Exploding horses and unpredictable tantrums

Is your horse unpredictable? Does everything seem to be going well when suddenly, for no apparent reason he decides to spook or bolt – or stop completely? Then this post is for you…..

I was asked a question recently which reminded me of some things I do with horses and humans that make a real difference to this unpredictable behaviour. Fiona was struggling to stay confident when rising her horse out on t The hack would start out well, seem to be going smoothly – then all of sudden her horse would spin round and head for home at full speed. Not surprisingly Fiona was feeling less and less confident about riding him out. Worse, she had no ideas how to change the situation. Not a good place to be.

This reminded me of a horse, Tess, who came to stay with me for a while. Her owners had bought her to share as a hacking horse but she had started napping so much she had in fact reared up and gone over backwards with her rider on board. Pretty scarey stuff.

The first thing I dd was turn her out in the herd for a week or so – to let her reset herself to being a horse. Then I did some basic groundwork – just enough that I was confident about taking her out on an “online” hack. In other words I could lead from the head, shoulder or girth on a loose rein, stop, back up – and knew I could stay safe while sending her past scarey objects and ask her to turn and face me afterwards. I will write more about the value of that particular exercise for building a horse’s confidence in a later blog post if anyone is interested.

The next stage was to head out on the online hack. I took support in the form of my own reliable hacking horse and a friend who would lead and/or ride her for me and we loaded up and headed off to a favourite route on the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire. This route has no roads and lots of different terrain and surroundings so was perfect for my purpose.

My friend and other horse led the way. Tess and I followed – and I focused on watching her closely as we went along.

1. She was worried about a scarey bush – looked at it and decided to walk past it, putting a curve into her route to stay well clear of it.

2. She looked at a puddle then gritted her teeth and walked through

3. She jumped when a sheep ran to the fence but carried on

4. She hesitated when asked to walk up a small bank but again gritted her teeth and did it

5. I asked her to go through another puddle….


Really- she went nuts- threw a huge tantrum flinging herself everywhere to avoid putting a hoof anywhere near the small pool of water.

My friend stood there open-mouthed: “Where did THAT come from?” she asked “She is SO unpredictable! No wonder those people didn’t want to ride her!”

How interesting.

So my friend saw an unpredictable exploding horse.

What did I see?

I saw a horse who had collected tension through four separate worrying moments- and who, on that fourth moment had just reached her limit.

It’s like those cards you get at coffee shops: each time you buy a coffee, you get a stamp and when you have ten stamps you can trade the card in for a free coffee.

Well, Tess was a stamp collector. In her case, she could collect four stamps, one for each I occasion she felt pressure and just got on with it – then at the fifth pressure point it was too much – she traded them all in for a big explosion.

This happens with people too. Stamp collecting. I see it a lot in my business consulting work. Someone has an issue, or feels irritated by something someone else says or does – but decides it’s not worth bothering about so does nothing. Same thing the next time, and the next….until one day that someone else slams a door or does something equally trivial and that is the last straw- the stamps are at their limit and all that tolerance and letting things slide or gritting teeth and getting on with it is traded in for a massive row — with everyone else wondering what was so bad about letting a door slam!

Inexplicable things are often totally understandable – IF you know how to observe and listen for patterns.

So now I knew Tess was a stamp collector I could help her out – all I had to do was make sure she never got to that fifth stamp.

Using the squeeze and friendly games to make sure the stamp counter was reset to zero EVERY time she showed the slightest concern meant we could finish the online hack – and all future rides out – with no need for any explosions at all.

So here’s a question for you:

Is your horse a stamp collector?

How can you find out and learn to reset your horse’s counter to zero?

And, important for you and your confidence: how do you do YOUR stamp collecting????

Yours in confidence



4 thoughts on “Exploding horses and unpredictable tantrums

  1. Yes he is a stamp collector , he is in general very good to hack but he does “collect” especially when it’s a windy day. Think the thing that struck me most about your tale of the mare who went though frightened then exploded about a puddle. That is it to a “T” & when he blows he goes feral on me , like the smashed back of riding hat incident when I came to lying in the road & have never remembered exactly what happened or what caused it. Sometimes he will buck until you hit the deck but others he drops his shoulder & spins giving you little chance of staying on board. Have had him since he was three ,he’s now nineteen but still has his moments,less of course because he’s seen most things & they don’t frighten him. I also think I do it as a few months ago I was stuck on board,yes you read it right couldn’t get off. This was due to my stiff hip playing up meaning I caught my leg as I dismounted & fell to the floor it happened so often that I really got to the stage when I couldn’t ride unless there was someone to help me get my leg across the back of the saddle to get off. Did some lateral thinking & gritted my teeth & kept left foot in the stirrup & dismounted the western way leaned across the saddle freed my left foot & slid off ,had to free left foot as if I just dismounted the western way I overbalanced & sat on the floor. Have poor balance nowadays as am an arthritic 66 yr old with quite bad osteoporosis in my spine meaning I have to be careful not to fall so am trying to overcome the blips that occur ie stuck in saddle LOL. That certainly didn’t happen overnight it built up until the day I couldn’t dismount because I’d become scared of falling just like you described

  2. Hi Cathy, so I have found out about the friendly and squeeze games and I can see how they would help establish confidence and trust and friendship etc when on the ground but how do you / or do you mean to use these tools whilst out hacking to bring her back to ‘zero’??

    • Good question Lynda — the thing is to first be able to “read” when your horse is at zero or not — I recently rode a horse past a big muck heap — he looked fine BUT I felt his steps shorten, and his neck came up a bit — so I did the squeeze game riding him back and forwards past it and turning (disengaging) at each end of the pass — as we did that, he got more and more relaxed and when his head and neck were almost horizontal and he was almost ambling past it, I then felt he was at zero — and asked hi if he could touch the muck heap with his nose in return for a treat — which he did after I gave him some time to think —
      This is what told me he was at zero so I could start riding again knowing I had “reset the counter”

      With practice you will realise when your horse is at zero — with one horse I had to ride back and forth past a scary object about 15 times before she relaxed but it was worth it — every time you do this your horse gets more and more used to the pattern leading to relaxation and eventually you only have to go past and disengage to turn and look and they will sigh and be ready to move on — they build their own confidence
      let us know how it goes


  3. Sounds just like my mare, but my problem is knowing how many stamps she has collected. Come to grief so many times losing confidence now. She even does it in hand and lunging if I put ANY pressure on her, but I have to make her work or she will just be lazy and dawdle round.. Had her 2 years now and it has taken most of that time for her to settle with my other 2 horses. She will not follow another horse when I have taken 2 out, and is VERY independent. She is like a pussy cat when not being pressurized, but it seems to take very little to set her off.. My instructor is very helpful and does natural horsemanship but she has never actually seen her explode as my lessons are a lot more theory and subtle control rather than very active.

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