Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Riding Red: Dealing with Bolting, and Relaxation First

Today Red and I did some important work - but before we get to that, some background.

Red, from the moment I got him (more than 6 years ago), has been a horse that is emotional, high-strung, high-energy and with a tendency to bolt if he is surprised by a loud noise or the sudden appearance of a sight he hasn't anticipated, particularly if it's behind him.  There's nothing mean or intentional about his bolting - it's pure reactivity and there's no way to anticipate it or prepare for it.  And he's very, very fast - even at age 16 (in the video, he's 11), and his take off is impressive - he really digs in and puts his hindquarters into it.

This video from 2012 is a good example - this was on the third day of the Mark Rashid clinic - most of the horses at the clinic by that time were tired - not Red.  The bolt in the video happens after we stop cantering on the left lead and get ready to canter on the right lead.  Off to the races . . .  I only partly did in the video what I should do when he bolts - I shouldn't grab his face (which I did) but rather go with him (as Mark says, you can ride as fast as the horse can go) and direct him into a turn - in the video I did this after Mark told me to (notice that he waits a few seconds to see what I'll do), and I did a good job of just keeping on riding after the bolt was done.

He still bolts 5 years later, and our latest one was this past week.  Our indoor arena is spacious, with a gate to the barn (good visibility) and a large door at the end of one long side right where it meets the short side.  This door is closed during the winter, or when the weather is bad, but during good weather it's open with a gate across it.  Red is pretty well convinced that what's outside the door might kill him - the visibility out it is poor except when you're in the opposite corner of the short side - and lots of things tend to happen there - equipment, horses or vehicles passing by, or strange sights in the distance - all of which appear suddenly.  The door is particularly likely to kill you if you've got your back turned to it . . .

We've had a number of bolts away from the door, but over the past several months Red and I had successfully worked on approaching it and working in that area and he was much more settled by the door.   Then, last week . . .

Red and I were the only horse and rider at the barn that afternoon.  As we came to the door, we saw outside the owner and one of the barn workers working on fixing the sagging large gate to the outdoor arena.  We went by and looked at them without incident.

Now, sometimes when people are riding in the indoor arena and the lights aren't on, it's likely that someone outside won't necessarily see that there's anyone riding . . . when I checked later, they hadn't even noticed that I was there.

Just as we turned away from the door, there was a sudden, very loud noise - a drill that was catching - bang, bang, bang - and off Red went in a flash - I don't blame him in the slightest - it was a horrible, very loud noise and directly behind him.  He dug in so hard that I ended up with my butt out of the saddle for a couple of seconds hanging on the reins (water skiing, actually), but managed to pull things together.  Not what I wanted - I was really pulling on him which isn't at all effective in stopping him and which just confirms for him that there's something to be scared about.

So we're back to square one with the door . . . sigh . . . I can't prevent him from being a horse who may bolt - that's who he is - but I can be better prepared - being sure my position is always good so that if he does take off I'm not hanging on the reins, and being prepared to go with him and offer him softness and give him direction during the bolt (I've managed to do this successfully once and it made a big difference to him - he was much less worried afterwards).  I need to keep riding and direct his motion rather than trying to stop it.

And we really, really need to always put relaxation and softness first - Red can give a good imitation of softness without really being relaxed and I need to beware of that and not just keep riding at the trot and canter just because he's so much fun to ride.

So today, we worked on very basic relaxation at the walk - he's still very apprehensive about the door, so we worked in the center of the arena and just did circles and figure eights at the walk.  Every time we turned away from the door, he would tense up, but I didn't hold him but continued to turn and ask for a relaxed head and neck and softness.  We did this for a long time - perhaps 20 minutes - but by the end he was much more relaxed.  We'll do this every ride and gradually expand our space, while keeping the relaxation.  This requires me to be fully present to him and relaxed - I need to "send" him my own relaxation - while fully "receiving" him - I need to take any moments of tension or hesitation he shows me and gently direct them back into mutual relaxation.  This takes a lot of attention and focus, but is very satisfying for me, and I think for him as well.

None of this means he won't bolt again, but it means it'll be less likely - if he's already relaxed I may get a startle or a flinch rather than a full-out bolt if he's startled - and if he does bolt I'm more likely to get him back more easily.

Red's not an easy horse to ride, but he's worth every bit of it.


  1. Red and Carmen do sound a lot alike! Part of working with Carmen was giving her options when she is worried but she will always scoot when surprised by something. She comes back much quicker now. I have also found that if she's worried about something I can only look at it and then focus back on the work. If my brain is on getting her by it she worsens. If my brain is on maintaining the bend as we go through the corner it's much better. I love how you worked on relaxing him - that makes so much sense rather then run him into exhaustion.

  2. Those darn arena doors, whatever is on the other side definitely eats horses. Our Nemo is with Red, he is convinced of it! My hubby works through it in much the same manner, but doesn't spend remotely enough time on it. It's always back to square one. We can't wait to have them home, and spend more time with them. There will always be "another door". I really like how you are building mutual relaxation & trust!

  3. Bolts can be frightening. I've had the best luck with riding it out -- and then continuing on beyond the point where the bolt is done. It probably helps me more than the horse, mentally I feel like I've got a handle on things -- if that makes sense.

  4. I admire your dedication to this horse. I'm getting to the point where I just want to be able to relax when I ride, and it just isn't going to happen because horses will always require us to be fully present to them, if we want to stay safe.


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