comes the lessening of risk.

What you describe sounds to me like an isolated incident and I wouldn’t be overly concerned at this point in time. You followed the incident with re-mounting and going on to have a pleasant and positive ride. However, if something like what occurred happens again, or even if your horse begins to demonstrate behavior that is not normal for him, perhaps becoming fussy with the bit, or spooking more frequently, or out-and-out bucking or running-off, then I would immediately have a thorough exam done to determine if there might be something going on skeletally, with his developing and changing musculature, with his teeth, or with his eyes. I would also check the fit of his tack to make sure that something isn’t irritating him to cause out-of-the-ordinary behavior. If at that point you find nothing wrong, then I would get right to work on correcting the behavior before it becomes a habit or an established pattern of behavior. Utilizing both positive and negative reinforcement works the best for me in these situations of re-training and also extinguishing behaviors.

Most likely, it was just something that occurred and you were caught by surprise and got thrown. You may never know what triggered the crow hopping. Indicate to your daughter to be very aware when riding the horse and to let you know if anything unusual happens. She shouldn’t be tense or apprehensive, just aware and tuned-in to her surroundings and the communication between she and her horse. This gelding I’m sure is a nice guy and other then a momentary loss of focus (both you and he at the same time), he’s probably more interested in having you remain seated on his back then he is in seeing you on the ground.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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