A horse bolts out of fear. “It is an escape behaviour and response geared towards self-preservation,” said Anne Gage, partnership trainer and owner of Confident Horsemanship. “Galloping out of control, with no response to the rider’s rein pressure, the horse is in flight mode, running on instinct and adrenaline,” said Anne. “Because he is in a panic, not thinking or paying attention to where he is going, he can slip, fall, or collide with something, and is at risk of injuring himself and his rider.” Lindsay Grice, Equestrian Canada and AQHA judge and coach, pointed out that bolting behaviour is not limited to under saddle work. “A prey animal fears entrapment. If he finds freedom quickly, by bolting out the back of a horse trailer, for example, he usually doesn’t continue to flee – unless he has someone hanging onto his head, or his feet become entangled.”

A horse might startle and bolt when a pheasant flies out of the bush, for example, but if you remain calm and ride out the spook with good balance and skill, it shouldn’t become a serious runaway or a bad habit that happens any time the horse is startled.

Lindsay added, “Dr. Andrew Mclean writes: ‘Bucking, bolting and shying are reinforced (rewarded and thus repeated) by the loss of grip of the predator.’ So, when a horse takes off and rein pressure is chasing him, with you clinging to him like a mountain lion, the horse will flee until the pressure is relieved – i.e. the rider is dislodged, the cart comes off, the reins entangled around his legs break, the girth breaks on the saddle that has slipped under his belly.”

Anne agreed that while bolting is instinctual, it can also become a learned behaviour. “It can be triggered by a real or perceived threat, but also by general or situational anxiety, pain or memory of pain.”

Bolting Under Saddle

Contributing factors include:

  • Poor training – too fast or overwhelming, leaving the horse physically or mentally unable to cope with what is being asked of him.
  • Conflicting aids – two aids given simultaneously asking the horse to perform two things that are physically impossible together (eg. “go” from seat and leg and “stop” from rein pressure).
  • Poor riding – an unbalanced or tense rider giving inconsistent aids or inadvertently punishing the horse with her hands, seat or legs.

Repeat Bolting Offenders

Both Anne and Lindsay caution anyone whose horse has become a habitual bolter to contract professional help in re-training him, which can often be a tricky proposition. “Take a step back and seek advice from a professional who is well qualified and experienced in equine behaviour to accurately identify the cause of the problem and then create and implement a plan to resolve it,” said Anne.

As a starting point, however, Anne suggests trying to find the root cause of your horse’s fear. “This step may take some detective work,” she said. “First, eliminate any physical causes or possibility of pain by carefully checking the condition and fit of all tack and having a thorough veterinary examination. If caught early on, eliminating the pain often eliminates the behaviour.”

Anne said it is important to pay close attention to your horse’s behaviour and notice what triggers his anxiety. “How long has this behaviour existed? When did it first appear? When does it usually happen? For example, did he fidget when being tacked up? Does he show signs of stress – like calling, baulking or jigging – when hacked out alone or at a horse show?

“Relaxation is the key. Removing the source of your horse’s anxiety and keeping him at or under his fear threshold will help him to feel safer and calm with you in many situations. There are three stages of the fear threshold: 1) under threshold – showing no fear or anxiety; 2) at threshold – showing some awareness of situation/object, but no signs of tension, stress or fear; 3) over threshold – showing signs of fear, stress or anxiety. Become more aware of the subtle signs of tension to avoid putting your horse over threshold.

“Before every training session, assess your horse’s emotional, mental and physical abilities and ask if he’s ready for the work you had planned. If not, be flexible and adjust it for where he is this day. The responsibility for his and your safety lies with you, not your horse.”

Anne warned, “A horse that has previously bolted should subsequently be re-trained in a safe, enclosed area with good footing – never in an open space.

“Be prepared for any unexpected stimuli that might frighten the horse, especially in an unfamiliar or stressful environment.”

Anne said working with your horse in a familiar environment and in a familiar routine reduces anxiety. “Even small changes in a familiar environment can be stressful for the horse,” she noted. “Introduce novel objects very gradually in a familiar location and only when the horse is calm and relaxed. Introduce new locations in the company of a horse with which your horse is familiar and calm. Always be aware of changes to your horse’s level of relaxation or stress.”

