Karen and David O'Connor on Bolters, Nerves

In this installment of Ask the Experts, Karen and David O'Connor dispense advice on how to handle a bolter and ease show nerves.

Karen and David O’Connor, the golden couple of three-day eventing, have five Olympic medals between them, as well as wins at Rolex Kentucky, Badminton, the World Equestrian Games and many other key competitions in their discipline. Here, they answer your questions on riding and training.

David and Karen O’Connor | Photo by Brant Gamma

Question: How do you handle a bolter?

David O’Connor: If you buy a bolter, you’ll be dealing with the habit for the rest of his life. So think twice about buying one, especially if you’re at a lower level of riding.

But, there are things you can do to curb a horse’s tendency to bolt. For one, you can try to ease his anxiety about his job with careful training, never asking him to do something that is beyond his ability or his level of schooling.

The way you ride him will also help. You want to adjust your body language, finding a position that doesn’t ask him to slow down or speed up. If he gets quick and nervous and you react by starting to pull while you’re grabbing with your legs, you’ve pushed the “go button” and the “whoa button” at the same time. That will only increase his anxiety and exacerbate the bolting problem. So you need to find the power of neutral: having your body position independent and well-balanced, so you’re not asking him to go faster or slower.

If you’re struggling with this–and if you’re physically capable–you could try to get a job galloping racehorses to practice dealing with speed. But make sure you’re a very, very good rider before you even think of trying something like that.

But even if you’re just working on your own to make your position more independent, you can get some of the same effect by shortening your stirrups to galloping length and trotting and cantering around the ring. The difference between the length of stirrup you use for dressage and for galloping is major, eight to ten holes. Even the difference between your show-jumping length and galloping length is significant and can be as much as three to four holes.

It’s a lot of work, and you’ll have sore muscles for a while, but it’s the fastest way to get fit. Also, it teaches you balance–because you can’t ride by grip. (When you first start practicing this, you might want to use a more experienced, steady horse until you have your balance down pat. Then try it on a horse you find more challenging.)

If you are involved with a bolter, you’re going to have at least one time when he gets away from you. That calls for an emergency stop: Bend him with an opening rein and then use a direct rein. Getting this to work requires preparation, though. Before you have to deal with a runaway situation, you need to teach him what you want when you bend him to a stop. Start practicing the technique at the walk: Bend him with one rein, gradually bringing that elbow to and behind your hip. Keep bringing it back until he finds his balance and is under control. Don’t use your leg or an outside rein to balance him, and you’ll find he learns to come to a halt easily.

Adapted from Life in the Galloping Lane, by Karen and David O’Connor with Nancy Jaffer, PRIMEDIA Equine Network, 2004.

Question: I get really nervous when I am competing. Is there anything I can do to minimize this?

Karen O’Connor: Everybody has competition jitters, including us! First, ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Are you worried that you’re going to forget your dressage test? OK, then spend extra time memorizing it, and take a final look at a printed version just to reassure yourself before heading for the in-gate.

Are you afraid you can’t jump the triple combination or make a left-hand turn to a Liverpool? Then maybe your basics aren’t good enough. Don’t compete at such a high level that you’re uneasy about the challenges it presents. Get yourself confident at the lower level; take a step up when you’ve got that nailed. You need to be solid in what you’re doing before you try to compete.

Next, figure out what kind of pre-competition mood you prefer. Some people like to have a lot of support around them; others want to be more on their own. If you’re just starting out competing, try both until you find your own routine. Then follow it so you always feel comfortable.

Relaxation exercises are important. Before you get on your horse, stop for a minute and consciously relax your body, piece by piece, from the top of your head to your feet. That technique also helps put you in a zone of concentration that eases the tension, so your first interaction with your horse before you’re being judged happens in a relaxed way. You can also play music on a Walkman to prepare for your time in the spotlight. Try soothing classical music if you’re really riled up; it will help calm you down. On the other hand, maybe you need to be pumped up; choose a favorite rock tune to invigorate you and shake out the cobwebs. Want to be inspired? How about the the theme from the film Chariots of Fire?

Wearing a Walkman has another benefit. It can isolate you from friends who might interrupt your train of thought as you’re in the midst of preparing for your competition. That can get you off-track and break your concentration as you’re visualizing yourself going around a course, so it’s often good to have the Walkman bubble to protect you from intrusion.

Another key element is to start planning how you will spend the hours and minutes before you go in the ring. Following a pattern like that every time you compete gives you something familiar to hang onto, which automatically helps in quieting those shaking hands. And you won’t have to wonder what to do next as the clock ticks down; you’ll know how best to proceed, because you’ve done it before–and it worked.

A word of warning: Once you’ve established your routine, altering it drastically can cause havoc for you and your mount. Horses are creatures of habit; so if you make a last-minute change in the way you’ve always warmed up for the show jumping, for instance, you may raise problems you don’t have time to fix. That could have a real impact on what happens in the ring. But you must also be flexible. If you suddenly run into bad weather, or poor footing in the warm-up area, don’t be afraid to make whatever adjustments are necessary within the overall framework of your usual warm-up.

Develop a program and stick to it. You’ll soon find that the one in control is you, not your flip-flopping stomach!

Adapted from Life in the Galloping Lane, by Karen and David O’Connor with Nancy Jaffer, PRIMEDIA Equine Network, 2004.