Bolting


"It's not what's in the horse's mouth so much as it is what is happening at the other end of the reins!"

Rule number one if your icelandic is going faster than you want him to go:
Use less leg, and give and take with the reins.

If that doesn't work:
Shorten one of the reins a lot (I'm talking about a whole foot), and pull it a bit sideways too, when the horse runs, so the head of the horse is bent to the side. If the horse just stiffens against it, grab the other rein and do the same, as all horses have one weaker side than the other. Hold it with all your force. Imagine that you want to pull the nose of the horse around to your leg. Most horses stop then.

Definitions

In my experience, what people regards as bolts and runaways is very different. The problem I am issuing here, is when a horse runs and is uncontrollable. But when an experienced rider is riding a sertain horse, what can be just a spook or a bit of stubborness to him, can be an uncontrollable bolt to another rider riding the same horse. Also, an experienced rider would maybe not call it a bolt when a horse runs for 300 feet and gets under control then, while another rider would regard this as a terrifying bolt. Anyway, the means for the different riders to solve bolting are similar, even though the magnitude of the bolting is different. If one rider feels he has a problem when the horse goes suddenly a short distance sideways, he might be able to solve it using similar methods as the rider that is riding the runaway that only stops after a mile. But these horses are of course very different, and the rider that wants to train a horse with a bolting problem has to think a bit first, what is the problem with the horse, whether he has the abilities needed to follow those instructions, or whether there is someone else better suited to train the horse and find the solution.

Reasons for bolting

There can be many reasons for bolting:

  • A very common reason, maybe the most common reason, is that the rider is using too much leg.

  • Riding fast in a big group. The horse is frightened, seeing a still object, or the horse is scared of a movement of a hand or a raincoat, or anything else moving.

  • Pain in the back of the horse, in the mouth of the horse, or elsewhere.
  • The horse is stubborn, trying to get's it's way. It is for example rather common, when lazy horses are being asked to do fast work, that they run 2-3 seconds out of the road.
  • Mental problems, neurotic horses.

    Think it over, why is the horse running. Do not run into conclusions, as one horse might need lots of support to get over the problem, another might need to be shown who is the master.

    Are you using too much leg?

    There is a common misunderstanding that happens between many icelandics and riders that are new to icelandics. Many icelandics have been tought that more leg means that they are supposed to go faster. Then, when the beginner sits on the icelandic, and becomes nervous for some reason, the first responce is usually to grab hard with the legs (to prevent themselves falling of). That is a totally wrong response, because it starts an evil sircle, the horse thinks it's supposed to go faster, the rider grips harder with the leg, etc. untill everything is in chaos. Also, in many countries riders are directly taught to use a lot of leg.

    Another response from a nervous rider is (at the same time as a lot of leg is used) to take the reins with a lot of force, and holding the reins. The horse is still pressed forward with the legs, so it braces itself against the bit and goes faster (as it thinks it's supposed to do). So, what the rider has to do, is to give the rein, take it, give it again, take it again, and so on untill the horse stops.

    If you are riding with other riders, and you see a scared rider on a horse that's going too fast, call and remind the rider: "Give and take" and "No leg". When you're scared, so often your mind goes into a freeze, and you don't remember that this is what you were going to do, and then it can help tremendously to have a friend helping.

    If the horse is bolting because his sides are sensitive, get him used to it. Ride him in the pen, and squeeze the sides, first a little, later more, untill you can squeeze the sides as you like and he doesn't react. To hold yourself in the saddle, you use the knee-lock.

    Re-training the stop

    First help for horsemen with bolting horses: The rider must sense if the horse wants to bolt. Then he still has some oppurtunity to stop it. When sensing this, the rider turns the horse to the side and up to a wall, fence, or ditch, and speaks softly to him. Sometimes it can be enough simply to turn the horse to the side of the road or other such "imaginary" barrier, because then the horse starts to think, and might also be able to see a frightening object better. When the horse is calm,, ride steadily again. Maybe you have to stop that way again after a short while.

    Bevare of bending the horse to a wall, when he's bolting at full speed, the horse could turn and you end on the wall, very dangerous. This is the best way if you can hang on, but if you can't, it's very dangerous.

    You have to teach the horse to stop. He must know what stopping means, under all conditions, and have a SOFT mouth. Teaching a horse that is stiff in the mouth and does not listen to soft "whooa" (stop) or another word, takes time. At least you can count on work for 1 month, if you ride the horse 5 times per week.

    You teach him walking by his side, teaching him to listen to the bit.

    You teach him in longeing with two reins.

    You teach him inside a small, secure wooden fence.

    Here I am speaking about very difficult bolting horses, so often, with less dire problems, you can start by riding in a pen. The more inexperienced rider, and the less "tools" (pen, longeing reins etc.), the more often you have to do these exerzises. You have to stop the horse so many times you can't count the number of them, because a new reflex can only be learned by repetition, besides letting the horse forget the bad habit.

