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Preparing Your Horse for Trail Riding

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Preparing Your Horse For Trail Riding

Joe Andrews

    There is something indescribably special about trail riding. More than the beauty of the scenery it is the beauty of interacting with nature through your horse. Imagine riding your horse on a mountain trail through the trees. You come to a stream, step over a log, duck under a branch, go down the steep bank, bending around a large rock half way down, and step into the water. You watch the water run over the rocks as you let your horse drink. The stream flows down a corridor between trees that almost meet overhead. The green canopy filters the sunlight into small patches dancing on the water. Or instead of stepping into the stream your horse rears up, spins around, and bolts back up the bank. You bang your knee on the rock. Scrape your face on the branch. Lose your balance when your horse jumps the log. It takes all your concentration and effort to stay on; your horse is running out of control. As you contemplate whether it is best to bail off or if your horse will stop when he gets to the trailer, consider the difference between these two scenarios is preparation.

    If you use your horse for ranch work or some other activity where you normally ride out in the open, if you have good communication with your horse, you are probably prepared for trail riding. Common sense and understanding your horse will get you through almost anything. If your riding experience is from the inside of an arena fence and your horse has never had to deal with the unknowns of the great outdoors, do some preparing before hitting the trail.

    As you introduce your horse to new things, be aware of your horseís mental state. It is natural for your horse to be fearful of something new. He has not experienced whether this new object is safe or harmful. In your horseís mind his life depends on staying out of reach of this strange thing until he is sure it is safe. How you proceed with the introduction will play a large roll in the horseís experience. By ignoring your horseís feelings, and forcing something on him according to your timetable instead of his, you can generate a genuine need for your horse to run away to save his life. At this point your horse will do whatever it takes to protect himself. By being sensitive to your horseís feelings and adjusting your approach to fit the horseís needs, you build your horseís confidence and his trust in you. Watch your horse's reaction as you approach an obstacle. Look for things like his forward movement becoming hesitant, his attention shifting from you to being riveted on the obstacle, his body looking stiff because all his muscles are tense. Watch for snorting, or shifting his weight in preparation to launch himself away from the danger. These are signals your horse uses to tell you where the boundary of his comfort zone is. To build your horseís confidence you need to recognize where the boundary is and work to stretch the boundary little by little. Reward him by returning to a safe place after each progression. Failing to recognize the boundary and trying to force your horse headlong into danger will trigger a survival response (flight or fight).

    Preparation for trail riding starts with groundwork. First you must have control of your horse on the halter rope. Can you drive your horse past you? Can you change directions by breaking the hind quarters over and bringing the front across? Can you stand close enough to a fence to reach out and touch it, drive your horse past you, and have him stop between you and the fence? Can you back your horse by sending life up the lead rope? These are all basics you must have solid before proceeding. As you add the difficulty of obstacles to your groundwork, the control you have will be based on these maneuvers.

    With a little imagination you can make your own obstacles without spending much money. The obstacles I use are: cones (milk jugs), poles (old landscaping timbers), two portable fence post with garbage bags attached to them, a bridge (made from wood salvaged from an old horse trailer floor and landscaping timbers), a plastic tarp, and an irrigation ditch. The important thing is how the obstacles are used not what they are.

    It is more important for your horse to approach and enter an obstacle straight than it is to go through the obstacle. If your horse turns sideways to avoid going through an obstacle, stop and straighten him. Get him to stand straight facing the obstacle before continuing. Drive your horse past you and let him go through the obstacle on his own. If he stops in front of the obstacle your encouragement should be in the form of driving not leading or pulling. Stop your encouragement as soon as your horse starts to do what you want. Let your horse complete the task on his own. Begin with simple, easy obstacles and progress to more challenging things only after your horse is completely comfortable. If your horse is hesitant, or hurrying, he is not ready to advance.

    Cones are a good place to start. Cones are nothing more than markers. Having a pre-placed marker adds precision to your groundwork. Drive your horse to a cone so a predetermined foot stops next to the cone. To get the foot you want next to the cone use the halter rope to move your horse forward, back, to the right, or to the left. Remember to drive, not pull. Next place four or five cones in a line about two horse lengths apart. Walk parallel to the cones with enough space for your horse to go between you and the cones. Drive your horse in a serpentine through the cones. As you move in a straight line your horse will be moving away from you to go around the far side of a cone, then closer to you to go between you and a cone. Do this from both sides of your horse. You should also back your horse through the cones. Back your horse with the halter by grasping it under the chin with your thumb down and leading him backwards. Follow the serpentine path of your horse remembering to release with each step. When you can do this well from both sides of your horse try backing him through the cones by sending life up the halter rope. Use your hands and body position for direction. The control you develop through these exercises will allow you to straighten your horse at more difficult obstacles.

