Of course, every rider wants to stay safe on the trail. Trail riding can be great mental therapy for both the horse and the rider. It should be an enjoyable and productive way to spend some time away from the barn and arena.
I have heard people say, ‘Oh, this is JUST a trail horse’, as if to imply that the horse doesn’t really need to be very far advanced if he is only used for trail riding. But a trail horse has to be pretty dang solid and confident to handle all that may be encountered on the trail.
If you struggle with confidence when you ride, this will help: Rider Confidence | How To Build It
Before The Trail Ride
The key is to get the confidence built into the horse BEFORE you take off on the trail. Horses that are unsure, buddy/barn sour, tense, and dependent on being in a familiar setting will be a nightmare to ride down a trail.
There are not 5 magic things you can do to fix your horse once you’re already out on the trail. The problems on the trail are because there’s inner turmoil and unsureness in your horse. The trail is simply the catalyst bringing it to the surface.
I have had people say that their horse is great at home, but horrible on the trail. The issue here is that the horse is not really as great at home as the rider thinks he is. If a horse is truly mentally sound, light, and responsive, then taking him out on the trail will be a joy and not a horror.
To evaluate your horse’s mental soundness, grab this FREE checklist: Mental Soundness Checklist
Prepare Your Horse For The Trail
So how do you prepare a horse for the trail? The #1 exercise would be long trotting on a loose rein. This is THE best thing you can do to increase confidence and get rid of continual problems.
Suppose somebody brought me a horse that was really struggling with anxiety and spookiness. They said I had only 10 minutes with the horse. I would skip everything else, put my hands forward, wide, and low to help the horse look where he was going, and long trot for the entire time. As a matter of fact, this scenario actually happens at every single clinic. And the transformation that occurs when the horse is allowed to travel freely with a human on his back is nothing short of amazing.
You may say, ‘That sounds great, but if I give my horse a loose rein, it will end in disaster. He will bolt and run off’. And many of the clinic horses mentioned above are the same way at first.
For help with trailer loading, go here: How To Load A Horse In A Trailer
Working Towards A Loose Rein
A horse that is not accustomed to having a loose rein may try to speed up every time he feels the tension on the reins lessen. But if you ever want to have a mentally sound horse that you don’t have to constantly hold back, you must allow him to move out. Maybe you can’t give slack in the reins for 3 seconds without him running off, but you can for 2 seconds. So do that. When he speeds up after the 2 seconds, tip the nose or redirect him to slow him down, and then give him his head again. Maybe this time he will go for 5 seconds without speeding up. Gradually increase the amount of time until feeling a loose rein no longer causes him to speed up.
It is CRITICAL for a horse’s mental soundness that he can walk, trot, and lope on a loose rein.
Being able to move his feet makes a horse feel safer. When they feel constantly confined or think they can’t freely and naturally move, it creates anxiety. And trying to contain that nervous energy will only amplify it.
There was a horse that couldn’t handle speed at a clinic in Arizona. The owner said the horse would NOT lope. Anything faster than medium trot, and he jumped sideways. So I got on him with my hands forward, wide, and low. There was only an inch of slack in each rein. If he tried to look to the left, he ran into the right rein, and vice versa.
For more on rein management: Rein Management
We trotted around the arena with ZERO back pressure. When I asked him to go faster, he drifted sideways, so I shot him forward. When he quit going sideways, I quit asking for more and made that feel good. He began trotting straight and I asked him to trot fast and faster until it was HIS idea to roll up into a lope. We trotted and loped around the arena for 3-4 minutes. His head lowered, his body freed up, his expression relaxed, and he quit thinking about going sideways.
It sounds contradictory, but the more free a horse thinks he is to move his feet, the less he will think he needs to move them. I would be very uncomfortable riding a colt outside a round pen or arena if I had not loped him some first. If a horse is not accustomed to gaining speed with a human on his back, any time something quick happens (other horses run off, a branch falls, etc, etc) he loses his mind.
Horses that also do a lot of up/down speed transitions are much more mentally sound and reliable.
