Does your horse have a “tell”?

Yesterday was warm-ish for winter, but had a wind with a biting edge. Zelda and I went out for a hack and when that wind got under her tail, I could feel the buck rising in her. Luckily, Zelda has a “tell”. She’d be a terrible poker player because when she’s going to be naughty she shakes her head and neck — a pre-buck warning system that is very useful.

Mostly when she does this, I growl at her. If that doesn’t work, I use a one-rein stop and put her in a tight circle for a round or two. She doesn’t like that, so usually she chooses to behave. The other thing which is a good discourager of bad behavior is a set of spurs. When I first started riding Zelda, she tested me every single ride. She would buck. She would squeal. She would try to rub me off on trees. She wanted to make sure that I was serious about doing work.

Carrying a crop didn’t help. Zelda’s reaction to a spanking is to buck harder. For such a big girl, she’s quite athletic. Her bucks aren’t hard to sit, but when they come in multiples, they can be disconcerting.

Spurs were the remedy. I don’t use them as a “go faster” aide; I use them as a behave NOW tool. Of course, yesterday, I wasn’t wearing them because I only wanted to go for a walk.

Zelda doesn’t buck now because she’s trying to avoid work. She and I came to an understanding about three months into our relationship, and she mostly works with me rather than against me. These days she wants to buck because she feels good and I’m still being wimpy.

Freedom is a kind horse, a pleaser. He’s not an easy ride, but it’s not because he’s naughty. He’s just very sensitive/reactive and (even at 21) has more energy than he knows what to do with. This is a horse that really needs to be ridden six days a week.

Freedom doesn’t buck. I’ve owned him for 15 years and I can’t think of a time when he’s ever bucked under saddle. It’s just as well because that boy can throw a big buck when he’s playing in the field. I’m sure he could get me off if he tried.

Luckily he’s a pleaser. I’ve never felt like he wanted me to come off, only that he didn’t know how to contain his own energy. When he’s naughty he bounces. Or throws his head. Or jigs. When I rode him last week we mostly cantered. He could canter for an hour easily — if my ankle would cooperate. He’s so balanced that he doesn’t care if we’re going up hill or down hill. He gets into that thoroughbred gear and settles into overdrive.

Of course, he does have lightening fast reflexes. He can spook five feet to the left so fast that you feel like a cartoon character suspended in the air, hoping you’ll land in the saddle. He’s gotten me off twice that way — once when a dear popped out of the woods in front of us and once when someone started a chain saw a bit too close. Both times he appeared horrified that I’d come off, almost apologetic.

How about your horse? Can you tell when they have mischief on their minds?

9 thoughts on “Does your horse have a “tell”?

  1. My sweet pony gave the biggest, loudest, most fabulous squeal when he was going to buck whether I was in the saddle or not.

  2. My pony has the same pre-misbehaviour tell as Zelda, the infamous head/neck shake. Gives her away every time 😉 Great post! xx

  3. Honestly, Raven is so well mannered that I really don’t know when he’s about to misbehave. He gets his wahoo bucks and bolts out before he’s saddled up. (I always allow him to roll and get the whizz out of him, without a halter before I tack him up and mount.)
    I think the only time I noticed something odd with his behavior was right after he’d had a flirt with one of the mares who had her stuck over the wall of the arena. She was, (I realized too late) in heat. Raven, like most geldings, are still lotharios, despite not being able to achieve intromission. So it was after the mare squealed I thought, Oh, dear, I shouldn’t have allowed that. I walked him away from her and could feel he was not ‘with me’. He had his mind on that mare. About two minutes later, he spooked at something. Usually, even bareback, I can ride out his spooks, but not this time. I came off, unhurt but now, much wiser.
    NOW I know what it feels like when he’s “not with me.”

  4. They all have their quirks that’s for sure! But great if they give an early warning sign to pre-warn you, but it’s the ones whose warnings are split seconds before that aren’t that helpful!! 😂

  5. My girlie has an accumulator….and then nothing….fortunately! She’s rather sensitive so when something happens she gets tense, if things happen in quick succession then she gets even more tense. I can feel it building underneath me. Spooks tend to involve throwing her head in the air, combined with a leap (cartoon style, just like you and yours!). When I get her back she’s either hollow and resistant or curls up into a little bouncy ball…at 14hh she can compress her body into a very small space which can be a little unnerving. Fortunately a burst of forward momentum is all that she does otherwise I’m sure I’d have spent more time sitting on the floor than I have. Like you I use lots of small circles to get her attention back, get control of her legs and encourage relaxation with flexion and bending. I’m sure anyone seeing me in the field doing this must wonder what on earth I am doing!!

  6. One thing I learned with my little Arab, Jordan..who was just barely a horse at 14.3.. was that one is a lot closer to the ground when coming off a short horse than a tall one….;-)

  7. My favorite line: “She’d be a terrible poker player because when she’s going to be naughty she shakes her head and neck — a pre-buck warning system that is very useful.” LOL

    Knight is more like Freedom. Maybe it’s a TB thing. He’s never once bucked with me, but his bucks when he plays are unreal. I’m so grateful he is an honest boy who doesn’t hate “mom.” 🙂

    1. It’s quite fun to have horses with such different personalities. Freedom is very emotional and high strung. If he was a human he’d be a chain smoker. Zelda would be a lot of fun to go out and party with. I think she’d tell a good story.

  8. I just started riding a horse that bucks and I’m still figuring out his tells, exactly like you said! He reacts to tension so the key seems to be to stay relaxed and not get involved in his drama. Great read and definitely relatable!

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