    Poles work well to get a horse to step over things and to get him used to uneven footing. Start with three or four poles on the ground evenly spaced about three feet apart. Drive your horse to the poles and allow him to walk through them. If your horse resists by getting crooked, straighten him before encouraging him to go forward. When the horse is comfortable stepping over the poles, and will stop in the middle waiting for your direction to continue, you can increase the difficulty by making the spacing uneven. After your horse is completely comfortable with poles on the ground, raise a pole off the ground by setting it up on blocks. Place a pole on the ground in front of and behind it so it makes a big step for your horse. Some horses will jump this at first instead of stepping over it (good incentive to be driving your horse not leading it). As your horse gets more comfortable, the energy used to jump will decrease until he will step over the pole. If you have made the step to big your horse may never get to the point of stepping over the pole. Lower the pole and shorten the step until your horse will step over it. Some horses will not jump. If the step is too big he will refuse to go over it. Do not get into a battle with your horse. Quit and start over with a smaller step. Once your horse is stepping over the smaller step, increase the size of the step in small increments until he is taking a very big step to get over the pole.

    To simulate tight spots in brush or trees where branches will be touching the horseís sides, use two portable fence posts with garbage bags attached. Start by putting the posts about six feet apart. Tie a garbage bag to the top of each post so the bags hang down between them. Make the bags billowy. Drive your horse toward the posts, watching for signs of apprehension. Stop when your horse shows any hesitation. From this distance, drive your horse past you so he goes between you and one of the posts. Move closer to the post when your horse becomes accustom to the bags at this distance. When your horse is comfortable within three feet of the post change your position so you can drive him between the posts. It is time to move the posts closer together when your horse will stop between the posts. Do this until your horse is not troubled by the bags brushing against his sides as he goes between the posts.

    Now go to the bridge. The bridge should be narrow enough so a horse can go across it the short direction without having all four feet on it at once. It should be long enough so the horse has to have all four feet on it at the same time to cross it lengthwise. The step should be six to eight inches high. As you progress to more difficulty you can make the step higher or go to a longer teeter-totter bridge. Start by approaching the bridge the short direction. Watch for your horse to react to the bridge, showing you the edge of his comfort zone. Work up to the bridge from the edge of the comfort zone in steps by praising your horse for his progress then taking him away from the bridge. Continue approaching and retreating until he is ready to step on it. The hollow sound the bridge makes when your horse steps on it may surprise him. Expect him to back away at first. Have your horse put one foot on the bridge. Praise him lavishly and back him off. Repeat this until he will keep his foot on the bridge. Now ask for both front feet on the bridge. At this point your horse may cross the bridge. That is OK. If he stops with both feet on the bridge thatís fine too; praise him for that and back him off. When your horse will stand with both front feet on the bridge encourage him to move forward. As his hind feet step onto the bridge his front feet will step off the other side. Allow your horse to walk across the bridge. You do not want to rush your horse so he lunges over the bridge. Now go to the bridge lengthwise. Walk your horse over the bridge until he is willing to stop on it with all four feet. Have him move his feet backward, forward, and to each side without stepping off the bridge. Next try backing your horse across the bridge. It will be difficult for him to step up on to the bridge while backing. Donít rush this; allow your horse plenty of time to figure it out.

    After the bridge your horse is ready for a plastic tarp. Spread the tarp out on the ground. Put rocks or pieces of wood on the corners to keep it in place. Notice where your horse reacts to the tarp as you approach it. From this distance drive your horse past the tarp and change directions a few times. When your horse no longer reacts to the tarp, move a little closer and repeat the groundwork. As your horse becomes comfortable going past the tarp right next to it, drive him to the tarp and stop facing it. Pause briefly, pet him, then move your horse away from the tarp. It is important that you move your horse away before he moves away on his own. Approach the tarp several times and pause a little longer each time before moving away. As your horse becomes more comfortable standing at the tarp, stomp on the tarp with your feet so he will hear the sound it makes. When your horse will stand calmly at the tarp without moving away on his own, encourage him to put a foot on it. Be prepared for the noise of the plastic to startle your horse, just pet him and move him away. When your horse will put a foot on the tarp without drawing back encourage him to walk across it. Have him continue to walk across either by circling or changing directions. Make sure he will walk across the tarp both directions with you on either side of him. When your horse will walk across the tarp calmly, ask him to stop on it. Do not insist that he stop at first; just drive him to the tarp with less energy and stop driving as he starts to step onto the tarp. If your horse does not stop on the tarp after two or three attempts, ask for the stop with a slight momentary pressure on the halter rope. When your horse does stop on the tarp, pet him and let him stand for a moment then drive him off. When you can stop your horse on the tarp consistently let him know he can move around on it by having him move his feet backward, forward and to each side without stepping off the tarp. Finish by having your horse back over the tarp. This should not be a problem, but if your horse resists, use the same approach and retreat technique you used when going forward.

