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Horsemanship - The Bolting Horse

( Originally Published 1962 )

ONE OF THE MOST SERIOUS RISKS THE NOVICE RIDER HAS TO FACE is the runaway horse. The danger is more difficult to combat because so many riders, even experienced ones, deliberately choose to ignore the means by which it can be avoided. They seem unwilling to recognize the fact that a really skilled horseman never lets a horse run away with him. Even if they suspect that they still have something to learn pride forbids them to investigate. The blame is placed on the horse, too weak arm muscles, or a too mild bit, and they let it go at that.

There are many reasons for a horse's getting out of control. He may be just plain frightened or he may be "ornery" enough to take advantage of a rider's lack of experience and ability—which he will be aware of at once.

Frequent reasons are the rider's insecure seat or sloppy horsemanship, which annoy or frighten the horse and which may cause his nervousness to develop into panic. Heavy bumps in the saddle due to poor balance and lack of suppleness, sudden jerks on the reins, sudden kicks with boots or spurs, or constant changes of position will always have a disastrous influence on the horse's behavior and he will often try to get away from his tormentor by bolting blindly.

A horse can always sense when a rider is scared or nervous, regardless of how hard he tries to conceal the fact. There are few things that will frighten even an ordinarily docile horse more than a rider's funk. When the rider relaxes with complete confidence the horse will follow suit, but not until then.

Many horses will go into a tantrum if the rider keeps up a too strong pull on the reins. They will start by becoming irritated and then will fight the annoying resistance. The pull on the reins will usually become stronger the harder the horse fights to get free, and the vicious circle ends only when the horse gets completely out of control. If the rider had given him his head from the start he would quickly have relaxed and settled down confidently. In order to quiet a high-strung horse the horseman must Iearn to overcome his natural instinct to clutch with his legs, take a death grip on the reins, and tense his muscles. He must try to remain relaxed and use a very light hand, even if an entirely loose rein is not possible. To check the horse, short pulls must take the place of the heavy drag.

If the reason for the horse's attempt to run away is out-side the rider's control the skilled horseman's "feel" will warn him that trouble is brewing. He is able to anticipate the explosion, take his precautions, and check the horse before he gets started. To accomplish this, the rider must first re-main motionless and not reveal with a single twitching or tensing muscle that he expects anything to happen. In the second place, he must not to allow the horse to get hold of the bit. This will discourage the horse from throwing his weight forward. Generally speaking, a loosening of the reins at the right moment is more effective than a pull in preventing a horse from bolting. Remove the most obvious resistance of the bit and the horse, finding nothing to fight and nothing to lean on, becomes disconcerted and will soon calm down and submit to control.

Like everything else in connection with good horsemanship, the handling of a situation such as this is not a mechanical problem. In applying the technique properly the rider has only his well-developed feel to guide him—a feel that nothing but experience, practice, and proper coaching can give him.

If the horse should succeed in running away despite all efforts to prevent it, the rider's safety depends on his ability to keep a cool head. The popular procedure of letting go of the reins and hooking on to the saddle with both hands in a death grip, will seldom bring the desired results, especially if legs, heels, and spurs are applied convulsively, as emergency anchors, at the same time. Nor will it do much good to start a pulling match with the horse. A curb that hurts his mouth will frequently only make matters worse and drive him frantic with pain.

To the properly educated rider the bolting horse, under ordinary circumstances, is not dangerous. To the ignorant, the runaway often means a broken neck. The difference between the two outcomes is a little bit of knowledge that the average Sunday rider does not think he needs. To learn to ride just get on a horse and start riding! Go to school to learn such a simple thing as to sit on a horse? Ridiculous! If anything happens to me, I'll sue the stable!

When a horse runs away, he will do one of two things. He will either lower his head, stretch his neck stiffly forward and down, and start off with the bit in his teeth or throw his head up in such a way that it is impossible to get hold with the bit. The latter situation is more dangerous.

In the first case the rider must concentrate on raising the horse's head with quick, sharp jerks, up and forward, with one hand. In the second case a complete slackening of the reins, a momentary abandoning of all resistance, usually will bring the head down to a position in which the bit again can take hold.

When the rider has succeeded in bringing the horse's head into a position sufficiently normal to apply the through-going parade, a number of quick, sharp pulls on both reins will in most cases slow him up. The rider's seat must be dug firmly down into the saddle with the combined force of his weight and the counteraction of his pull on the reins. This involves a decidedly backward-leaning position.

Should it prove impossible to stop the bolting horse in this manner the "seesaw" must be tried. This consist of vigorous alternate pulls on the reins, left and right in turn.

Both methods depend to a considerable extent on the strength of the rider's arms and may be of little consolation to women and children. There is, however, a last resource that is a bit rough on the horse but that can always be expected to bring results without requiring any more strength than the least muscular rider has at his disposal.

All reins are taken in the left hand, which is brought forward until it touches the horse immediately behind the ears.

The reins are pulled tight with the hand in this position. They are then gripped firmly so that they will not slip, and the hand is pulled back along the crest of the neck.


Few riders have the ability to sit a bucking horse with the ease of the cowboy. It is safer to know how to avoid bucking and how to stop it. Avoiding bucking in the first place is, of course, the more important. It is better to learn to read the signs and prevent the bucking spree than to try to stop it after the horse has gone into action.

After being saddled, many horses with western blood will come out of the stable with their backs up as a result of being stiff and sore or because they have been cinched too tightly and suddenly. Such horses are all set to buck. For this reason alone a horseman should take great care when mounting not to come down in the saddle too heavily or clumsily. He should also come down in the saddle as far forward as possible, take his weight on his thighs to begin with, and gradually settle down on his seat only when he feels the horse relaxing.

If he senses that the horse may be a bucker he must pay strict attention to keeping his head well up. As soon as his horse shows signs of ducking his head down between his knees the rider must immediately jerk one hand up and forward on a straight arm. When a horse, whether preparing to buck or for other reasons, lowers his head, it is rarely possible to pull or jerk it up by using both hands.

In the event the rider has been unable to prevent the bucking, his only chance of stopping it is to try to retain his self-control and apply the straight-arm jerk, already described.

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