The Stables

Bolting Horses

The danger of bolting horses has been highlighted recently in the press. A horse, still attached to a carriage bolted through a crowded showground, hitting and killing a spectator.

Horses are the most amazing animals, trusting us to take them into all kinds of situations and to do all kinds of things which in reality is totally against their nature. Horses are prey animals. Historically they were the food of all kinds of predators way before man realised he could befriend and make use of these amazing animals. A horse’s instinct, when he feels he is in danger is to flee. This he can do in an alarming split second, changing from placid partner to deadly dangerous quite often before his unsuspecting rider or handler knows what has happened.

When something does spook a horse and he bolts an unbalanced rider, flapping jacket or stirrups can send them quite literally mad with fear. They run blind until they either run out of steam or calm down, as they would in the wild, or until they run into some obstacle which stops them in their tracks. As most of us ride on busy roads it is not hard to imagine what that obstacle might be.

Being onboard a run away horse is a terrifying experience. A rider feels totally powerless, the horse stretches out, lower and lower to the ground as he gallops and the rider is left with the awful decision of what to do… jump off and you risk the danger of being severely injured when you land – stay on the horse and you risk the danger of being severely injured if the horse hits a car.

I remember one horse bolting with me out hunting. We landed over a fence and as far as I was concerned nothing was wrong, but a split second later he bolted. No warning – he just suddenly began to run, getting lower and lower to the ground as he stretched out. Often horses can get fed up with hanging around out hunting or they become bad mannered and want to catch up with the others, but this was different. He went flat out through horses and riders when they checked, scattering people in every direction, around a field and then back through the horses and riders again until he finally ran out of steam and did stop. I rode him back to the meet, got off him and never rode him again. He was eventually sent to an experienced friend for re-schooling and then sold on (with the new owner having full knowledge of why). He never did it again – but the experience was enough to let me know that being onboard a bolting horse is an extremely unpleasant experience! The remarks from the field when everyone finished hunting was that I should have had a stronger bit in his mouth, but in fact, nothing will stop a horse if it bolts. There is no bit in the world that can stop a horse when they bolt a horse is actually beyond reason.

Most people think that when a horse bolts it is running off with them, but in many cases, the horse is actually running away from them. If a horse is uncomfortable, its saddle pinches or its teeth are sore this can build up until the horse will finally bolt with the pain trying to free itself from whatever is hurting or frightening it.

Some horses are more prone to bolting than others, just as some are more prone to bucking or napping as a reaction to something. By being aware of the horse you can, perhaps, become aware of a tension building up and can do something about it. Get off the horse is you have to or walk him around in circles until he settles down.

However – what to do if the horse does bolt. A rider’s instinct is to try to stop the horse, tensing up, hauling at the reins. There is also a theory that you can pull the horse around in a tight circle. This, unfortunately, can either make him run into an obstacle or fall over, not nice when he is travelling at a great speed. A horse which is fleeing from pain will want to run more from the pain of having his bit hauled on. The only way this works is if you get the horse fast enough before the bolt really happens, but this means being aware enough and quick enough to react, something most of us aren’t.

Whilst it is very hard to do, the most important thing to do is to try to focus on riding the horse. Make sure he can see where he is going and try to maintain your rhythm with him. Don’t lean forward because if he stumbles, or changes direction suddenly you will be thrown off. Just focus on your balance and breathe!

Gently start to squeeze and release the reins to try to get his attention focussed back on you. Because he is panicking the last thing you must do is to panic as this only reinforces his fear. You need to reinforce your role as his leader and calm his fear. (Easy to say when you are not blasting along the main road at 20 odd miles an hour!)

Another way of stopping a bolting horse is to let go of the reins completely. But if you’ve ever noticed a horse that does bolt, or misbehaves, – they stop (generally) when the rider falls off! Give the control to him and you may find with having nothing to fight against he will stop of his own accord. The horse I ride at the moment tries to take off when she gets stressed. I’ve found the moment she does this I let go of the reins and actually urge her on, this takes the runaway situation away from her and she comes back to me pretty much straight away. It’s very hard to have the confidence to do that though.

It’s important to find out what caused the bolt if it wasn’t something obvious like a car horn or some other external stimulus. Too much food, the horse being too fresh, can cause the horse, certainly to have a tendency to bolt if they are that way inclined. Always cantering at the same place, or turning for home can make a horse gallop out of control, so it’s very important to be aware of how you ride and handle your horse. They are dangerous in the wrong hands – as I’m sure we are all aware!

Written By Jacqui Broderick of LAVENDER & WHITE PUBLISHING