Bolting is the term used when a horse gallops off out of control and the rider is unable to stop it. In addition to being very frightening for the rider, this can also be very dangerous for the horse, rider and others around them.

Animals can be categorised as fight or flight animals, depending on their response to a threatening situation. Fight animals will try to fight the threat by, for example, biting, kicking or using horns/antlers. Flight animals flee from the situation and try to outrun the threat.
Horses are flight animals and they have what is known as a ‘flight zone’, and will flee from any threat within a certain distance. Horses have therefore evolved to have the stamina to run fast for long distances, or at least for long enough to outrun any predators, which are often designed for short bursts of speed rather than for long periods.

Through training, most domestic horses have learnt not to show this bolting response to threatening situations. However, with some horses or in certain circumstances, the natural response takes over and the horse bolts.
There are two types of bolting horses:

  • The ‘true’ bolters appear to be in a blind panic and completely disregard the rider and their attempts to stop the horse. This behaviour is completely unpredictable and is extremely dangerous, as horses have been known to run onto roads and straight into vehicles and fences.
  • Other horses ‘take off’ with the rider, often due to high spirits, and can eventually be stopped. This tends to be quite predictable, as horses will tend to ‘take off’ in open areas and in places they are usually allowed to canter or gallop. Horses often ‘take off’ when their rider allows them to race with other horses. Some horses may do this due to lack of schooling and either a lack of understanding of the fact that the rider is asking them to slow down or due to lack of motivation. They may also ‘take off’ due to over-feeding and insufficient exercise.

‘True’ bolters

Dealing with ‘true’ bolters is very difficult due to the unpredictability of it and the fact that the horse does not pay any attention to the rider at all. It is possible that the horse bolts due to pain, and as with most behavioural problems, the horse should be thoroughly checked by a vet, and its tack checked by a saddler.
Persistent bolters should not be ridden out on roads or in wide open public places, as the risk to others is too great. A safely enclosed area is the only place a bolter should be ridden, and even then there are no guarantees that the horse will not attempt to bolt.
In the interests of safety, it may be that a persistent bolter should no longer be ridden, as the risk to the horse, rider and those around them is simply too great.

Horses that ‘take off’

These horses can often be stopped by the rider. Some riders suggest pulling sharply on alternate reins, bridging the reins across the horse’s neck and pulling as hard as possible or ‘sawing’ on the reins. The assumption here is that the stronger you use your commands the more likely the horse is to respond. These methods, however should be avoided as they are all likely to cause the horse extreme pain and may make the horse more difficult to stop as he tries to flee from the pain.
A more humane and successful approach is to turn the horse in a large circle. This unbalances the horse and forces it to slow down. Gradually decreasing the circle will cause the horse to slow down further. For this reason, horses that are prone to ‘taking off’, should be ridden in open areas where there is space to turn and where the ground is good so the horse won’t slip or fall.
Some horses are able to get their tongue over the bit, which makes them very difficult to control, and thus able to ‘take off’ with the rider. The bit should be checked to ensure it fits correctly and perhaps a different bit or different nose-band used. Horses that bolt due to disobedience should be carefully schooled to ensure they understand the rider’s commands, starting on the lunge and progressing to ridden work.
Horses that bolt due to high spirits can be lunged prior to being ridden to allow them to get rid of excess energy, without putting the rider at risk. The horse’s feeding and exercise regime should be examined to ensure he is not being over-fed and under-exercised. Riders should avoid allowing their horse to canter or gallop in the same places each time as the horse learns this and associates these areas with cantering, and should avoid racing other horses. If cantering in a group, a horse that is prone to ‘taking off’ should be ridden at the front to prevent it from trying to over-take other horses which may cause them to take off too.