Horses may be large animals, but they are also prey animals. This means they have a strong fight or flight response to fear. A horse’s natural instinct in a scary situation is to run. Some horses are more prone to following this instinct than others while being ridden.
Why a Horse Might Bolt
There are a number of reasons why a horse might bolt. It is important to figure out what is causing your horse to bolt before you can fix the problem.
1. Horses in Pain Bolt in an Attempt to Escape Pain
A common reason why horses bolt is to escape pain. It could be pain from tack that does not fit properly, like a saddle that is too tight and pinches them. If their girth is too tight or the bit is pinching their mouth could also contribute. It could also be an existing injury that is made worse by having a rider on their back. Checking over your tack to ensure it fits properly should be the first step when looking for a cause. Having a vet look over your horse for any physical causes is also advised.
2. Spooked Horses Bolt due to Panic
If a horse is spooked by something, their natural instinct is to run from whatever scared them. This could be a person or animal popping up out of nowhere, sudden movements, getting something caught up around their feet (like a rope or a long rein), sudden loud noises, or any number of things that your horse may find frightening. Horses that had early exposure training as a yearling are less likely to bolt due to being scared by something new.
It can be very difficult to slow down a horse that takes off in a blind panic, especially because it can happen so quickly, leaving the rider with no time to prepare themselves. A horse that is panicking is also not likely to be paying attention to their surroundings, and are prone to going through fences or ending up in other dangerous situations.
Be aware that your reaction to something may give rise to a bolt. For example: If a deer suddenly jumps up and out of some bushes beside the trail, make an effort to let your horse be the only one of you that reactsLeynes-Selbert, M. (2009). Basic Training for a Safe Trail Horse: Learn How to Improve Horse Behavior Without Resorting to Scare Tactics Or Medicinal Supplements. Page 62
3. Horses Bolt in Open Spaces due to Lack of Boundaries
Sometimes it is the location you are riding in that triggers a horse to bolt. Large, open spaces can be tempting for some horses to want to run, especially if they have a lot of energy to burn off. If your horse is sometimes allowed to race with other horses, then an open space will look particularly appealing to them. Horses that are still in training, or have not had consistent and thorough training, are also more likely to want to bolt if they have a lot of space to run.
4. Horses Bolt Back to the Barn when They’re Barn Sour
Some horses, especially if they are usually very lazy or barn sour, may discover that bolting will get them out of work. If they try it and the rider immediately gets off and takes them back to the barn, then they will realize all they have to do is take off and their ride will be done.
How to End Bolting:
Identify the Cause
The first step in getting your horse to stop bolting is to figure out what is causing them to bolt. Start by making sure pain is not the cause. If there is nothing wrong with the horse or the tack, then consider how you ride. If you are often unbalanced in the saddle, it could be a contributing factor. Some horses are more sensitive than others when it comes to how well balanced their rider is in the saddle. Consulting with a trainer to see if they notice anything in your riding is a good idea.
Once you have ruled out all physical causes, focus on the environment. Pay attention to what happens just before your horse bolts. Does it always happen in the same place? Is there something in particular that spooks them? Do they always run in the same direction? If you can pinpoint what is scaring your horse, you can then either eliminate the cause (if possible), or work with your horse to desensitize them to the cause. If your horse appears to be looking for an excuse to run back to the barn, then they are most likely just trying to get out of work.
Watch for Signals
Pay close attention to what your horse does just before they bolt. Some horses will throw their head, some will tense up their neck and back, others will start fighting with the bit. It is important to note what signals your horse gives before they take off so you can prepare, and try to redirect their attention to something else before they have a chance to bolt.
Once you have identified the cause of the bolting, it is a good idea to take a step back and focus on ground work for a while. If your horse is spooked by something, this will give you the opportunity to desensitize them to it while you are safely on the ground. If your horse is bolting because of a lack of schooling, then this is the perfect time to start with the basics and retrain them.
Use One Rein
Pulling on both reins simultaneously when your horse is bolting will not work because the horse has more leverage than you do, and will brace against the bit.
Instead, use one rein and steer them in a circle, then continue to spiral it down to increasingly smaller circles as your horse slows down. If you pull them sharply into a tight circle while they are galloping, they are more likely to lose their balance and you could both end up falling.
Starting with a large circle is the safer option. If you do not have room to make a large circle, you should still pull on one rein only and get a bend in their neck. They won’t turn if they don’t have the room, but they also will not be able to run as fast with their head turned and it will slow them down a bit until you can safely circle them.
Use Alternating Reins
Sometimes pulling on one rein does not work because the horse has gotten the bit between their teeth and braced against it. In this scenario, try pulling on alternating reins in a see-saw motion to break their brace against the bit. Once you have broken their brace, you should be able to use one rein to take them in a circle.
Put Them to Work
In the case of barn sour horses, since they are not bolting out of pain or fear, they should be handled a bit differently. Pull on one rein to take them in a circle, and as soon as you feel like you have regained control, put them to work. Keep their feet moving and make a lot of changes in direction.
Making figure eights is a good choice if you are worried they will take off again since they allow you to keep the horse on a circle while also changing their direction constantly, and they can be done at any gait. The last thing you want to do with these horses is stop the ride and take them back to the barn right after they bolt. That only teaches them that this tactic will get them out of work in the future.
The most important thing to remember is that if your horse is bolting out of pain or fear, punishing them for it is not the answer. Punishment will only add to their fear. Do your best to stay calm, and take a step back to focus on retraining and fixing the problem at the cause instead.