Why do horses buck?

action animal bronco bucking
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I recently saw a post on social media where someone’s horse had started bucking and they were asking for advice on what to do. Most of the comments were understanding and helpful but one caught my eye. This comment was along the lines of “horses never buck for fun, there is always a pain or tension related reason for it.” While I understand the point they were making, I don’t think I agree. This got me thinking about why do horses buck? And how should we respond to a buck? 

Play vs Pain 

I think the reasons horses buck can be overly simplified into two categories; play and pain. 

Play 

Bucking for fun is all about letting off steam. The most obvious sign of a horse bucking for fun is when they are running around the field. All horses do this occasionally, with some having it as part of their daily turnout routine, a run round with a few bucks.  

Pain 

When horses buck due to pain or discomfort, it is often labelled as naughty behaviour and the horse can be punished rather than fixed. Although I do feel like horse owners are getting better at recognising pain as a reason. For example, a cold backed horse may buck when a rider first gets on due to the sensation this causes on their back.  

So why do horses buck?

What can cause a horse to buck out of pain? 

Unfortunately, there are so many things what can cause a horse to buck out of pain or discomfort. Obvious causes include back pain/stiffness, saddle fit, cold backed, kissing spines. But ulcers, hind limb injuries, general stiffness and unbalance can all cause a horse to buck, especially if what you are asking them to do is hard for them. 

Horses bucking due to discomfort will often buck in certain situations or when they are asked certain things. Common times a horse may buck due to pain are when you first get on or asking for canter.

Can stress cause bucking? 

There are also stress related bucks. I know a few horses who get really tense when they are stressed. This tension occasionally bubbles over into a buck. A prime example is a horse at my yard who gets tense out hacking and at competitions. He then becomes super reactive and will sometimes release the tension in a buck before carrying on.  

Now it isn’t physical discomfort what causes the tension, but it is possible that the tension causes a bit of discomfort under or behind the saddle, causing the horse to buck. But I wouldn’t have said that pain or discomfort is the cause.  

Is ridden bucking always pain related? 

A common opinion now is that a happy, comfortable horse doesn’t buck undersaddle. Now while I think this is the right mindset to have when dealing with a horse what bucks undersaddle, I don’t believe it is the only answer. Afterall, if a horse is capable of playful bucking in one situation, I find it hard to argue that they can never display playful bucks in another situation. 

For example, I’m sure we have all known a horse at one time who enjoyed jumping and would put in the occasional buck between jumps. Or maybe a few bucks when cantering in a big open field. While there is a possibility that there was an underlying problem somewhere what caused the bucks, in these high energy situations where the horse is willing to go forward, I think it is fair to say these are playful bucks. 

What should you do about your horse bucking? 

If your horse has started bucking recently and not done it before, I always think giving them a bit of an MOT is the best thing as this should find any obvious causes. You should get their back and saddle checked. If that doesn’t show anything obvious then teeth and general lameness is usually worth a check too. 

Whether it is a new or existing behaviour, you should think carefully about when your horse does it. Is there any patterns? For example, if it’s when you ask for canter on a certain rein, that could suggest a stiffness or pain making cantering on that rein difficult for them. This information can help a vet or physio identify any possible issues. 

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