Bolting Horses and Fear – a natural reaction!

“I have a relatively new horse (owned since November) who was fine for the first few weeks but she bolted with me about a month ago and now I’m a nervous wreck when I’m on her and haven’t got the fence of the arena around us.

I’m doing tons of ground work and long-lining and riding in the school but I’m unsure if I’ll ever be able to trust her again in an open space.
I know she’s picking up on my feelings and is starting to turn into a spooky nervous horse – which she wasn’t before.”

I have had a couple of questions on this topic – and am using the one above as the example– so if you asked something similar, have a read of this post and then ask any follow up questions you may have if this doesn’t give you some ideas.

As the poster says, this is about trust:  if you are not sure you can trust your horse, then of course, you are not going to feel confident!

So – how do we build trust?

With people, we build it little by little, each interaction where they prove themselves to be reliable and trustworthy increases the trust we give to them – and when they let us down, we reduce the trust we give them.  Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work anyway!

However, what TENDS to happen is we meet someone, we “click” with them – we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into a friendship with them, trust them with our stories, our past, our present and sometimes our future – and then when it doesn’t work out – our whole world falls apart and we decide we can never trust anyone again.

Ok, that was a bit of an exaggeration but I am sure most of us have seen THAT story in our won or someone else’s life.

And the thing is, it’s similar with horses:  quite often we meet them, everything SEEMS to be going well, so we trust them completely – and then suddenly when something goes wrong ALL our trust evaporates – and what is left to fill the gap is fear.

One thing to think about is – why does a horse bolt?

A horse as a prey animal has very specific goals: safety, comfort – then play and entertainment.  Safety is the key – and how do horses stay safe in the wild? What is their most natural way to stay safe?  Flight – they run.

One horse I had would get stressed when asked to canter, cantering scared her (she was already frightened when hacking out) and this last fear was too much for her, she would buck off her rider and bolt back to the yard.

I took her out in hand and it was obvious that she was a VERY unconfident horse, so the bolting was just her reaction to being frightened.

With her, the answer was to slowly build HER confidence in going out – and never put her in a situation where she felt she needed to bolt.

It took a few months of online walks, riding in supportive company, learning some techniques to help her relax herself – and making sure that whenever she was even slightly worried I had some tools in my toolkit I could use to help her relax.

Eventually she became a horse I could trust to stay walking while other horses cantered off – now that’s the kind of trust I like!

So that is one way to help a HORSE cope with bolting.  But this question wasn’t so much about the horse – as about how the human feels.

And one thing I would like to suggest is that this is as much about trusting ourselves as trusting our horse.

The thing that really tends to frighten us when a horse bolts, is not so much what the horse did – as that terrible feeling of being out of control, unable to do anything to stop what is happening.

It is the fear of that feeling which makes us scared of a bolting horse.

So – if we look at it that way, the answer is obvious – to not feel that fear, all we need to do is never be that out of control and always be able to manage our horse’s behaviour.

Sounds simple – but it’s not at all easy, as anyone who has ridden a horse, rather than a motorbike, will know.

So what can reduce our fear of not being in control?

Knowing my horse’s “unconfidence score”
Just like with us, if we score our HORSE’s unconfidence from 0 to 10, and make sure we never do anything that puts them over a 5, we can be sure we will stay safe.

How can we learn to read our horse’s unconfidence?  This is where I use the  groundwork and longlining to practice reading where my horse is on the confidence to anxiety scale.  In the arena I create obstacles and situations I KNOW will just put a little bit of pressure on my horse, and learn to see how this particular horse shows their concerns.  With one horse it can be a nose wrinkle, with another it’s a slight hesitation – when I know I can recognise their worries, then I know that I will spot any trouble WELL before my horse needs to bolt.

Knowing my horse doesn’t “NEED” to bolt
If we teach our horse that we will “listen” to a nos wrinkle, or a hesitation – then they will learn to communicate with us with these smaller signals and NOT feel they have to bolt to be safe.

For example, the horse I was talking about earlier, Poppy – she would buck people off and bolt home?  Well I started a campaign of “horse listening”:  whenever she made the slightest sign that she wasn’t confident with something – I would make a big deal of hearing her, and backing off from whatever I was asking her to do.  When she was worried about passing a wheelie bin, I would back her away from it, put myself between it and her, and then do approach and retreat until she totally relaxed.  At the beginning this meant it took us half an hour to pass a wheelie bin – but that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t about passing the wheelie bin, it was about letting her know that I was HEARING her, and would NOT force her to do something that worried her – instead if she told me she was worried, I would help her build her confidence.

Once a horse knows we are listening – they won’t need to go to the extremes of bolting to get our attention or feel safe.

Knowing how to help my horse feel safe:
Having techniques that we KNOW help our horse relax can also really boost confidence.  Knowing that if my horse’s head goes up and she tenses – I can just ask for a soft flexion or disengage her and she will sigh and release that tension – helps me feel I am in control of her emotions ( or helping her stay in control of hers) which has a huge impact on my confidence.  Riding lessons help with this – traditional, classical or natural horsemanship all have ways of doing this.

So in summary –

Being able to READ our horse, knowing how to help our horse relax – and believing our horse feels SAFE enough with us that they don’t need to do anything extreme such as bolting – these are the things that will make the most difference to how you feel riding out in open spaces with your horse.

These things are simple to say – but not easy to do, which is why many people find these things easier to accomplish with support on courses or in workshops – with sympathetic supportive riding instructors etc.

There is more I can write on this topic – so keep your eyes open for other posts as I am sure there will be more on this topic!

Yours, in confidence



2 thoughts on “Bolting Horses and Fear – a natural reaction!

  1. is there other reasons a horse may bolt? e.g. because he knows you can’t stop him? behaviour issue? mine has bolted about 2/3 times once at (i think) a lawnmower, once when i was coming down a hill and he just took off at the bottom and the other was when his friend went away i could neither stop nor steer him…however he is a confident horse can hack alone, very rarely spooks etc so is bolting always a reaction to being scared? and how can you tell if it is taking the mickey and just taking off or a true bolt?

    • Hi Caroline

      I think you are right in saying that there are horses that bolt and horses that just choose to ignore their rider and run through any requests to stop. When a horse is truly bolting, he is UNABLE to hear his rider, so whatever you do will be a physical action and it will be very hard to reach his mind — for horses like this, keeping them emotionally stable is the key.
      Interestingly, many horses that appear confident when hacking can, when they go above a certain speed – actually frighten themselves into bolting!

      So there are a few things I read from your post: the lawnmower might have been a genuine scare
      The running at the bottom – -many horses lose their balance at the bottom of a hill and so speed up — then the rider’s reaction can trigger a bolt
      and if a friend goes away and he bolted after them — then that shows that he considers the other horse more important than the person on his back — the herd of two stuff will be useful for you……

      in your particular case I would definitely be thinking of finding ways to build your herd of two

      happy to post more on this if you want!


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