How to Stop a Bolting Horse

Few things are as surprising and terrifying as having a slow, easy ride violently interrupted by your horse spooking and taking off. You suddenly find yourself atop a horse in complete flight mode, running at top speed. How do you get them to snap out of it? How do you get them to stop? In this article, I will share my methods for regaining control of a bolting horse.

What should you do if your horse bolts? Follow this step-by-step guide:

  • Stay calm
  • Stop fighting the horse
  • Try to break the horse’s focus
  • Turn the horse onto a big circle
  • Wind the circle down into a one-rein stop

Sometimes, I can recognize when my horse will bolt before they actually do it. In those instances, I can turn them into a one-rein stop before they are able to launch into a gallop. Trying to one-rein stop your horse while they are galloping can be dangerous. If you suddenly find yourself on a bolting horse that is fleeing at top speed, keep reading to get a more in-depth look at how to handle the situation.

How to Stop a Bolting Horse Step #1: Stay Calm

Horses rarely bolt for reasons other than trying to protect themselves. They are prey animals that don’t have the sharp teeth and claws that predators do. Their speed is the feature that will do the most to preserve them in the wild. Bolting is usually triggered by something causing the horse to spook or the horse feeling uncomfortable and wanting to return to a safe place (like the barn or pasture where their herd is).

That said, reacting to the situation with fear by screaming and gripping the horse will only make things worse. By doing this, the only option you give yourself is to ride it out until the horse decides to stop on its own. The only chance you have of getting the horse back under control in the moment is to remain calm.

A horse can bolt and reach a full gallop in just a few seconds. It happens quickly and doesn’t give you time to process what is happening. I’ve been riding for about 20 years and occasionally found myself on a bolting horse. It takes me a few seconds to realize my situation, overcome my fear, and activate my response.

How to Stop a Bolting Horse Step #2: Stop Fighting the Horse

When a horse bolts, the rider is usually taken by surprise. The sudden movement and transition cause the rider to lose balance, forcing their balance back rather than over the center of the horse. This leaves the rider in a compromising position, unbalanced in the saddle and hauling on the reins to try and stop the horse. This response frightens the horse even more, as everything the rider is unknowingly communicating to the horse they have every right to be afraid. If you’re a prey animal, your instinct is to escape danger by any means necessary. If you’re a horse and you’re scared, and you feel tugging on your mouth and a heavy weight being thrown across your back trying to hold you in place where the danger is, you will fight harder to escape.

If you want to be able to get your horse under control, you first have to stop fighting them. This may seem contradictory to what you feel like you need to do; however, it’s the first layer to remove in order to help them feel safer. To regain your balance, get in your half-seat. Instead of being a heavy lug rolling around your horse’s back, the half-seat will stabilize you over the center of your horse and make your contact with your horse soft.

Second, get out of your horse’s mouth. No, they won’t go faster if you do…because they are probably already going as fast as they can! You don’t have to throw your reins away; just stop blindly hauling on them to get the horse to stop. Relax. Take a deep breath. Release tension in your arms and hands.

Sometimes, this may be enough to show your horse there is nothing to fear. Other times, you’ll still need to take a step to break your horse’s focus.

How to Stop a Bolting Horse Step #3: Try to Break the Horse’s Focus

A bolting horse is in flight mode, operating based on instinct alone. Instinct puts the horse into overdrive; it consumes their thoughts and actions. You must break that instinct focus to get your horse back under control.

Remember, pulling back on the reins isn’t going to break your horse’s focus; if anything, it will strengthen their fight. Trying to turn your horse sharply to get them to stop isn’t an option. Asking a horse to do that at top speed may cause them to trip or fall over. The best option to break the horse’s focus is a subtle exercise that will engage the horse’s body and mind.

I have found that the most effective way to communicate with your horse if they are bolting is to continue to let them gallop forward but simply add a meandering back-and-forth weave. Open your left hand and tip your horse’s nose to the left. Let them move that way a few strides before opening your right hand, tipping their nose to the right, and going that way for a few strides. Repeat.

Your horse will continue to fight you if you yank them to the left and right. However, if you gradually and gently close your fingers and open your hand, tipping their nose rather than yanking, they will be more apt to follow the pressure. A horse in flight mode will always want to fight pressure. By making your queues soft and gradual, it will be more welcoming for the horse to follow. In fact, that type of pressure would make your horse feel as if they have reached a safe place.

How to Stop a Bolting Horse Step #4: Turn the Horse onto a Big Circle

If you have gotten your horse to weave left and right, they are mentally checked in at this point. Now, it’s not so much about getting them to stop as it is about calming them down and helping them feel safe. I like to do this by gradually adding more exercises, requiring them to focus more on what I’m asking rather than their environment.

From weaving, you can put your horse onto a large circle. The circle will establish a boundary for your horse. Horses feel safer when they have boundaries, as it lets them know what to expect. Try and get your horse bending around your leg and around the circle. Now, if the horse were to spook again, they would probably speed up on the circle rather than take off again in a straight line.

