My horse bolts and runs. How can I stop him from doing this?

Bolting HorseQuestion: My horse often bolts in the arena for no reason. We will be working quietly for days and then one day he will just go and run. How can I stop him from doing this? He doesn’t do it on the trail. He doesn’t buck when he bolts, just runs. I use the pulley rein to get him to stop eventually. At first I was scared, but now it’s just annoying. I don’t want him to do this at shows next year.

Answer from April Reeves: Be thankful your horse is only bolting in an enclosed area right now, as it is just a matter of time that you experience this somewhere else. It’s also a matter of time when he adds bucking to the mix. I assume he does not have a favorite spot to start this, and will bolt anywhere in the arena.

I have known a few horses in my lifetime that had odd, dangerous ‘quirks’ to their personalities, and some may never find a solution. All we can do is set up an experience for your horse where he begins to relate bolting with discomfort. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

I do find your horse to be a bit unusual in his style of bolting, as most bolters are quite dangerous and usually throw in a buck or more in the attempt to unseat a rider.

One thing in your favor is that you are no longer afraid. This will come in handy.

Using stronger equipment is not the answer. Many times a bolting horse will run faster in his avoidance of the pain of a harsh bit. I will also assume you have checked his saddle for pinching and incorrect fit.

First, you are going to practice the one-rein stop. This will not solve your bolting problem, but it will keep you out of trouble should he continue to try this for the duration of his life, and you are not in the arena.

You can begin to learn this at a standstill. Bring your horse’s nose gently to his side, by your leg, and release when he gives. Go from side to side, asking gently (follow a feel) and releasing immediately when he is soft. Keep your legs off him when you do this at a standstill. Then ask him to walk, and apply the one-rein stop until he stops. Use only one rein; do not pull with both reins. Always make sure the opposite rein is loose when you do this exercise. Also, move from one side to another to keep him from getting stiff on one side.

Once you are comfortable with that, move him up into a trot and use the one-rein stop to stop him. When he stops, move him up into a trot again and repeat. Always change sides. Continue to do this until he stops quietly.

Repeat this exercise over the course of three weeks, and after refresh every day when you first get on him to keep it in the front of his mind.

Because your horse will likely still bolt after learning the one-rein stop, this is what I do when dealing with this problem. Fortunately for you, your horse does not buck, and you are brave. We are going to set up the situation to make bolting very uncomfortable for him.

Next time he bolts, do not attempt to stop him. Instead, continue moving around the arena, trying to stay in a big circle. Try to make the circle smaller, but not so small that he may fall over if his speed is too fast. Do not make any attempt to control any part of this except for keeping him circling, and keep him away from the wall or fence. Eventually he will tire, as I have a saying, “I can ride a lot longer than you can run.” Eventually, he will want to slow down and trot. This is where the lesson begins.

As he slows down, ask him to speed up. When he wants to slow down, keep him going. When he wants to trot, keep him cantering. Watch that he does not get winded, as this is painful for a horse and could damage him. Once you have worked him past his desire to run, and he is beginning to get winded, bring him gently to a walk and let him catch his breath. It should take about 15 minutes of walking. Then when he is comfortable you can proceed with your regular routine.

Circling a bolting horse will keep the rider out of trouble as there is no where to go, and the horse begins to think as he tires, wondering why he’s on this merry-go-round exercise.

I have dealt with many bolting horses, and have found only one where this didn’t work. He was a big Appendix Quarter Horse who had raced for 5 years (and had a track record for speed), and could run full tilt for over an hour. He never bolted in an arena; just outside where he had the space. It was very unnerving but I did ride it out every time. It wasn’t fun – in fact, it’s amazing I’m still here. It’s just plain stupid to try and stay on a bolting horse outside of an enclosed arena or on a trail with lots of trees. If you have the space to circle outside, use it.

All of the other bolters only did this for a few times after they had to keep moving against their will. This technique should only be done by someone professional – if you can find a pro that will work with a bolting horse. I think you have caught this early enough to be able to work with it, and the fact that he does not buck and attempts bolting in an arena is the only reason I even suggest for you to try this. Otherwise I never suggest letting someone deal with this problem as it is one of the most dangerous (along with bucking and rearing).

I’m adding this to the blog as a reminder to those who have a bolting horse, to try to get professional help first. This situation and the style of this horse is rare, and under any other circumstance I would not suggest to someone to work it through themselves.

I DO suggest to teach a one-rein stop to every horse, regardless of discipline.

4 responses to “My horse bolts and runs. How can I stop him from doing this?

  1. I just read your reply regarding bolting horses and your reason not to do an emergency dismount. I have to add there are some situations out on trail when an emergency dismount may save the rider broken bones or even their life. A friend of mine was riding her thoroughbred on trail when he bolted toward a busy road. She could not pull him up or even tip his nose to one side to circle him. Just before the road she bailed. He ran straight onto the the road and slipped, fortunately he was not struck by a car but did go down. Had she stayed on she would have fallen on pavement instead of dirt and may have even landed under him. I know you will say this is an extraordinary situation that will probably never happen but I still teach my students the emergency dismount, just as with every flight the airlines tell you emergency procedures. I have been on several horses that bolted toward home and I, knowing that they were going to come to a very abrupt stop at a fence line, chose to swing off them, using my tack to control my decent, rather than risking being thrown into a pipe rail or barbed wire fence. My point is that I agree that the rider’s first reaction to a bolt should be to try to gain control back over the situation, but there are some circumstances where an emergency dismount is warranted.
    just wanted to throw in my two cents.

  2. Lari, I was in a similar situation not last week. I was on a on holiday and went on a hack and all 4 horses bolted. 2 riders came down, and it was just me and the group leader left. I had tried all the methods mentioned in this article, and despite having a dutch gag on the horse was a heavy breed and would not stop. It was very wet and I could see us approaching a deep mud patch just prior to a road, and as we were in a lane there was no where else to go. I used an emergency dismount and sat up just in time to see the leaders horse slip and fall on her, then my horse slip and fall and slide a good 2 metres. Luckily I had a good instructor who taught me both how to control a bolting horse and an emergency dismount. So really I think both are very important safety aspects of a riders education.

  3. Claudia, I’m glad you are okay! First warning flag: a draught with a Dutch gag….may not have been the best for a “safe” ride… These events often set us back, and they are terrifying when they get out of control. With all the experience in the world, you cannot always make the best choice at the speed of sound needed when faced with a horse that no longer realizes you’re up there.

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