At horse training challenges, the professionals make colt starting look easy. In just a couple hours they have the horse saddled and backed, loping circles around the round pen. The reality is that this type of training looks good in front of an audience, but leaves a lot of holes in horse’s training, which can lead to explosive behavior later. If you find yourself with one of these horses, these are the steps to take to turn your powder keg into a willing partner.
Rule Out Health Issues
Health issues can erupt at any time. Even if you just purchased the horse and had a vet check, it is possible that your horse has a health condition that your vet did not consider. Before you start retraining your horse, rule out any health issues that could cause them to be explosive.
Check your horse’s teeth and schedule a floating if needed. Something this simple may solve your horse’s explosiveness.
If your horse is an American Quarter Horse, draft horse, or Warmblood, consider testing for Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM). Horses with this condition are unable to properly store glucose in their muscles. Type 1 is a genetic condition and is diagnosed with a hair or blood sample. The cause of Type 2 is unknown, and it is diagnosed with a muscle biopsy. Symptoms can include stiffness, sweating, reluctance to move, and muscle pain. If these symptoms are subtle, your horse could be explosive as a result of the pain.
Another condition to rule out is kissing spines. This is where two of the spinous processes rub against each other, causing back pain, arthritis, or bone cysts. It is most noticeable when a rider is in the saddle, but the horse may also experience discomfort without a rider. This condition is most common in American Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and Warmbloods.
Poor hair coat and poor appetite are symptoms of gastric ulcers. Some horses experience abdominal pain from the ulcers, and this can cause explosive behavior. The only way to diagnose ulcers is through gastroscopy.
If you are riding a mare, her explosiveness may coincide with her heat cycles. Mare Magic (buy it here) or giving her a day off may solve the problem.
Schedule a visit with the chiropractor to ensure that your horse’s spine is in alignment and a massage to loosen any tight muscles.
Check Your Saddle Fit
Your horse’s back changes as they age. Your saddle may not fit your horse’s back properly anymore, causing them discomfort and leading to explosive behavior. Saddles are not a one-size-fits-all affair. Your horse may change saddle sizes through the season as he develops more muscle over his back, so you may need to own several to keep him comfortable.
A properly fitted saddle has ample clearance over the spine and places pressure evenly on both sides of the back. When you first test a saddle for fit, ride for a few minutes and then check spinal clearance and balance again to make sure the saddle is not hurting your horse’s back. The saddle must be the correct size for the horse and the rider. A saddle that is too long can cause pain and damage the kidneys or loin.
If you have ruled out health issues and your saddle fits properly, the cause of your horse’s explosiveness is likely behavioral. This is a broad diagnoses that can stem from several causes.
Horses have three fear responses – fight, flight, and freeze. You may think that your horse is accepting what you are introducing because he is not reacting, but it could be his freeze response. When he unfreezes, he may respond by exploding, and you are left wondering where that came from. He is likely giving you subtle signals that he is in freeze mode and not really accepting what you are doing. Be present while riding or working your horse from the ground and learn what signals he gives before he explodes. Then, you will know if he has holes in his training or if he needs to approach the activity differently.
If you find holes in his training that are causing the explosive behavior, go back to basics. Even if he is an aged horse and long broke, treating him like an unstarted colt and working from the ground up can fill in those holes and eliminate the explosions.
Lunging your horse thoroughly before you ride is essential for preventing explosive behavior, especially if your horse lives in a stall. Thorough lunging is not a few circles on the end of a long lead rope. Put your horse on a lunge line or in the round pen and let him really move out for no less than 10 minutes. I use this time to evaluate my horse (See Four Points to Evaluate While Lunging Your Horse) so that I can check his attitude, my attitude, how he is moving, and the tack fit before we ride. Horses need a chance to kick up their heels and work out the kinks before we ride. Get in the habit of lunging your horse thoroughly before every ride and his explosive behavior may disappear.
If your horse is young and recently started under saddle or coming back into work after a significant time off, he could be explosive because he is not properly conditioned. When you first start a new workout program, your muscles are sore, and your horse experiences the same thing. Too many trainers push colts hard and fast, trying to teach them work ethic and to keep their feet moving forward. This is fine if the horse is conditioned, but if they are not, the trainer is causing them more discomfort or pain by riding them hard. A rider’s weight in the saddle is significant, and your horse needs time to build up the muscle strength to carry a rider at all gaits. Before you push your colts hard, start with my Eight Week Plan to Condition Your Horse. You can do this in-hand or under saddle. By slowly building up your horse’s endurance, you reduce his explosiveness.
Explosiveness can be a learned behavior. If, after the first time your horse explodes, he was put away or given an easier task, he learned that exploding creates a reward, so he will try it again. If this is the case, the best way to cure this is to push through the explosion and keep him working. This could be above your ability, and you may consider contacting a trainer to work your horse through the issue.
Keep Yourself Safe
An explosive horse can be a dangerous horse, so take appropriate steps to keep yourself safe. The safest place is in the middle of your horse’s back, so you need to stay there. Ride in a secure, well-fitting saddle and wear a helmet (I use a Troxel Rebel. Buy it here). After you rule out health issues, if your horse’s explosive behavior is beyond what you can handle, send him to a trainer or consider selling him and find a horse that better suits your needs. Keeping yourself safe is the most important part of working with an explosive horse.
What are your best tips for working with an explosive horse? Let me know in the comments below!
Welcome! I've been a freelance writer since 2002 and have numerous horse-related articles published in print and online publications. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rocky Mountain College with a major in Equestrian Studies and a minor in Business Management. My current business ventures include High Plains Arena and real estate investing.