Rehabbing the Bolter

Q. I have a lot of problems with my horse bolting. He is an exracehorse and has only been off the track for a little over a year. It mainly happens when we’re riding around other paddocks or in the arena. I don’t feel like I have bonded with him very much, so will forming a bond with my horse help his behavior when going out and doing work in the arena and around the paddocks?

I have been told that this won’t help and my horse’s bolting behavior is purely based on how and what my horse has been taught. I have also been told that my horse is bolting because he is relying on what is going on in the environment around him (for security) and not relying on me.

Tonya Loone, via e-mail

A. Based on my experience, both things you have been told seem somewhat correct. If the horse has bolted more than a couple times, unfortunately, because escape in a fearful moment is self-reinforcing on a physiologic level, the horse’s innate tendency to “flee” has been reinforced by that experience. It only takes a couple replicates of that before the horse learns a difficult-to-resolve habit, and in this case your horse’s bolting is much more challenging to overcome than that of a bolting naive horse. This is why many trainers give up on horses with this behavior.

It is also likely that the horse is not relying on you for security, and, if he were, his fleeing behavior might improve at least somewhat. As a horse is taught to lead, he tends to develop trust in the handler and then the rider as a “leader” that produces security. Horses reach the point that they will follow you anywhere, with assurance that “it will be okay.” They also appear less likely to flee; should they suddenly be startled, they tend to stay with or come to the handler rather than running away. So if you were to spend more positive time with your horse in a situation where he is unable to bolt, he should become more secure and less fearful of environmental events when in your hands. And if occasionally startled to a level that he would bolt, he might instead stay near you for security.

One of the challenges with rehabbing a bolting horse is that building the completely positive, unfettered mutual trust necessary to help him overcome his flight tendency is easier said than done. Once you have experienced the fright of a horse bolting, it is all but impossible to convey total trust in a horse while riding or handling him—particularly that one. Anyone with good sense will be somewhat more cautious and tentative in anticipation of potential bolting. As hard as you might try to convey normal confidence, you will likely behave differently and in ways the horse can pick up on. This will feed his insecurity.

This reminds me of an experiment done in Sweden in which researchers demonstrated that when a handler is simply told that something scary will occur at a certain point along a course, his or her heart rate increases, even though nothing actually happens. And, in turn, the horse’s heart rate also increases, presumably in response to changes in the handler’s heart rate and/or behavior (Investigating horse-human interactions: the effect of a nervous human. Keeling LJ, Jonare L, Lanneborn L. Vet J. 2009 Jul;181(1):70-1. Epub 2009 Apr 25).

The only horse I personally know that bolted when being led and then overcame the tendency was one within a big string of young horses a trainer was starting all at once. In a “senior moment” after a short vacation, the trainer forgot that that particular horse had arrived to his care with a tendency to bolt. It wasn’t until one day many months later, when someone remarked that the horse had made a miracle turnaround, that the trainer remembered the horse had come to him with the problem.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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