The first time my horse bolted on me.
(Southampton, MA, USA)
I am a new horse owner. My eleven year old Haflinger is still very green. Over the past 4 months that I've had him, we've done some ground work, mostly ring work and recently we've ventured out on trails and along open fields.
He is a dominant horse but is sometimes scared of things like stumps and will stop dead in his tracks. When working with him in the ring, he sometimes will veer off track and refuse to go a certain way. I will usually nudge him over to where I want him to go and after a while I can anticipate his action and I will ask him to stay on track before he can hesitate. My goal is to get him so that he is safe to ride on trails.
We are lucky enough to have a couple of hundred acres of fields and forest to ride on. He grew up on the farm he is currently at and in the past was ridden maybe only a few times a year. It seems like he is a very smart horse and that when he feels like he's had enough of me sitting on his back, he'll start refusing to listen to my commands and start thrashing his head or pawing at the ground. I am not that experienced of a rider, so my commands may not always be clear.
The other day I was riding Jake in a field within eyesight of his herd. One other rider was with us as were both of our dogs. We were walking, trotting and cantering without problem or hesitation. He was listening to my commands and I thought we were both having fun until suddenly he just BOLTED homeward. I felt like I didn't receive any warning. He just started galloping full speed ahead up a rocky dirt road. He had his new bitless bridle on (not that a bit would have helped). I decided the only thing I could do was to hold on. He eventually stopped right outside his pasture. My questions are, what can I do to prevent this from happening? And, once a horse does this will it always do this?
Something that I have noticed with dominant horses is that they are not as confident in the inside as they might appear on the outside. What this often translates into is they are not 100% comfortable until they are assured who is going to keep them safe in other words who is in charge of the decision making process. If it’s not you they will quickly take over, make decisions and follow through with them (like run back to the herd/home or change directions in an arena).
In order for this type of personality in a horse to willingly follow another, they will question leadership until satisfied. But once they have been reassured that you make a better leader then they do, well they stop questioning.
If you consider him a green horse then you may be jumping into the trail riding part a little quicker than his foundational training has worked up to. I would need more information on what your definition of ground work/ring work means because it means different things to different people.
If a horse refuses any request while inside an arena, they are not going to be safe outside of the area. So I won’t go until I was sure my horse and I have a complete understanding and communication before leaving (especially "brakes"). Then when I do leave it’s going to be short trips away and quickly come back so that the horse feels confident throughout the process. Not much different then when we teach a horse to pick up and hold his feet. At first we must let it down quickly so the horse doesn’t feel so frightened to think he is in danger. From there we increase the time while his confidence and trust in us grows.
Horse problems such as the above example can be rectified thorough better horse communication. Long before I go out on a trail I would want to be sure that I could stop my horse under all conditions. How? By teaching my horse the one rein stop in a bitless bridle. I would spend the time at all gaits: walk; trot; and canter, so that when I pick up one rein and slowly take the slack out, my horse would bend into the circle, laterally flex his neck and calmly come to a stop. Once this becomes second nature, I have complete control of my horse’s physical self even under emotional circumstances.
Something else to think about is why we trail ride, what do we think about during this time and do our horses really find this fun? Often we get pretty unaware of our surroundings and start chatting with our fellow rider. But the horses are constantly looking at everything and feeling for us. I want my horse to know that I am always there for them and I will be the one to keep them safe. So every now and then I will ask for a small request like move over here or scratch their neck with my fingers at the withers which says, "Hey, I’m still with you and all is well." (But all this is taught in a safe environment first)
You are doing the right thing by anticipating his actions therefore you are better prepared to adjust if he was to go in a different direction. Keep it up! Just be careful not to micro-manage everything in other words don’t actually correct him until he has done something, but by anticipating you will hit your timing and communication better.
Finally horses learn through every experience, good and bad. Our job is to make more good experiences than bad ones from choices out of the interaction. I suspect your horse will try again, so better you spend more time in the arena until you don’t feel he will. (After all he achieved his goal which was.... "I wanna go home!" :o)
Horses by Nature