    In spite of good preparings, the horse could possibly run when you go again for the first time on his back. So, the first time, the rider tries to stop everything that could upset the horse, such as horses running by, unstable seat (because of too long stirrups), using legs or unconfidence in mounting the horse. Besides at first you have to ride in an area where the horse can run without hurting himself or others. Then the pen is the best choice.

    Do not go into open area until the horse is settled, walks with long reins without hurrying, and you can stop him anytime you want. Also, try to avoid everything that upsets the horse and gives him a reason to run, especially other riders. Also the horse should be a bit tired (work first in longeing or riding for 10-15 minutes inside a fence). You have to have lots of time, and energy, to mend a bolting horse. The best solutions do not work if you do not work for a long time. Some horses have, preferably, to be ridden every day while getting over the problem.

    The horse must also learn to divide his energy down to longer distances. If you ride him for 10 miles in 2 hours, he'll learn that he does not gain anything by bolting, there is still a long way ahead.

    The frightened horse
  • If the horse sees something scary, it can get frightened. Some seem to have nerves of steel and spook once a year at most. Others can't get through a whole ride without spooking.

    Many icelandics, when they see something scary, stop and stare. If the horse gets a whip in it's behind then, it has no option but to run past or away from the scary object. Try to notice the signs of this behaviour and learn to recognise it. Then if the horse stops, allow it to watch the scary object for maybe 10 seconds, before asking it to walk past. If you see something ahead that might be scary, slow the horse to a walk and let it walk past. Some trainers say to keep the horse moving in these sircumstances, I totally object, because that teaches a horse to move if frightened. I want a horse to stop if frightened. You want to teach the horse a responce to use always when frightened: To stop, think, and then walk.

    If there are sertain objects that often scare the horse, take some time to introduce it to them.

    If the horse is scared of you wearing a raincoat, lead the horse and put the raincoat on it's back, and over it's head, slowly so he doesn't get very frightened, and give him treats. Repeat this untill the horse doesn't care about the raincoat anymore.

    If the horse is scared of a flapping plastic or a sign, go off the horse and lead it to the scary object, allow it to sniff, pet it, touch the scary object, and let the horse touch it. Spend half an hour watching flowers while the horse watches the object if possible. Next time, you might have to repeat this, but it's more likely your horse will walk past the object, while maybe staring at it.

    If you know clicker training, it is a wonderful method to use to help the frightened horse.

    If you are out on the trail, and the horse sees something really terrifying, and you manage to stop him, but the totally terrifying thing is still there, get off the horse, immediately. Do not wait to see if you have to, or can, stop him again.

    The stubborn horse

    Some horses, we have to face it, are simply stubborn. They feel that they don't have to obey the man if they bolt. When a stubborn horse bolts and there is no way to stop him it breaks one of the most important rule: The horse must think that the man has endless power and is always stronger than the man (unfortunately horses often learn to see through this "acting" of ours). Both when a horse bolts, and when a horse refuses completely to move, the horse sees how helpless the man is, however experienced.

    Teach the horse the stop... always, untill it obeys.

    Teach it to stop in the pen. Teach it to back in the ben. If the horse hurries, let it stop and back, as a reprimand, and to get it to think. Let it stop from the walk, from the trot and tolt, and from the canter. Let it stop now, not take 10 seconds from when you ask untill it stops. If the horse obeys well, allow it to walk relaxed for a few seconds as a reward, if clicker training works that is good, but stubborn horses do often not fall for bribes. Train it a lot, so it definitely understands the clues, and if it is disobedient, if necesarry you can be a bit harch. If it disobeys and doesn't stop on the spot, another reprimand is to do as is described in the beginning of this page, shorten one of the reins, and let the horse walk in a tiny sircle untill you feel it softening, and is willing to obey.

    Teach the horse to bend in the poll, so it doesn't brace itself against the rein. Take care to have a soft hand, so as not to encourage the horse to brace itself.

    Then, start riding it outside the pen, first at walk, and consentrate on the stop. Teach the horse to stop and stand with relaxed reins, count to 30 or 100, and let the horse stand still.

    If the horse has been stiff in the mouth for a long time, the clues may have to be harch sometimes, but short. You pull the rein, for 1 seconds, the give the horse the rein again. Repeat again and again if the horse does not listen. Long pulling at the rein do things worse, even though the horse maybe listens in the end.

    Old advice, like letting the horse run for miles untill it stops, or letting the horse run in big sircles untill it stops, requires in my opinion space similar to the Sahara desert, and are hardly practical in most places.

    The horse that can't be in a group

    If you have a good horse for ponying (leading) the horse on, pony the horse very often. If you go for a long way that way (in tölt or trot), the horse learns that there is nothing to be afraid of in riding with another horse. Then, get a helper to ride on a horse with you. If the horse gets very exited, ride on a track or in a pen with the other horse. Gradually introduce the horse to more horses an to being on the road with a horse/horses.