    The last obstacle I work with on the ground is an irrigation ditch. The one behind my house is just a bit too wide for me to step across without a little jump. Start at the distance that your horse shrinks away from the ditch. Drive your horse past you so he goes between you and the ditch. Work at this distance until your horse does not speed up as he passes the ditch. If your horse refuses to go between you and the ditch, you need to back away from the ditch until your horse has room. Progressively move closer to the ditch, working at each new distance until your horse is straight, standing calmly, and facing the spot where you want him to cross. When your horse is comfortable at the edge of the ditch, he is ready to cross it. Step up to the edge of the ditch. Drive your horse up facing it. Be prepared to block your horse if he tries to go the way he has before, which now would be over the top of you. Encourage your horse to go forward across the ditch but be patient and allow your horse enough time to figure it out. If your horse makes any effort to move forward, like shifting his weight or moving one foot, release all pressure and pet him. If it takes your horse so long to get it that you grow impatient and are tempted to increase the pressure to make him do it, take your horse away from the ditch and pet him. After a breather, and some ground work that your horse does well, go back to the ditch and start again. It is important that you stay calm and relaxed while training your horse; patience is everything. The first time your horse crosses the ditch he will probably jump. That is OK but be careful not to jerk on him. Keep working on crossing the ditch until your horse will walk across it calmly. Now get your horse to step down into the ditch. You can do this by asking your horse to turn as he prepares to step across it. Your horse should soon be comfortable stepping down into the ditch and walking either direction.

    In the saddle start again with the cones. Think of them as trees you must bend around to keep from hitting your knees. Place the cones in a line at least two horse lengths apart. Ride through the cones in a serpentine. Your horse should arc his body to match the turn you are making. Both ends should be stepping equally. When you get a good bend and fluid changes from one bend to the other, try having the back end walk a bigger circle than the front. When that starts working get the front end to walk a bigger circle than the back. When you can do that, move between the cones on a leg yield with your horse bent slightly opposite the direction of travel. Lastly, back your horse through the serpentine. The skills you develop riding through the cones will give you the control you need to ride through other obstacles.

    Ride your horse straight between your hands and legs as you approach each obstacle. This means to use your hands and legs to straighten your horse when he starts to get crooked, releasing all pressure when he is straight in front of the obstacle. As your horse runs into pressure when he moves to either side or tries to back away, he will eventually go forward. Pet your horse and praise him for any effort to do this. If you feel your horse bunch up, preparing to jump, discourage forward progress until he relaxes and will step through the obstacle. If your horse is genuinely afraid of the obstacle, donít push him so far he has to protect himself by getting rid of you. Reward your horse for standing straight and facing the obstacle, at whatever distance he is comfortable, by petting and praising him; then move away. After doing something your horse does well return to the obstacle, stopping at a distance where he becomes uncomfortable but not so close he has to leave. Praise your horse for standing straight facing the obstacle from this distance and leave before your horse does. With patience and consistency, the distance will decrease and eventually your horse will go through the obstacle. Repeat crossing the obstacle until your horse is smooth and willing, with no reaction like hesitating or rushing.

    Remember, whether on the ground or in the saddle, be watching for your horse to signal the boundary of his comfort zone. Do your training at this boundary. Stretch it little by little with lots of praise after each progression and repeat the reward of returning to a safe place each time until the obstacle is within your horses comfort zone. Getting your horse to go through an obstacle is not nearly as important as getting your horse mentally comfortable with it. Be willing to spend the time your horse needs to let down and relax at each obstacle. Adjust your schedule to fit your horse. Donít demand that your horse fits your schedule. If you understand this process of training with obstacles, trailer loading is easy. Treat the trailer like any other obstacle.

    When the time comes to go to a trail it is important to keep in mind the experience level of both horse and rider. A more experienced rider can take a less experienced horse on a more difficult trail. The important thing is to not over-face the horse. For your first few rides go on a trail you know is not too difficult. Jeep roads are about right. They are relatively wide and usually not to steep. Their water crossings tend to have very easy entrances and exits. Work your way up to more difficult trails just as you worked your way up to more difficult obstacles. Be aware of your horsemanship on the trail. Your horse is learning from you even though you are not in an arena. Put the training of your horse ahead of a destination. Take time to properly train your horse over obstacles so your horse has a good learning experience, not a hair raising ordeal. There is no shame in getting off your horse and negotiating a difficult situation from the ground. In many cases this will be much safer for you and your horse. If you come to an impassable obstacle donít get in a fight over it. Go some place else and have a good experience. Come back to that one when your horse is more seasoned.

    Trail riding can be a wonderful experience. Proper preparation and common sense will keep it safe and fun. Lay your groundwork, progress gradually from jeep roads to more difficult terrain, and grab a hand full of mane to help keep your balance as you leave the stream and climb the steep bank on the other side. Then continue into the beautiful mountain meadow and enjoy the rest of your ride.


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Last modified: 20 May 2019