It seems this question is frequently asked in hopes of a simple answer- an easy trick, a button to install, a foolproof song and dance to execute. We like to imagine these things will keep us safe, but the reality is the issue is much more complex.
The average horsemanship clinic teaches a large group how to perform maneuvers promising to keep you safe – to make a bucking or bolting horse manageable in one quick move. While these exercises can work, they are not foolproof. And there are several larger issues with them-
1- they take the horse off balance, making their fall risk greater. If we could get inside the mind of a horse and truly grasp just how frightening the risk of falling was to them, I think we’d change a lot of our riding tactics. Your horse will either stop because they’ve learned if they don’t they can fall, or, panic because they’re worried about falling and speed up or resist more.
2- they don’t address the root cause.
When I’m asked how to stop a bolting horse, I always want to know WHY. Why is the horse bolting? What preceded it?
I want to address the horse’s overall understanding of our aids and physical and emotional well-being I want to address the horse’s physical balance.
Balanced horses don’t bolt for no reason- or rarely (stuff happens and I never like to say never, but they become significantly safer and calmer)
I want to address the rider’s balance. So often this question is asked by people worried and defensive of their own safety. This is an absolutely understandable worry, but, if you’re worried for your safety and feeling unstable on a bolting horse- why keep riding it? You wouldn’t take a car down the highway if you didn’t know how to drive it and it didn’t have reliable brakes- you don’t need to put yourself at risk on horseback either.
I want to know what the riders investment in helping the horse is. If the riders only interest is to stop the bolt, they miss the point. The rider should be focused on guiding, helping, teaching and supporting. Preventing the bolt in the first place.
So, to summarize, if you ask me how to stop a bolting horse, I’m gonna tell you-
Become more aware Ride better Balance your horse Train your horse Guide your horse Pay attention Start over if you need to
But don’t practice riding movements you don’t want to enforce- if you’re worried about the horse bolting, you probably shouldn’t be sitting up there in the first place.
I take dangerous horses in training all the time. But I don’t ride them until I’m sure the risk is manageable, until their education is sufficient to support them in their scared or hard times. And I set them up as best as possible to be able to succeed. I’m no bronc rider- I don’t yeehaw these behaviors away, a) because I don’t want to get hurt either and b) it doesn’t teach the horse anything I want them to learn.
You can never go wrong getting to the root of the problem, but the quick fixes will work until they don’t- That’s a risk I’m not willing to take.
Let’s stop glorifying lack of self care as a marker of success
I get it- I’ve been training horses for a while- longer than some, far less time than others. I’ve lived on coffee and ibuprofen too. I was proud of getting right back on after an injury. I was proud of my ability to keep trucking along.
My horse has a body worker, nutritionist, fitness program and busy social life. And shoot, I deserve that too.
I realize it comes from a place of privilege to be able to prioritize self care, and will be more or less available to different people. I am working intensely on changing my life to move away from work only at my expense, to being able to care for me so I can work better. I’m making small, doable steps, and I feel much better. I don’t want to go back to coffee and ibuprofen as a meal. I want to feel my best so I can give my best to my horses.
Some folks will have less access to self care, some more. There are small things we all can do, no matter our situation- and the first one is to stop glorifying burnout. I have two little children watching me- I’d hate for them to grow up thinking the way to succeed is to drain yourself dry for others- there is always resentment on the other end of that kind of giving. I want them to love what they do, and give freely from a filled cup- with the freedom to give without strings or resentments.
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about posture in terms of good and bad. If you look in any dressage forum, you’ll see people critiquing a horse and rider’s posture to death. Knowing where you can go is important – having a good idea of what the end goal is is the only way to get there. But it is essential to not lose sight of the context-
What does the horse look like currently? Their posture can only change so much at once. A horse might go from carrying themselves tight and inverted, and as they loosen, stretch their neck out and down. Some folks might argue long and low is putting the horse on the forehand- but this was a horse already on the forehand. Going from tight and on the forehand to loose and on the forehand is an improvement. And an important one at that.
A horse isn’t going to get to an Olympic level carriage all at once. Let’s celebrate all the small steps they take along the way- just as you won’t go from an unfit couch potato to a triathlete, a horse needs small steps. So posture can’t really be categorized as good or bad – its more nuanced, and it’s important to see where the horse came from, where they are, and where they’re going.
Nearly every new lesson or training horse comes with a story, and often this story is long, winding through details both relevant and not relevant, heavy with emotion, and rife with confusion and struggle.
Any teacher who’s been working with the public has heard their share of stories, and as a student, I find my own story entangled in the stories of others. Over the years, you notice a common thread in these stories, and you see and hear yourself in the stories of others. Over time you realize the story is actually much less important than we think- because the story is just that: a tangled up collection of thoughts, opinions, perceptions and ideas of what happened or is happening.
The truth of the matter, the map of the past and road to the future, is written clear as day- in the way the horse’s skin ripples over their muscles. In the way their ears lay. In the way the skin pulls around their eyes. In the way they stand next to the rider during the story telling, in the way they walk and move.