    The horse that is in pain

    You can't expect a horse to be sensible if it is in pain. At best, it becomes grumpy and disobedient, at worst it becomes a blind runaway.

    Be sure that the horse has floated teeth and a bit that prevents him from putting the tongue over the bit, if that could be the problem-starter. Have a vet or someone knowledgeable check whether the back hurts, or the withers. If the pain can't be solved, don't ride the horse.

    When horses bolt, there are some that run and keep their senses, while others totally loose it, run blindly. Those blind runaways are, thank goodness, extremely rare in the icelandic breed, but they are a lot more dangerous. The first type of horse will stop if there is a fence in front of it, the other not. Blind runaways should not be ridden, the reason is usually a pain somewhere (or in rare cases a mental problem), the horse is running away from the pain, but it can't get away, so it looses it and runs and runs.

    Tools

    The best tools are training. Tie-downs, icelandic bit, tteam bit, all this can be tried, but a horse that isn't changed mentally usually braces itself against artificial helpers sooner or later. But if the problem isn't big, these can be enough, and are worth a try, but I advice against them.

    A harsh bit only helps for a short while. For example rubber bit, that seems soft, is hard on bolting horses, because the mouth is often dry, so the bit is as wiping-rubber and hurts. The icelandic bit can end up in a horse that is more hard-mouthed than ever.

    Everything good takes time.

    More about the shortening of one rein

    With many horses and riders, it's enough to say as in the first sentence in this webpage: Shorten one of the reins a lot when the horse runs, so the head of the horse is bent to the side, give and take. For others it doesn't work. So, here is a more accurate version of how to use this one rein, if simply shortening the rein a lot doesn't work:

    It is best if you've found which of his side is stronger. When you ride him normally, which side is he more willing to turn to? And which side does he brace more against.

    Okay, let's say you're out on the road and your horse takes off with you. Most horses will then pull harder against one rein than the other. It is the most common reaction and also the easiest to deal with. So assume that that is what he is doing, first. If you aren't sure which rein he is pulling against experiment first on one side, then the other. What you are going to do is pull steadily against the rein that feels soft, while releasing and pulling the rein that feels hard. (reread that a couple of times to make sure you understand it, since it seems backward to many people) The secret of this releasing and pulling movement, is to pull steadily just until you feel the horse starting to resist. As soon as you feel the resistance, immediately release, then pull smoothly again. Thus you never allow the horse to set up against the rein, and each time you pull it sets him back and rebalances him. It is more like using the brakes on a car on icy pavement than anything else, you brake until the wheels start to lock, then quickly let go, then smoothly brake again.

    What if your horse has no obvious weaker side, as you pull on them he sticks his head out and pulls against you equally against both reins? Then use the same technique as you did first, but just swap hands every few strides to keep him from setting up too much on your steady hand.

    The emergency stop

    What I've written here on this page has always been enough, and given me the best results. There is though one method that has become more and more popular in USA lately, and even though I have been able to stop problem horses with the method described above, I want to describe this method too, as it is a very good one. Then you have several training-tools to use. Mount your horse, preferably in a pen. Put a little pressure (slowly pick up the rein and just take the slack out of it), on one rein, keeping the other rein absolutely loose. Wait, and do not increase or decrease pressure. When the horse relaxes his neck the tiniest bit, you drop your rein pressure entirely, give him a while to enjoy the stop. If he pulls do not pull back, just keep the slack out and wait. Do that on each side very often, for example a hundred times. As the horse gets the idea, only release when you feel him actively turning toward the pressure. Make your pressures lighter and lighter. Don't alternate reins, do 25 on the right, then 25 on the left.

    Now you've got the horse listening to your hand at a stop. Do the same thing again while you ask him to move his feet, another hundred times each side at least. You might have been working for an hour now. If you can't do it in one session, do it in several sessions. As you ask him to move his feet it will be harder for him to listen to your rein. Don't alternate right and left, do 25 right and then 25 left.

    Now, you are going to want his hind feet to take a big step to one side. If you work on the left him first, you walk the horse forward, and turn around in the saddle until you can see the left hip. Then bend his neck around to the left. You're probably going to have to exaggerate your body position and his body position for the first time or two, and give him big release when he is actually in the process of stepping over. Do this another hundred times, now you are disengaging the hind quarters.

    Now he's stopping really nicely as soon as he feels your body shift. Now you want him to take a big step to the side and then back up, all by just pressure from the one rein. Get the step over, releasing the rein as he steps, put pressure back in the rein, straighten out your body (stop looking at his hip) and think back. If you get stuck here, ask for it from the ground a few times or get somebody to help you from the ground to get the first step back.