Asking what you should do when your horse gets out of control (bucking, bolting, rearing, etc) is kinda like asking what to do when you drive out of your lane into oncoming traffic and cause a collision. As the collision is happening, there’s not a whole lot you can do. It’s more about learning to stay in your lane to prevent the collision in the first place.

Transfer that same thought over to our horses. In many instances, people are swerving out of their lane inviting a collision. However, they are not even aware they are crossing that boundary line.

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In this article, we will go over a few key things you can do on the ground and while riding to help prevent the situation where your horse is out of control. We will also talk about some things you can do when an out of control moment happens.

What Is Groundwork?

Many people believe their horse is halter broke simply because they can put a halter on and lead him around. If he will stand still to be bathed and have his feet picked up, they think he has good groundwork. But that is simply a horse being gentle.

In reality, groundwork is having refined control of your horse’s feet through the end of a leadrope. The greater the distance you can be from your horse as you control his feet, and the more responsive the horse is, the more advanced your groundwork is.

Groundwork Exercises To Prevent An Out Of Control Horse

One of the first groundwork exercises that needs to be mastered is having your horse stop and back up by a light wiggle of the lead rope or some other subtle signal. This needs to be built into any horse no matter what age, breed, or riding discipline.  

The horse also needs to focus on the human enough that he can stay where you put him. If he initiates his own movement and creeps forward or sideways, immediately make that difficult. Move him back to where he was. Help him realize that the easiest path is to stand still and hold his position. You are not actually controlling the horse, he is learning to control himself.

Refined groundwork also includes front and hind end control, lunging on a precise circle without leaking into the human’s space, and lightly yielding to halter pressure.

Get a free Groundwork Checklist here: Groundwork Checklist

Riding Elements To Prevent An Out Of Control Horse

To prevent losing control, there are also some essential riding elements that need to be in place. If the horse is not comfortable with a human being above him, it will greatly hinder anything you do from his back. Pay attention to your horse when mounting. Does he raise his head? Does his expression look like he’s holding his breath? If so, he is standing still because he is frozen in place, not because he is relaxed. This type of horse is a prime candidate for getting out of control. Do the fencing exercise until the horse becomes sure that a human being above him is not a threat to his well being.

For more details and instructions about fencing your horse, go here:  Fencing Your Horse.

Gaining Speed

Another essential exercise to prevent your horse from getting out of control is making sure he can trot fast and lope on a loose rein. This should be established before you ever ride him outside a pen or down a trail. Imagine the scenario of having a horse that has never become comfortable with gaining speed. When something fast happens, even if you didn’t intend for it to, you actually have no idea what the horse is going to do. And if you have never gained speed on your horse, you also don’t know how you will react. Spend some time doing up/down speed transitions until both you and your horse are secure and confident with it. The horse must be convinced that he can travel freely with a human on his back. If not, he will resort to undesirable alternatives.

When Out Of Control Happens

If the above prevention measures are not in place and your horse does get out of control, what can you do? One common method employed for bucking or bolting is to use one rein to pull his head around. When you bend a horse’s head around to the left, for example, it will disengage his hind end and cause it to swing to the right. That takes some of the power away from the hind end. This can lessen the severity of the buck or bolt. The trade off for doing this is that abruptly bending their head around can also throw off their balance. This can result in some pretty scary scenarios.

And be aware that this method is not foolproof. I have actually been on a horse with his nose bent around and touching the toe of my foot in the stirrup, but he was still at a dead run.

Preferred Method For A Bolting Out Of Control Horse

My preferred way to deal with a bolting horse is to, for example, set the left rein with just enough tension that it keeps his neck straight. Lock your arm and hand down on that left rein to create a fixed barrier. Then with your right rein, lift up and back. This causes the horse to tip his poll which causes him to break in his loins. It will help to disengage his hind end and take some of the power away without possibly causing him to lose his balance.

Rearing Horse

For a horse that rears, get him really good at shifting his hind end left and right. This will keep it from becoming braced, which is what they do before they rear. If you can get him to start yielding his hind end just before he gets in the spot where he thinks about rearing, his new ‘go to’ spot will be this instead. You always want to get there before it happens. Before a horse does anything, he gets ready to do it. They have to think about it and prepare for it. That is the spot where you will come in and have them take a different mental path. A big part of this is getting a horse to where the first thing he thinks about is being loose in his feet. Remember that physical braces equal mental braces.

For a horse that rears because he wants to go faster, redirect the energy instead of trying to hold him back. Do multiple direction changes within a 30 foot area until the feet slow. Rinse and repeat.

Ultimate Preference

I am not an especially salty bronc rider and don’t enjoy hitting the ground. My ultimate preference is to never be on a horse that would feel the need to rear, buck, or bolt. That is why we constantly work to improve our understanding, communication, timing, and clarity. We learn to read the horse and give him what he is telling us he needs. It’s a much better plan to focus on preventative maintenance than on what to do if the horse gets out of control. 

We must stop putting band-aids on the problems and get to the root of the issues that cause the problems. Treat the disease and the symptoms start to melt away on their own. We will build the type of horse that is mentally sound, loose in his feet and body, and never feels the need to buck, bolt, or rear. 

To listen to my podcast on this topic, go here: Ask Carson James

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Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.