The rider, too, tells the story- in how they talk- anxious, fast, frantic, scattered, or quiet, tight, or boasting, or unsure. In the way they walk, in the way they hold the lead rope and reins. In the way they mount. In the way they take direction- the student has in the expression on their face where they’ve been and what they need.
We think often that our troubles are unique to us, that we are the only ones who struggle. But the reality is, everyone struggles, and many of our struggles are in the same vein- variations of the same imbalance and insecurities, like little pictures viewed through a kaleidoscope, the fragmented view makes us believe we are somehow separate.
The story is how we carry this separateness, and keep it alive. The story is irrelevant, and most often, in the way. To move forward, peel back the brambled branches of what we think is happening to reveal the path to the Here and Now, where the solution is illuminated- all you have to do is walk forward.
“The average man is hooked to his fellow men, while the warrior is hooked only to infinity.” ― Carlos Castaneda.
It is a rare horseman or woman who makes it to the top of their career field who doesn’t become intoxicated with the idea of themselves. They become the adored- and while they climbed the ladder through real or perceived changes in the horse, it often gets forgotten for the thrill of public adoration. A clinic becomes a show- a production not meant for the student or horse’s benefit, but like reality tv, becomes a drama. It becomes material for further self adoration, while a lead rope is handed back to an owner with empty pockets and an empty tool kit for the aftermath.
When the owner goes home, what then? When the show is over, what is left for the horse? When the clinician goes home with your video and your money, what skills are you left with? The public can become swept off their feet, as they are part of the magic- but once the thrill is gone, what is left then?
Where are the quiet horsemen, working in the arena with you after the sun has set? Where are the humble people seeking to connect you and your horse together, whether the cameras are rolling or not? Where are the teachers willing to say no to the show- to take you away from piaffe and back to the walk, or to prescribe simple basics done in order, instead of a magic show?
These people are often missed, out shouted by the braggarts and the con men, the self proclaimed gurus and men of phony spirituality. What will become of the horse if only these men, who are loud enough and bright enough to not be missed, are the only ones making it in the arena? What will you gain if you lean in and listen to the quiet voice of the horse, as interpreted through soft hands and a man who’s eyes are turned away from the crowd and gaze over the horse?
Movement should never be a punishment. Movement IS the reward- movement in balance, never away from the person but WITH them.
Quite often I encounter horses who escape the drive aid, are anxious about forward movement, or escalate when going up into the trot and canter.
If we want the horse to be both forward AND calm, we have to think logically about how we present the drive aid and movement. If the horse isn’t getting in the trailer and we run them around in circles outside the trailer, frantically out of balance, until they get in – how will they magically transfer this to balanced movement on the lunge line? If we spin them around in circles at the gate to make stopping here the “wrong” thing, how does the horse know when going back to work that movement is no longer adverse?
How is the horse supposed to parse out when we don’t care if they’re balanced and when we do? How are they supposed to know movement is a punishment one moment, but not another? How are they supposed to become calm and centered if we use the very thing we want them to do, which is move, as a way to put them off balance enough to “behave”?
A calm and balanced horse requires a calm and thoughtful handler- I try to take things one step further. After this horse in on the trailer, how will these principles apply later? After this horse is away from the gate, then what? Good training is layered in thoughtfully, one moment at a time.
It is the scourge of the horse world, and the single biggest road block I see to educating people.
Whether it be attaching human values to equine behavior with descriptions like: Work ethic Stubborn Holding a grudge Faking it Trying to get out of work
And so on
Or, in the guise of being ethical training, we treat the horse as a human child.
A horse is a horse- not a human, not a dog. A horse will never be anything but a horse, never capable of thinking outside of the bounds of horse thinking.
To me, this doesn’t detract at all from the magic of being with horses. We shouldn’t need to make them like a child or a dog or some mystical creature that doesn’t exist to fully appreciate them- they are amazing exactly as they are, and anthropomorphism, whether in positive description or negative description, is absolutely a disrespect to an incredible animal.
If you love horses, learn how they think, learn what they need, and watch how they behave- and drop the anthropomorphism like you’d drop a hot plate- because it does nothing but damage.
“At what point do you plan to ride your horse in a straight line?” My teacher asked me. Whenever my horse sped up, I would bend her head and neck around. “Well when she slows down,” I answered, kind of baffled by the question. “And how is she supposed to know to go straight, if she never has the opportunity?” She asked again “Well because she won’t be running off anymore,” I answered, still stunned “But how will her BODY know not to be crooked, if she is spending all her time out of alignment?”
I had to really think about that, and I still think about it, every single day. As I go about my training, I think endlessly about how the horse will move from one moment to the next. I hope to layer their education in logically and in an easy way for the horse to understand. I don’t want to just tell the horse what to do, I want to set it up so it flows and is just the most comfortable and obvious thing to do.
In the same way that my teacher asked me, I also try to ask my students why. What are you hoping to accomplish and why? I don’t want to tell you what to do, I want you to know why you want to do what you’re doing, and maybe we can come to some kind of a solution together.