Horses are experts of the swift getaway. When danger is perceived or fear is felt, instinct emblazons the word “PANIC” across the horse’s brain. His mind then commands his body to engage muscle, tendon, heart, and lung at maximum output. The result is the bolt, an immediate burst of speed on which prey animals rely for escape. If you find yourself a passenger on a horse using this flight tactic, you are in for quite a ride!
If you’re finding it challenging to remember that you’re fine when you feel your horse’s heft hastily accelerate, the first step in regaining his composure is quiet the alarm bells in your head. Letting anxiety rule the situation creates worry that will transfer to your horse. He’s scared enough as it is! Begin by taking deep breaths. Holding breath creates stiffness and intensifies your own fight/flight response. Sing the Star Spangled Banner or the ABCs. That will get air flowing into your lungs and help you and your horse calm down.
Then think about what’s happening from your horse’s perspective. He’s taking off because in that moment he’s convinced he’s going to die! Immediately shutting down his escape route intensifies the threat he feels, but it isn’t a feeling that lasts long. Watch a horse bolt in a pasture. His sudden burst of speed ends after a few strides. Once there is comfortable distance between the “lunging claws or gnashing fangs,” of his attacker (i.e. plastic bag or suspicious squirrel) he feels safer and even turns to look at what scared him.
Permitting those initial flight steps makes it easier for your horse to calm down, and reduces his resistance as you ask him to refocus his attention. So, instead of grabbing the reins and demanding a speedy halt to his shenanigans, redirect your horse’s bounding energy onto a circle or turn. Establish a solid yet elastic connection with your horse’s mouth by shortening both reins, but make one rein an inch or two shorter than the other – this is your turning rein. Pulse pressure on the turning rein with your fingertips in rhythm with the 3rd beat of your horse’s canter/lope or on the 2nd beat if he’s in a fast trot. Sit deep in the saddle with your heels down and core muscles engaged to increase your leverage and help you stay centered and balanced.
If you’re on a narrow trail and circling isn’t an option, shorten both reins and flex your horse’s head to the inside at the poll while keeping his neck relatively straight. Pulse pressure on your inside rein. At the same time open your outside rein and apply gently pressure with your inside leg at the girth or cinch while you add weight to your inside seat bone and twist your shoulders slightly to the inside – the direction toward which your horse is bending. This will shift your horse’s weight and gets him thinking more about what his feet and less about reacting to his environment. It also shifts his weight rearward and returns control of his body to you.
Singing to help you breathe (when we are nervous we hold our breath and become tense), and soothe your horse. Give your best rendition of the ABCs if nothing else comes to mind.
Then work toward regaining directional and psychological control of your motoring mount. Additionally, there is a good chance that your horse is trying to get away from something stationary; with every bolting step he is leaving it farther and farther behind. Thus, the threat is diminishing and he will soon feel less stressed and more capable of “hearing” you speak through your reins, voice, and legs.
Practice gaining control of your horse at speed in the safety of an arena. Teach your horse that it’s OK to pick up speed when you ask for it and increase your comfort with the idea of your horse going fast.
Dale Rudin is a CHA-certified riding instructor and clinician with a mindful and balanced approach to horsemanship and riding.