Bolting horses – options for riders


What are your options when on board a panic-stricken and bolting horse?

A bolting horse is no-one’s idea of a good time. It’s a trait that can endanger both horse and rider.

I have been on the receiving end twice this summer – both incidents involving the same horse while out for a ride along a quiet country road.

The first time I ended up on the gravel. The horse jumped sideways, shying at nothing in particular, and I was unable to hang on.

My exit stage-left down the side of the horse only served to convince the mare that there was plenty of justification for taking off.

She was gone, leaving me to walk home. The horse was waiting at home at the letterbox, looking suitably guilty.

A couple of days later we tried again. I always lunge her before a ride, but did so even longer this time, in a bid to burn off what I assumed was excess energy.

Off we went again.

About 1.4km from home, she did it again, but this time I was ready. She leapt sideways – again spooking at nothing in particular – and set sail back towards home. I hung on and went along for the ride.

It was immediately clear that the lights were on but no-one was home. The horse’s brain was completely disengaged. She was running and there was nothing that would persuade her to stop. Pulling on the reins made no difference whatsoever. All I could do was try to keep her on the gravel in the hope that in her unshod state it would slow her down.

She galloped along for about 300m and up a hill before she began to listen. That was a good thing, as it was a blind hill with the chance of oncoming traffic. In those few seconds we were bolting along the “options” I had were whizzing through my mind. I didn’t have many so playing it by ear was going to be the only way. (The age-old “method” of stopping a horse – covering its eyes – didn’t even cross my mind; besides, I wasn’t really in a position to remove my fluoro safety vest and calmly place it over her head! Not a good idea …)

It got me thinking. What is the right response to a runaway horse? Are you better off to bail out at speed and take your chances on the ground, or are you better off hanging on, but having to contend with an out-of-control horse?

Most people who have been riding for a good many years will have experienced a bolting horse, or at the very least an over-exuberant animal with ideas of taking charge of the ride.

The whole episode got me thinking about precisely what a rider should be doing in such a situation. Should you be looking to bail out? Should you be trying to pull the horse into a circle to stop him? A number of very experienced riders have expressed views on the subject over the years. They don’t always agree on the best strategies.

The following is some distilled wisdom based on the views I’ve found on the subject. You may not agree with all the proposed strategies, but you should be able to formulate your own views on a plan of attack that will work best for your horse should you ever find yourself in the “hot seat”.

Of course, pulling the horse’s head around with one rein will quickly put the would-be racer out of gear, but chances are the rider wasn’t ready for it.

The first question centres on why the horse is running. This is important. A horse that has taken off from high spirits is more likely to be brought under control quicker than one that has taken off because of fright.

Firstly, you need to regain composure – if you’re still on, that is.

Try to stay as relaxed as you can be, and ensure you don’t clamp your legs against the horse in order to stay on. Talk to the horse if you can do so in a calm and clear manner. If your conversation is going to be loud, aggressive, or panicked, you’re better off shutting up until you’re satisfied you can issue the “whoa” command properly. Screaming won’t help either.

Don’t move forward in the saddle. Sit your weight back and use the reins to try to get the horse’s head up. This will slow the horse down, as it needs to keep its head low for top gear. The horse, of course, may not be responding to the reins. Don’t use continuous pressure. See-saw on the reins: release and pull, release and pull. Some have suggested pulling one side and then the other.

If you have any control of the horse at all, and you have the option, aim it for a hill, which will, at the very least, tire it out quicker.

Some have suggested pointing the horse at a solid object, such as the wall of a stable or hayshed. The argument here is that the horse will not run straight into a solid object, but will wheel around and possibly stop (and maybe catapult the rider off or into the solid object), or at least reduce to a trot. Your call, but NEVER aim a horse at a fence in this situation. Most will either go through it, or try to jump it.

Should you leap off? Needless to say, it’s very dangerous to dismount a galloping horse. You have to make that urgent judgment call as to whether you’re better taking your chances in bailing out, or whether the upcoming hazard – traffic or terrain – is worth the risk of staying on.

Some riders advocate trying to ease the horse into a circle. However, pulling a horse’s head around too hard at a gallop runs the risk of stumbling or slipping over. If you’re going to try, don’t be too aggressive about it.

Once you’re safe, you will be determined to ensure it never happens again. Is it a training issue? Is the horse inexperienced? Would a lunging before a ride help? Would the animal be better off in a different bit? If the horse is showing erratic behaviour, does it have a problem with mycotoxins?

If the bolting occurred away from home, ride the horse in more familiar surroundings until you’re sure you’ve worked through the issues.


3 thoughts on “Bolting horses – options for riders

  • March 19, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    A one rein stop will, has and does save your life when a horse exhibits this behaviour. You actually shut the horse down. I have never heard of blinding the horse???? OMG

  • March 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    The best advice I ever had regarding a bolter (I don’t meran a keen moke that is just taking off) was ‘shoot it.”


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