How to Stop a Bolting Horse

I had no idea how to stop a bolting horse the first time I was on a horse that “bolted”. Let me explain why I used quotations around that word.

My First Time Unable to Stop a Galloping Horse

I was about 12 at the time and I was with 2 good friends on our way to their cottage. We all loved riding, so their Dad stopped at a farm on the way up that offered Western trail rides.

At that time, I was predominantly riding English in an arena. I was familiar with trail rides though so I was expecting a leisurely walk-trot-canter pace through the country.

We walked out from the property towards a really great open field after tacking up. The trail boss started trotting for a little, then broke into a canter and then a gallop. All of our horses follow suit.

So as you can see, my horse didn’t really “bolt” in the traditional sense of the word. He thought he was supposed to be galloping full speed even though I didn’t actually ask him to pick up the pace. In that particular scenario, I was actually having a lot of fun. He was a very smooth ride and there was nothing in front of us but flat field.

When I wanted him to slow down though, I couldn’t get him to shift back down. I realized he had never really been listening to me. He was following the horse in front of him or just running full speed because he felt like it. At the time, I didn’t know what to do.

Of course, this ensued in a not-so-pleasant tug of war for a few minutes while he reluctantly and ungracefully came back down to a trot and then a walk finally.

What if that horse never paid any attention at all to my rein? Or what if I was uncomfortable at a gallop in the first place and I wanted to stop?

This post goes through the Emergency Brake. We’ll talk about how to use it and when to use it.

We’ve already talked about the problem a little bit . Now, let’s talk about the specific problem of a horse that truly spooks and bolts while you’re riding.

What do I do if my Horse Spooks & Bolts?

Sometimes horses spook by suddenly jumping, rearing, or side-stepping.

Other times, they spook and just bolt at a dead gallop. 

A horse that goes from 0-100 in zero seconds flat can be scary.

When a horse bolts like that, it’s basically like a human having a panic attack. They’re in fight or flight mode and they’re pretty much desensitized to anything else. 

So how do you stop a bolting horse? 

The usual tactics that we talked about in how to slow down a horse of slowing your seat, leaning back and putting pressure on the reins generally won’t work. At least not until your horse has calmed down to the point that they can “listen” to you.

In the mean time, you’re stuck in an unsafe situation where you’re likely going to feel scared and powerless.

You need something that allows you to break through that wall of panic your horse is experiencing. You need a method that allows you to essentially overpower your horse just long enough for you to jump off.

This method is the Emergency Brake.

The Emergency Brake to Stop a Bolting Horse

How to Use it

To employ the emergency brake in order to stop a bolting horse you do the following: 

  1. Sit as deep in the saddle as possible.
  2. Get your weight into your heels.
  3. Lean back, preparing for a sudden stop. 
  4. Quickly slide one hand half-way down the rein and pull back to the hip thus flexing your horse’s head to 60+ degrees. 

A horse can’t keep going forwards quickly with their head in that position, so they have to stop pretty quickly. 

I find this can be dangerous if done super fast. He’ll fall and you’ll fall with him if your horse loses his footing when his head is suddenly turned. 

In order to mitigate that risk, you can slow the flexing slightly and adjust it according to speed. For instance, you could pull slightly but firmly to get him turning, then pull more to get him cantering, then pull more to get him trotting then pull quickly back to the hip into a halt. 

When to Use it

In my piece on how to slow down a hot horse, I stated that I was not a fan of this method. That’s because a hot horse isn’t actually spooked. Instead he lacks emotional regulation and is overly excited on a regular basis.

When you use your Emergency Brake in this setting, you end up using it over and over and over again.

That’s when it just becomes a band aid covering the underlying issue. You’re also creating a greater chance of an accident happening because you’re routinely throwing your horse way out of balance. 

The Emergency Break should be used exactly as described: in an emergency. 

A well trained horse might get spooked and bolt once a year or once every few years. If it’s happening more frequently, it’s suggestive that he is lacking basic desensitization in training and/or is in a higher state of emotional anxiety.

Also, if you’re using the Emergency Brake all the time to stop, your horse essentially doesn’t learn emotional control or down-transitions. 

Practicing The Emergency Break (+/- The Quick Dismount)

Try and practice the Emergency Brake at a walk, trot and canter with your horse every once in a while.

This will make sure that when you really need it, your horse will be familiar with it and you’ll be more confident about what you’re doing. Your body will also know that it will need to lean back and dig your heels down in preparation for the quick stop so you don’t end up off balance.

Lastly, a good thing is to add once you’ve mastered the brake is a quick dismount practice right after using the Emergency Brake.

Your quick stop allows you the opportunity to get off safely. This means that even if you can’t keep your horse controlled for much longer after you’ve implemented your brake, at least you can make yourself safe and then wait at a safe distance for your horse to settle down.

Emergencies don’t happen often but it’s always good to stay prepared for them, especially if you’re taking trail rides in the country or you’re riding on your own often.

Please comment below with any thoughts or questions!

Happy riding,

Martina

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