Anne offered the following guidelines:

“Go back to basics. Start with groundwork so that your horse responds to all your cues willingly and without tension for leading and lunging. He should walk, trot, back up, move over and halt willingly, from light cues and without tension on the ground as well as under saddle.

“Avoid using punishment, force or stronger equipment in an attempt to stop the behaviour. This aversive style of training creates negative associations with the situation (and the person inflicting it) increasing the horse’s fear and making the problem worse in the long run. The cycle of “bad” behaviour continues – can even become more dangerous – as the horse that is not allowed to safely to vent his fear or discomfort eventually explodes as more pressure is put on him.

“Using non-forceful training, including positive reinforcement, to address and resolve the cause rather than the symptom (the behaviour) the horse can learn to have more self control and behave differently. This way of training takes time, patience and empathy for the horse. It is the trainer’s responsibility to be vigilant about not putting the horse over threshold and taking the horse back to ‘safety’ – physically, mentally and emotionally – as soon as the horse shows any sign of anxiety.”

Prevention Points

Lindsay said it’s important to be aware of the early warning signs to prevent a bolt. “Before flight is fully expressed, your horse will give signs that he’s thinking about bolting, like rooting for the bit, throwing his head up or straightening and stiffening his neck.”

Lindsay said the following tactics can help prevent your horse’s anxiety from escalating and, in turn, help stop a bolt before it starts.

“Slow down. Horses are calmer when trained in a consistent staircase – not advancing two steps at time. Slow and steady wins the race. Install a slow down cue in your horse and test it regularly on the ground, at the walk, before you climb aboard, on the flat before jumping, at home before off-property. It should be reliable and consistent before you speed up the legs. My motto – slow the legs, slow the thinking.

“Check in with your horse regularly to ask ‘Are you listening?’ Use a half-halt as a call to attention, resetting the balance. I do some form of checking in with my horse every five strides or so, more, if my horse is distracted, prone to spook, buck etc.

“Provide regular releases. Horses instinctively lean on steady pressure. A prey animal fears entrapment. I faithfully practice relaxing the aids with my students as much as we practice using the aids. I’ve discovered many riders aren’t even aware that they’re still applying relentless pressure, such as hanging on or gripping all the time. My students learn to test their horses’ self-carriage regularly.

“Regulate your pace. Rate the drum beat of your horse’s stride so you recognize the first stride that starts to become a tad exuberant.

“Use lateral flexion. If, because of past history, you suspect your horse might bolt, ask for lateral flexion regularly. It’s difficult for a horse to set his neck straight against your aids if he’s being asked to bend and keep it supple.”

In Case of Emergency

“If your horse bolts, don’t fight him,” said Anne. “Instead, ride the gallop and keep both of you balanced. Steer him into a large circle and gradually make the circle smaller. It’s important to keep him balanced so that he doesn’t slip or fall. The circle will help him to slow down and you to regain control.”

Lindsay added, “Don’t pull straight back with two hands. It doesn’t work when your horse takes off. A horse in alignment is more powerful. And don’t maintain a steady pull on the reins. Horses are inclined to lean against solid pressure. By pulling on the head, you make the horse feel like he can’t get away, which causes more panic.”

Lindsay said using a pulley rein technique is a means to stop a runaway horse by working against and unlocking the brace. “Using one rein, you bend both the neck, and attention of the horse, yet without turning him. A pulley rein applies leverage with one hand. Actually sharply turning horse could cause him to fall down,” she said.

“Anchor yourself deep in your heels. Brace your knuckles against your horse’s neck, just in front of withers. Pull up and back with opposite reins, directed toward top of your rib cage.

“While defensive riding requires us to sit deep on our pockets, shoulders aligned with our hips, in using the pulley rein, one’s hips must be slightly closed to be able to anchor the knuckles and provide leverage. But as always, keep your heels deep.”

Serial Bolting

“In some cases,” said Anne, “bolting can not be cured and the horse should no longer be ridden.”

Lindsay added, “If a horse has bolted more than a time or two, many trainers will pass on the re-training project. Dr. Sue McDonnell notes: ‘Because escape in a fearful moment is self-reinforcing on a physiological level, the horse’s innate tendency to “flee” has been reinforced by that experience. It only takes a couple replications of that before the horse learns a difficult-to-resolve habit.’”