Rehabbing the Bolter

Will forming a bond with my horse help keep him from bolting when riding in the arena and around the paddocks?

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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

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Written by:

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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