How to Stop a Bolting Horse Step #5: Wind Down into a One-Rein Stop

To continue to engage your horse’s mind, gradually wind down your circle, making it smaller and smaller. This requires your horse to carry themselves correctly and focus on their balance. End with a one-rein stop known as the emergency brake for horseback riding. Although you could probably stop your horse on your own at this point, I prefer the one-rein stop because it allows me to stop my horse without adding tension pulling against their face, as a normal halt would. It allows the horse to walk into the stop and decide when they want to come to a stop.

To one-rein stop, reach one of your hands down one rein and take hold. Greatly loosen the other rein to where it won’t interfere at all. Bring the hand with the short rein out, causing your horse to tip its nose. Then, bring the rein back to your hip, causing your horse to bring their head around to your knee.

The horse now has the option to walk in a very tight, small circle with their head at your knee, or they can come to a halt. Once your horse decides to halt, you can release the rein. Until you can tell that your horse is calmed down and relaxed, you can have your horse continue to walk and then go into the one-rein stop, walk and then go into the one-rein stop.

Return to Where Your Horse First Bolted

This next part can be a big mental hurdle for all riders. If my horse has bolted, I always return to the area where it bolted or the object it was afraid of. I want my horse to overcome the fear that made it react that way. I also don’t want my horse to develop a habit of bolting at everything that makes them scared. Besides being scaredy-cats, horses are also naturally curious creatures. Allowing your horse to investigate things, even if they are scared, will make them more brave.

If you’re too nervous to ride the horse back to the area, get off and lead them. You can even return to the barn, get a lunge line, and work them over in the area. Horses learn by repetition. If you want your horse to be comfortable in a certain spot or around a certain object, the best thing you can do is repeatedly work them in that area.

My horse was always so scared of one corner of the arena. He would spook at it every time we rode past. I decided that when we rode, we would always take breaks or stop and rest in that corner. He quickly learned to associate the area positively and suddenly wasn’t afraid of the corner anymore. Adding tricks like this is an easy way to help your horses feel more comfortable.

How to Tell If Your Horse is Going to Bolt

The scary thing about bolting is rarely do you see it coming. Your horse will often suddenly go from a gentle walk to a high-speed gallop in a matter of seconds. Noting when your horse is going to bolt largely depends on your horse. Some horses may get startled, then wait a few seconds to determine if it’s something they should really freak out over. You can pull these horses into a one-rein stop before they react too much. Other horses aren’t going to hang around to find out.

My horse, Tucker, is usually a horse that will get startled and then hang around a moment before deciding if his life really is in danger. However, he was caught off guard a few times and high-tailed it out of there. We were cantering out in a big field when I first had him under saddle. We suddenly saw some boys doing target practice as we came over the hill. They fired their weapons, and Tucker turned around and got out of there.

Another time, we were following a fence line on a relaxing trail ride. Out of nowhere, a dog suddenly appeared on the other side of the fence, barking and carrying on. Tucker was so startled that he bolted.

A horse that is already nervous is more likely to bolt. If a horse is prancing, whinnying for their friends, and raising their head high to look at something they are unsure about, they may be more apt to bolt.

In these instances, use approach and retreat: go to where the horse gets a little uncomfortable, then go back to where it feels safe. Repeat this until the horse sees there is nothing to be afraid of.

What Should You Do if Your Horse Bucks?

Some horses will bolt and buck. To ride a buck, lean back to keep your center of balance over the horse. Remain relaxed through your leg and stretch down into your heels. If you tense your legs and grip with your knees, you are more likely to fall off. Shorten your reins, and try to pull the horse’s head up at all costs. Pulling the horse’s head up will limit their strength to buck. The one-rein stop immediately stops your horse from bucking and puts them on a small, controllable circle.

To learn more about what to do if your horse bucks, visit my article How to Respond When Your Horse Starts Bucking.

What Should You Do if Your Horse Rears?

If a horse feels nervous and trapped with nowhere to escape to, they may rear. To stay on a rearing horse, lean forward and grab the horse’s neck or mane. Whatever you do, avoid leaning back and pulling on their reins, as you could pull the horse over on top of you. To get a horse to stop rearing, try encouraging them forward. This will help the horse feel less stuck. You can also pull the horse into a one-rein stop, but just be careful with how you do this. You will want to avoid pulling them into the stop while they are in mid-air, as you could throw them off-balance.

To learn more about what to do if your horse rears, visit my article How to Respond When Your Horse Starts Rearing.

Even the most well-trained dead-broke horse may get startled and bolt at something. If you plan on riding horses, it will inevitably happen to you. That said, doing things to help your horse to be confident can greatly decrease their willingness to bolt. To learn how to give your horse confidence, check out my article Making Your Horse More Confident: Ultimate Guide.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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