Q&A: Horses that BoltAug 29, 2023
Q: My horse’s go-to response when he gets spooked is to take off and bolt - SCARY! How can I better prepare him and myself for a frightening situation like this?
A: This is a great question whose answer is not simple. Most horses will spook at sometime being ridden, and they all have different spooking responses. To name a few, at or during the spook, some will freeze, what I call “spook in place”, some will buck, some will rear, some will take a few steps and then turn and look, and some will decide they are out of here and will bolt and run. This last case can be the scariest, and sometimes the most dangerous. A bolting horse can be incredibly frightening and extremely dangerous as well. Many people end up falling off and getting seriously hurt or worse from a bolting horse, so it’s an issue that must be worked on if you want to have a safer and more fun-filled ride. It was the first horse I trained, Invierno, starting at the age of 9, who bolted and ran off with me, that started my journey of learning to train and help horses overcome this tendency. I understand your concern and personally appreciate this question.
Most of the time, if you prepare yourself and your horse correctly for this spooking and bolting situation, the situation actually never occurs. How do you prepare for it and hopefully avoid it? It’s a methodical process that I use in training horses for people every single day. In order for me to continue helping people by training their horses, I must stay as safe as possible, and when I ride horses out on the urban and rural trails, a horse that spooks and bolts is rare because I’ve prepared him well. In fact, since that day at age 9 when Invierno ran off with me, I’ve never had such an incident happen again, despite training many horses with the tendency to do just that. Here is a brief explanation of how to prepare your horse.
To watch and learn all the techniques I use to help horses with this issue of spooking and bolting, make sure to go to the Reata Horsemanship training videos in our membership site. If you haven’t joined yet, head here: https://courses.reatahorsemanship.com/reata-horsemanship-membership-1
First and foremost, you and your horse should get proficient with ground work, both desensitizing and sensitizing. You should learn to be your horse’s confident and competent leader, and your horse should learn to follow your lead.
I desensitize my horses in training to the stick and string, flag, and plastic sheet, both standing still and while moving. It’s a gradual process that helps horses learn to not fear or run away from things that otherwise they are naturally afraid of. I also sensitize my horses on the ground, teaching them to be calm, collected, and responsive to multiple cues and exercises. A few of the techniques/exercises I will teach on the ground are:
- Lungeing (yielding hindquarters and forequarters to stop and change directions)
- Backing Up (5 different cues to create multiple ways to back up)
- Lead Beside
- Yielding Hindquarters and Forequarters
- Forward Bending
- Forward Bending to Hindquarter to Forequarter Yield Transitions
- Pass Through near the fence and near and over other objects
- Side Passing on and off the fence
- Lateral Flexion at the stand still
- Yielding to Rope Around the Rear
- Add the saddle and do these with the saddle on
- Many horses, especially those that bolt or buck, will also get training with rope pressure on the legs and flank, and will learn to yield/give to that pressure instead of trying to flee it or buck it away.
- Desensitizing to rest with the stick and string, flag, and plastic sheet
- Desensitize to walk over plastic sheets and tarps
- Desensitize with the flag and plastic sheet during lead beside at the walk and trot
Once I’ve taught my fundamental groundwork, both sensitizing and desensitizing, I will advance to working in the saddle. I like to use a snaffle bit (O-ring, D-ring, Egg Butt - It doesn’t really matter much which one, as long as there isn’t a shank.) on all horses I train to emphasize lateral bending to relax and stop. A shank bit, or even a mechanical hackamore, will create multiple points of pressure and cause a horse to feel claustrophobic, get straight, and likely not stop well after a spook. It sounds counterintuitive, but adding a shank bit that is more “severe” with the intention of stopping your horse will 100% of the time make the problem worse. Make sure to go to a snaffle bit when training your horse not to bolt after a spook. A few of the exercises I will do in the saddle are:
- Standing still to mount
- Lateral flexion at standstill
- Hindquarter Yield at standstill and at stop from walk, trot, and canter
- Forequarter Yield
- Backing slow and fast straight and in circles
- Sidepassing on and off the fence
- Vertical flexion at standstill, walk, trot, and canter
- Forward bending at the walk and trot
- Serpentine exercise at walk and trot
- Follow the fence at the trot and lope
- Rollbacks while following the fence
- Rollbacks off fence while trotting and loping circles
- One-rein stops at walk, trot, and canter
- Straight to the Fence
- Demagnetize Exercise
- Buddy Sour/Barn Sour Exercise
- Shoulder In/Out off and on the fence
- Figure-8’s with Shoulder In
- Desensitize with flag at walk, trot, canter
- Desensitize with dragging plastic sheet at walk, trot, canter (Note: This set of exercises requires great skill and knowledge of ropes and desensitizing, and should only be practiced under the direction and supervision of a competent Reata Horsemanship trainer experienced in this technique)
While there may be a few exceptions to the rule, most horses I train get all, and sometimes more, of the ground work and riding in a round pen and arena I’ve explained above before I begin riding them out on the urban and rural trails. I establish skills with most of the ground work in a round pen and then get a few rides in the round pen before advancing to the arena, where I will refresh all the ground work there before riding again.
The entire process of establishing ground work and riding, both sensitizing and desensitizing, usually takes about a month (sometimes longer and sometimes shorter) before my horses in training are ready for urban and rural trail riding. Time frame depends much on the trainer’s/owner’s education and skill set, and the horse’s nature as well can dramatically change the time frame. Even though time frames can vary, most horses can be helped.
If you need help from a trainer, we can certainly help train your horse, and we offer Reata Horsemanship the highly-touted and popular Mini and Regular Clinics to teach you how to be your horse’s leader as well.
While trail riding will certainly test your and your horse’s nerves at times, if you both have prepared well for it, rarely will you have a situation where your horse will spook and bolt. By learning your horse’s nature well in an enclosed area as well as teaching him most importantly to move at speeds as high as a canter and also bend and relax to stop, you should feel confident in your horse’s ability to respond to your cues out on the trail when a spook happens. Remember that it is not whether your horse will spook, it’s when, and by preparing well on the ground and under saddle, your safety and relationship with your horse will blossom!