horse taking off

It’s scary to be on a horse that’s taking off. Get to know why your horse is reacting this way, and you’ll be in a better position to prevent it.

Horses are big, fast animals, and sitting on one that’s constantly taking off is an unnerving experience. For many riders, all sense goes out the window while they simply try to regain some degree of control.

If your horse begins to exhibit this behavioral issue, you need to ask yourself “why” in order to resolve the problem. Usually it’s due to fear, pain or confusion, which means ratcheting up the severity of the aids will often only escalate the problem. Disengaging the hindquarters (a popular mantra in the Western riding world) may work in a pinch, but it doesn’t address the causes of the behavior.

Less is often more

Why is your horse taking off? Maybe you’re coming on too strong. Instead of incorporating devices for severe stop aids, consider a lighter bit, a softer hand, releasing cues, a looser tie-down or martingale (designed to prevent a horse from raising his head to a dangerous height – not to hold it in a certain place). Really think about how your horse responds to your requests. Removing the pressure increases understanding, so it’s no wonder intensifying pressure without release usually doesn’t work.

A single lesson with a qualified horse-savvy instructor may help you transform your out-of-control equine into a willing partner, once you understand how your horse’s response springs from what you’re doing.

Terrified of your run-off?

First, calm down. If you’re tense, your horse is going to sense it and be on the alert. Also, stiffness in your body mutes meaningful aids, while escalating your equine’s anxiety levels. Take some deep breaths, sing, talk in a calm and reassuring voice, or find a stop barrier – whatever works to help you relax is a good first step. Many horses quiet down when rubbed along the crest of their necks. This can be effective when your horse “freezes” and you suspect a bolt might be next. Draw his attention back to his calm, confident rider (you) and help him believe you will handle the “monster” he’s just seen.

Tightening the reins creates tension for both you and the horse. It also tips your body forward off his and your center of balance, making a fall more likely. Settling into a deep seat and giving a concerned horse his head can do wonders to relax him. Build a rapport with your horse in locations where you need to develop confidence. Groundwork is a good start. Long lining lets you go wherever you want with your horse – including trails and scary places that might trigger a runoff response – without the concern of being on his back. Horses transfer a lot from lessons learned without you on board to under saddle. You’ll gain confidence too, as you see you can guide his movements.

Thoroughbreds don’t always get your program

If your horse is a former racer, it helps to understand how some of these animals are taught to run. Many trainers believe the best way to get a horse fit in morning workouts and come first to the finish line is to train him to run into the bit. What this means for your horse is that the harder you pull on the reins, the faster he goes. Thoroughbreds trained in such a manner tend to ease themselves the moment you release the reins. Try letting go next time you’re terrorized by a 35mph ride you didn’t ask for. Yes, it goes against your instincts, but what do you have to lose if you’re already out of control?

This doesn’t mean you can’t teach a former race horse to slow as you use the reins, but it’s best done with take and give, alternating reins and softness instead of a steady pull.

This doesn’t apply just to Thoroughbreds – any horse that tries to speak and sees his attempts ignored is bound to do something dramatic to evade what’s troubling him.

Head tossing, rooting on the bit, refusing to go and rearing are other ways your horse may be screaming that he’s uncomfortable with how you’re using your hands. He could also be dealing with memory issues that prompt ingrained habits to avoid anticipated agony.

Reprogramming racers

Most Thoroughbreds are smart and cooperative. Yes, they’re hot-blooded, but those started patiently and kindly are super pleasers and willingly embrace new career requests. To make the transition easier on both of you, consider the following:

• Give horses fresh from the track time to cool down. Many haven’t seen a pasture since they were yearlings, so start in small enclosures to avoid injuries. Give the horse a suitable buddy early on to teach him some social skills. Plan on at least 30 days to get the drugs and racing mentality out of his system before you hop on his back.

• Begin with groundwork to build a rapport and communication system that gives you both confidence as you proceed. Sure, it’s hard to wait to start riding – and some racers will be great pleasure mounts from day one – but it’s better to take the time to create a partnership.

• Start riding in a contained area. Most former racers will be quieter if there is a perimeter fence. Figure eights and serpentines are great exercises to start with since most ex-racers haven’t been taught to steer with finesse, and constant turns make building up speed difficult.

• Riders are tossed on the backs of racehorses, so take your time getting your horse used to lopsided weight before you hop aboard. If you’re heavy, be kind and drop an iron or use a mounting block.

• Avoid steady contact on the bit. For many ex-racers, this is a signal to go faster.

• Work alone at first. Thoroughbreds get competitive with company.

Horses are sometimes just plain crazy

I’ve encountered some runaway horses that couldn’t be reached. Flash comes to mind. He was the most talented jumper I’ve ever ridden (at a mere 15.1hh), but whether genetics or past experience was the culprit, his brain was so scrambled he’d fly out of control without warning. Clean cross-country and stadium rounds were a breeze, but he commonly got eliminated from the dressage phase. After three years of creative effort to get into Flash’s head, it just didn’t seem worth the stress continuing a dance that caused more frustration than jubilation.

If your run-off issue is something you’ve been trying to resolve for a long time with no progress, consider how your quality of life might improve if the horse went on to do a job more suited to him. There are many great horses available. Sometimes you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Most hot-blooded horses are pleasers

Former racers may need to be reprogrammed a little to understand a new set of aids, but Arabs and other competitive trail horses are also frequently labeled as “hot” or run-offs. In most cases, these equines turn into eager pleasers once they understand what you want – provided you ask in a way they welcome. Let them burn off steam (whether in the pasture or under saddle) while getting quieter about how you ask them to slow down, and you may be amazed at how easily and quickly they respond to your requests.

Horses need to be horses, and the more time you give them to play or join in training task decisions, the more likely they’ll view training time as fun. It’s remarkable how some of the most difficult horses melt when they’re included in the conversation. Think about what you’re doing to add angst. You might be astonished at how quickly your run-off turns accommodating and responsive when you get softer, more relaxed, and open to what he is trying to tell you.

Nanette Levin has been riding for more than four decades and bringing young client horses along starting under saddle for 25 years. She spent more than 20 years as an exercise rider at a Thoroughbred racetrack and is also the author of the book, Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners. Visit to sign up for her free newsletter or to find her e-booklet on working with former Thoroughbred racers. If you dream of a career that includes horses, check out the first product in the Inventing Your Horse Career initiative (9 CD audio package) at