Why Do Horses Buck?

Skippy was almost aptly named. He didn’t skip, but he did hop and jump. And to his owner’s great regret, Skippy bucked.

“He was a horrible ride,” recalls Amber Cash of Newark, Delaware. “He kicked, he bucked, he bit, he would run and not stop. I thought I could train it out of him, but he always seemed angry.”

Skippy wasn’t always like that, though. Often—and especially when he didn’t have a rider—the big red gelding was delightful, which made Cash suspect his bucking was pain-related. “He was loving, funny, smart, and playful,” she says. “But when he hurt, he was a holy terror.”

Cash tried dozens of saddles, stretching techniques, and chiropractors, all to no avail. It wasn’t until she got his back radiographed that she discovered the tips of her horse’s backbone were running into each other—a condition known as kissing spines. After surgery to create more space between the vertebrae, Skippy was a changed horse. “He was so much happier and easy to ride,” says Cash.

Bucking Basics

The buck evolved in horses as a defense mechanism to literally throw off predators, says Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, former head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England, who recently published a scientific review on bucking research.

A few other herbivores, such as sheep and antelope, have a certain kind of buck, she says. But the equine buck takes the skill to new heights: Their leaps into the air, with two or four legs off the ground, sometimes combined with either an arched-up or stretched-out back, the head low, and/or sudden stops and twists, could pitch off just about any animal—­including humans.

What Kind of Buck Is It?

Not all bucks are created equal, says Dyson. Some include little hops with the upper back—the thoracic spine, from the wither to the loin—in extension and the head up; some involve full flying leaps with the back up and the head down (“pronking” or “crow-hopping”); some propel rapidly forward in a series of pronks (“bronking”), often with lots of stops and twists.

“I always ask my clients, ‘Do you feel the horse is trying to buck you off?’” Dyson says. “If they say no, that’s a completely different situation from the horse that does the kind of rodeo act when its back is in flexion all the

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