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Julie Goodnight Answers: What to do with a horse that bolts?




Question: Julie, I have been riding a good 15-20 years but most intensively the last 5-6….I have a 13 year old Thoroughbred cross that I ride in dressage. I have had him almost 5 years. He has always been on the tense, spooky side but all spooking was usually in-place or a short-lived minor scoot. I have an outdoor arena and this October he began bolting with me across the arena. Then out of arena into his “safe” paddock, then into the field where I ultimately bailed out as I felt a fall was inevitable. He does not buck while bolting but just stiffens his neck like a rock, grabs the bit and goes, out of control. My trainer saw this happen during a lesson and was concerned this was obviously becoming a habit. I always dealt with it by putting him right back to work, even when I fell off, I got right back on. I did dismount a few times, back him up with the dressage whip and then got back on. He is clever and strong and I cannot find a way to stop him when he stiffens his neck when he bolts. I brought him to a stable mid-December for indoor arena winter boarding. He did it again, twice, in the indoor, with the trainer there. Sadly, I have now become afraid, anticipating the spook that will cause the bolt. The bolt, I’m pretty sure is induced by a spook. I don’t believe he is bolting just because. What gets him spooking? Roosting wild turkeys in the woods behind arena and revving engines (car), but especially the ATV. In the indoor, again revving engines and any noise from outside of the arena…of course snow sliding off roof is a biggie. The horse is progressing in his dressage and his musculature has changed dramatically, he is quite fit. My trainer describes him as a 4-5 year old mentality even though he is 13. Do you think your ground manner dvd will help me on my way? Can you suggest another plan of action for me? Thanks, Michelle.

Answer: Michelle, Runaway horses are dangerous for you, for the horse and for others around you and it is a problem that should be corrected immediately; but once again, it takes an expert hand to correct such a serious problem. Regardless of what is triggering his episodes of flight, he is extremely disobedient and he has learned this trick well. Probably the sounds he is spooking at, are just a trigger mechanisms; the runaway behavior is well engrained, learned behavior that he has had success with and there is nothing you can do to unlearn that. A skilled rider can correct this behavior and prevent it from happening and eventually, with no further episodes over a long period of time, the horse’s routine behavior will not include bolting, but he will always know how to get away with it if he chooses to.

There are two keys to dealing with a runaway: prevention and cure. Keep the neck bent to prevent the horse from bolting and be able to use the “˜pulley rein,’ quickly and effectively to stop the horse in a safe and highly effective manner. Your horse cannot grab the bit and run off without stiffening his neck first. Any time you need more control over any horse, whether he is spooking, bolting, or being otherwise disobedient or fractious, you want to keep the neck slightly bent, with the nose to one side or the other by lifting one rein.

In that position, you have more control and can pick up one rein to gain leverage over the horse. When his neck is stiff and straight, you are in a pound for pound tug of war that you cannot win because his head and neck weigh more than your entire body. This is why using one rein is more effective than using two; two reins encourages your horse to stiffen his neck and brace against the pull on the reins.

As with all training, timing is everything and the rider must be able to see “˜what happens before what happens happens.’ Your horse will give signs that he is thinking about bolting, like reaching for the bit, throwing his head up or straightening and stiffening his neck. This should be met with sudden and harsh correction before he grabs the bit and bolts, with one rein to re-bend the horse’s neck and check his obedience.

The pulley rein is described in detail in the Q&A section of my website and is a means to stop a runaway horse, using one rein, but without turning the horse. It is dangerous to try and turn or circle a runaway horse because the chances of him falling are good. The pulley rein gives you a means to apply leverage with one rein, with a slight bend in the horse’s neck and if you are skilled with the pulley rein, you can stop any horse right on his nose.

Your trainer is right to be concerned that this horse’s dangerous behavior is escalating. Certainly doing ground work will help with the horse’s obedient frame of mind, but this is an engrained riding issue that will have to be addressed in the saddle, by someone who is very competent at dealing with runaways. In clinics we always deal with training issues as they arise and this problem of yours is definitely part of a bigger-picture-problem that a general horsemanship clinic would address.

Not knowing your riding and training capabilities and not being able to see the big picture, it is difficult for me to prescribe another course of action for you but hopefully this has given you some food-for-thought on which to make some decisions about what to do with this horse. You should definitely consider some professional training or finding a horse that is safer and more suitable.

[Questions Answered by Julie Goodnight & published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 3, Issue 3.]


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  1. Paula

    July 19, 2013 at 12:44 am

    I too have felt the rath of a bolting horse. I should have expected it but was too busy chit chatting with my friend. After my horse swung around and jumped over two ditches at a full gallop I porceeded to try the one reign stop. I had to do it gently with a little leg or we would have fallen over.

  2. Lisa T

    July 19, 2013 at 2:44 pm


    I had a mare bolt with me and it was a very scary experience! When their flight instinct takes over, it’s very hard to break. What I learned from that is that I needed to do more work with her on building trust and confidence…in me as her leader.

    I would like to have more information as to what you are doing to address the causes of the bolting. It sounds you have the reaction under control, i.e. what to do once the horse bolts.

    Have you been doing any desensitizing and lunging exercises with your horse?

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