Equine Behavior Questions and Answers

The Question: What would cause my mare to bolt into a closed gate repeatedly?

Hello, I have a 4 year old, QH mare that I bought about 9 months ago. She has a number of issues, but the most recent development is the reason I'm writing.

Some background: she is a very intelligent horse, curious but generally mistrustful of people at first. She was very ear shy and anxious when I was working around her head and withers. We have spent a lot of time working on these issues and she has really come around with regard to the head shyness, she still doesn't like her withers touched too much but tolerates it. She has never shown any indication that she is aggressive. She has never once tried to kick or bite, even when I was dealing with a large, painful cut on her pastern. I have been round-penning her and lounging her to build trust and communication. I haven't really ridden her yet, although she is broke to ride and apparently did not give her trainer any problems whatsoever.

She was very, very timid with other horses, so we eased her into a herd by introducing a buddy horse, then a couple of other horses over time. She seems to have gotten more confident as time has passed and has bonded to the two foals in the herd. At first she would get very scared and try to bolt if she had to go by another horse to get through the gate and I was afraid she would run me over. But she never has, she always knew where I was and would not go towards me, even rocked back and forth once when I was directly in her path, then went sideways to avoid me.

Today, the barn manager went out to take one of the foals out to work with him. My mare came up to the gate and, while the barn manager was standing between her and the gate, she lunged forward and slammed into the gate as if she was scared and trying to get through it without regard to the fact that it was closed and there was a person in the way. The foal's mother was also near the gate, but it sounds like she was there first, facing the other direction, and not being aggressive to my mare in any way. The manager was pinned between the gate and my mare and my mare slammed herself and the manager up against the gate three times. The manager (who is pretty bruised up) said that it seemed as if my mare didn't know, or care, that she was there, she was so blindly intent on just getting through that gate. Then a gelding came up to see what the commotion was about (a gelding who is very dominant to her), and she trotted off away past him and went back out into the field.

She's never done anything like that before, has always been conscious of people, although I have seen that she seemed to run blindly to get away from other horses when she was first getting introduced to the herd. And she gets lots of unexplained cuts and scratches on her legs which I think are the result of her scrambling to get away from some other horse. But again, in recent months she has seemed so much better, calmer and more confident in horse company. I haven't had a problem with her trying to bolt through the gate, even when other horses are present, for months and months.

After all that, my questions are: Any ideas on what could be going on to cause her to bolt blindly like that? Is this something that we can help her work out of? And, if so, how would we do that?

The Answer


I think you’ve provided most of the clues to your mare’s behavior in your message, except one. Was your mare an orphan by chance? I’ve known several orphan foals who were raised by humans and have a hard time acclimating to herd life. They don’t understand normal social cues from other horses, so they don’t understand that if they ignore the boss mare’s pinned ears, they might get kicked. Some orphans become terrified when they finally get into a herd: they’re overwhelmed and can’t figure out what the other horses are.

If your mare was an orphan, then you are probably going to just have to give her time to get used to herd life.

For this particular situation where she tried to run through the gate, she does sound like she was blindly terrified. You mentioned she has bonded well with the foals, so it may be that she was upset that the foal was being removed from the pasture. Or it may be that, unknown to the barn manager, another horse had chased her and scared her and she was running for safety.

You are going to need to keep working with her around other horses. Teach her to keep her attention on you, and do not put her in any situations when you are handling her where she’s going to get hurt by another horse. That means keeping her out of kicking and biting range of other horses and keeping her at a safe distance so she doesn’t feel crowded. She needs to feel safe in your company.

Although she hasn’t run over you, you’ve said she dances and tries to bolt out of the way of other horses. You need to also get her over that. If she’s being lead by you, she needs to be doing so quietly. Enlist the aid of a friend with a quiet horse who is non-aggressive. Have both horses in halters and leads, and have your friend hold her horse. Lead your mare past the other horse, and praise her when she’s quiet and calm. If she gets upset, back her up (out of your space) or circle her until she’s paying attention to you. Your goal is to get her comfortable around another horse in controlled settings, and this lesson may take some time for your horse.

If her poor behavior in pasture continues (attempting to run through the gate), you may need to keep her out of the pasture and instead keep her in a paddock with one other, submissive horse for company. Unfortunately occasionally there is just a horse who does not do well in a herd situation.

Good luck with your mare!

The Equine Behaviorist

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