Turnout: Does Your Horse Bolt Out of the Halter?
Has your horse ever bolted the instant he feels you undo his halter for turnout? Or does he whip around and rip away with a kick, making his handler nervous?
These behaviors are both annoying and dangerous, and they can frighten or injure whoever handles your horse, including students.
Certain aspects of horses handling seem mundane so we manage them on automatic pilot. Turning horses into paddocks or pastures each day might seem like just another task you could do while texting, talking on the phone, or thinking about something more important. We often get in a hurry to finish this job.
But horsemanship is a relationship, and every time you handle a horse you’re training, whether you’re teaching something new, reinforcing good habits, or ignoring bad habits by not paying attention to small details.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “have your head in the game.” In other words, get your mind where your body is, and participate in what you’re doing. Most instructors want their students head in the game at least 100% of the time, and if it was possible, we’d want more. That applies to everything we do with horses because if you don’t pay attention to little things, they become big before you realize there’s a problem. And turnout is something we do with almost every horse.
What does the RI do?
Turnout Stage One:
Once I take a horse through the gate into a paddock or pasture, I expect him to swing his body around until he is facing me. I don’t ask for this swing until I’m far enough away from the fence that there is no chance I’ll get caught between it and flying hooves.
When the horse is facing me, I ask him to move his forehand two steps to his left (my right) to break that slight curve in his body that tells me he intends to bolt to the right. If the horse resists the steps to his left, a twirl of your lead toward his left hip should help.
When you study the horse, decide whether his attention is on you, or if his mind is with his buddies who are having a bucking contest in the pasture. You want his focus on you.
At this point, I’ll take a few minutes to rub the horse’s neck. After we’ve stood quietly for a couple of seconds I’ll wiggle the halter buckle or knot. If the horse pulls to the right even a little, I know he intends to jerk away as soon as I lower his halter.
I leave the halter in place.
Then I wiggle the knot or buckle again, repeating this step until the horse shows me he doesn’t plan on pulling away. It may not seem like a big deal, but a little pull from the horse today, a little more tomorrow, and eventually you’ll have a problem.
When he no longer reacts to my messing with the buckle or knot, I’ll slide the lead rope over his neck just behind the ears. I undo the buckle and strap (or loop and strap) keeping hold of the strap with one hand and the loop or buckle with the other. If he pulls I may re-buckle the halter or I may wait until the horse relaxes.
Before I slide the halter off, I grab hold of both ends of the lead rope which is still around his neck with my right hand. This way if he chooses to leave before I want him to, I can keep him under control.
I slide the halter off. If he pulls away I hold him.
How many of steps I use depends upon the horse and my ability to read his intentions. If the horse doesn’t catch on, I may redo the halter, take him back out the gait, and repeat the process.
If he was patient and waited, I release the rope.
For the Tough Turnout Guys:
If I have a really tough situation, I may use two halters and ropes. When I remove the first I still have him under control with the second halter and lead.
The goal is to teach the horse to wait until you have released him, rather than have him anticipate your moves. And I want the horse to walk the first few strides away from me without making any dangerous moves. After that, he may bolt and do whatever he chooses.
This may seem like a lot of work, but laying a good foundation pays off in the long run by giving you a more mannerly animal whether you lead a single or multiple horses out at one time.
This method of turning out a halter-bolter makes a good ground school lesson for students. The lesson gives them control over horses now, a tool for correcting their own horse in the future, and will help to keep them safe.
Here’s the Turnout Caveat:
You, your employees, and your students must pay attention every time you lead a horse to turnout and remain sensitive to a horse returning to old habits. If he refuses to give you his attention, or gives that little pull to the right, try waiting a few seconds before removing his halter and try again. Repeat the steps as many times as it takes. Soon you may find that the horse goes through the gate, swings around to face you, and presses his head in your direction knowing he must wait.
What Do You Think?
Do you have a special procedure to correct the problem of a horse bolting when you remove the halter? I’d love it if you’d share in the comments section.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor today!
May your teaching days be sunny with the perfect temperature and a gentle breeze,
Barbara Ellin Fox