Q & A: Bucking at Speed

Question: Bucking at speed (Behaviour)

I have a 7-year old thoroughbred, who had some serious issues when I started working with him. I've been training him for polo, for the last year, and he's now perfect on the ball, turns well, very responsive. And even stops well! But he bucks in a fast canter - and not just up and down, but with big twists.
I tried him in chukkas for the first time 2 weeks ago and nearly had heart failure - 7 minutes left me a gibbering wreck.
What makes it worse is it's not really predictable - and he doesn't get it out of his system. The faster we go/longer we practice the more excited he becomes and the more likely he is to do something truly spectacular. I'm not really worried about coming off (so far I've had loads of practice at handling it), but I'm really concerned that he'll trip as he really gets his hindquarters far out to the left when he bucks.
When he bucks - it's like something just sparks in his head - he somethimes even makes a sort of MMHHHH!! grunt noise just before the first 1.
I've done the obvious - checked that there's no pain etc
And I've cut out 1 of his supplements (Iron Excel) and am now trotting/slow cantering him for about 4kms every morning before we actually start training. But he still gets in the odd buck, anyway.
I believe that he does it from shear excitement - so the logical thing is to give him more work. There are, however, only so many hours in a day and this is not how I earn a living.
Do I just carry on and hope he gets over it before he injures 1 or both of us or does anyone have any other suggestions.

Answer: Bucking at speed (Behaviour)

Hi Bruce,
Oh boy - sounds like you have yourself a lively one there! First off I must tell you that you are very brave to endure an entire chukka of bucking, twisting and general excitement! Most mere mortals would have been off or back home before the first grunt!
Firstly, I can tell you that this type of behavior - although perhaps not caused by pain at first - will lead to some type of strain and injury in your horse. Bucking like that will hurt him eventually. My first suggestion to you is to get an equine physiotherapist or Specialist Vet or even a Vet who specializes in acupuncture to give your horse a thorough checking over. His hips, sacroiliac joint and lower back will be especially important. You may be surprised what they discover when examining him. Have the physio give you excercises to do regularly to keep his joints and muscles soft and supple. If he continues the behavior you will be looking at regular checks and treatments every couple of months. Also, do have his teeth and feet checked by a specialist. Saddle fit is also important, as is your riding technique.
Once you have done this, it is time to start work on the behavior. I would check the food your horse is getting and modify it to lower his excitement levels. If he is getting Lucerne for example, I would cut that immediately. Nothing like a bit of Lucerne to get a TB all hot and bothered! Try a calming or maize free feed, but add oil supplementation to add caloric and energy value to the feed without the excitement factor. (see ' Feeding fats to Horses' ) Once you have sorted out the diet factor, time to concentrate on his training.
The biggest challenge with your horse is the fact that, being a TB, he will actually tend to get worse the fitter he gets... That is a vital clue to whether his bucking is in fact caused by excitement or something else. The trick will be to keep him fit enough for polo without an ounce of extra breath for bucking! Be aware of doing too much work out as you are making your problem worse!
When training your horse, I would take things down a notch and focus on suppling excercises, quiet walks out, slow trots and very little canter for now. You want to "clutch his mind down a notch". Desensitizing work, like rubbing him all over with feedbags, showing him all sorts of objects and so forth will not only clam him but more importantly, will bond the two of you. He needs to learn that when tense or excited, you are his ally. Have one or two flatwork lessons with a qualified instructor to identify your weak spots and give you something to work on.
Many times when on the field, polo horses get excited by the other horses galloping up to them or past them or they actually get nervous because of a previous experience like another horse bumping into them or the ball whizzing past them and giving them a scare. This can cause nervous tension and they explode in a bucking fit. To help, practice riding out with other horses, incorporate other horses into your training routine. For example, with your horse at halt, have a friend first trot past you from behind, then back again, and praise him if he stands still and relaxed, progress to canters and when he is happy to have a horse canter past him, try a full out gallop. You can vary this by having him walk, or even trot, but the key is that he must remain calm. Get creative and try to recreate moments in the game where he gets too excited, but take the speed down a notch and get him to relax. You need to start way back at the basics and take the excitement levels slowly up from there.
When he bucks, brace your lower leg, lean back slightly and bring his head up by straightening your arm out, and up. (literally lifting his head) You could try a gag type bit if you are not already doing so. This will help to lift his head if it goes down to buck. (Remember, a horse with his head up cannot buck!)
You could also try a product such as Equifox's Pharmacalm Paste, designed for use prior to competition - it relaxes the horse without taking away the 'edge' required for performance. A Devil's Claw supplement will alleviate any pain or stiffness he may have and reduce inflammation.
You have a lot of work to do, and at the end he may not ever completely stop bucking, but if he does you need to decide whether he is worth the effort and potential injury!
As a word of caution - always wear protective clothing when working with him, and I would definitely invest in a body protector if I were you - no horse is worth you getting seriously hurt!
Good luck and remember - the short way round is always the long one!

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