Spooky Object On The Trail
This trotting on a loose rein skill will also come in handy when you are out on the trail and something spooks your horse. What should you do? Help him learn to ignore it. Just ask him to trot off at a lively pace for about 50 feet and then come back to a walk. Then go on down the trail like nothing happened.
The logic here is that you become the hero. The horse got bothered, and you helped him find the way out. And you can see how having the trotting on a loose rein established BEFORE you head out on the trail is a huge benefit.
Distractions On The Trail
There are many potential distractions on the trail. If your horse begins to get fixated on an object on his right side, be aware of that. Wiggle your left leg and jiggle the left rein to pull his attention back before it becomes a deal. Help your horse develop the HABIT of keeping his attention straight down the trail. If he does begin to get distracted, engage his brain. Give his mind something better to do.
You would do the same type thing when other horses come up behind him. If he pins his ears or positions to kick, trot him off and pretend like it never happened. You are telling him to forget about those other horses and go somewhere. Doing this also causes your horse to yield his feet away from the other horses and take an entirely different mental path.
Listen to my podcast about horses that are spooky on the trail here: Spooky On The Trail
Buddy Sour On The Trail
Some horses are prone to be buddy sour when trail riding with a group. If your horse is determined to be by his buddy, allow him to go to the buddy, but this means work. When he is near the buddy, keep his feet hustling or let the bit rhythmically bump him a little – anything to make it not feel good to be around the buddy. Allow him to go anywhere that is away from the buddy and make that feel good. When he wants to go back to the buddy, let him do that, but make it difficult again. Make any sign of independence feel really good.
Horse Wants To Be In The Front On The Trail
You would do the same thing for a horse that thinks he must be in the front of the pack on the trail. Make it difficult to be in the front, and easy to be in the back. Allow him to go to the front, but make that uncomfortable. Make being in the back feel good.
You can even have the other riders help you out. Allow your horse to go to the front. Then have all the other horses behind you turn around and go the other way. You also turn around and go the other way. Now your horse is in the back!
If he wants to return to the front, let him do that but repeat the big turnaround. If he allows the other horses to get just 10 or so feet in front of him without you holding him back, just let him travel there and see how good that feels on a loose rein.
Crossing Objects On The Trail
If your horse balks at crossing a ditch or log or puddle, the worst thing you can do is try to drive him forward. That will increase the pressure he’s already feeling. Use your reins and move his front end right, left, right, left. There will be NO back pressure on the reins. The only leg you will use is to help move his front end right and left. Allow him to lower his head and inspect the obstacle. Keep moving him right and left and when you feel he is ABOUT to cross over the obstacle, get out of his way and let him go.
Eating On The Trail
The key to breaking this habit is to pay close attention. You catch it before it happens. Before he actually commits to lower his head and grab a bite.
When he BEGINS thinking about eating on the trail, jump him forward to a trot. Or be ready with the reins and cause him to run into his OWN pressure when he starts to lower his head. Once he gets his head lowered to a certain point, then it’s a tug of war to get it back. So catch it quickly, and give him something else to do. Something else to think about instead of the grass in front of him.
Before you head out on the trail, it’s only fair to make sure your horse is prepared. Do some fencing where you get up above him and have him give you his back.
Learn about Fencing here: Fencing Your Horse | Does He Really Want You Up There
Wean your horse into being able to handle increased speed/pressure. More about that here: Transitions
Help your horse become mentally sound so that he can bravely handle any situation that comes up while on the trail. That will make every trail ride a pleasant experience for both you and your horse.
Fly Spray Recipes
Avon Skin So Soft – 10 oz
Permethrin 10 Livestock and Premise Spray – 30 ml
Apple Cider Vinegar – ¼ cup
Fabric Softener – ¼ cup
Water to fill remainder of 32 oz bottle
Pure Citronella Oil – 4 oz
Avon Skin So Soft – 4 oz
White Vinegar – 8 oz
Listerine – 2 oz
Water – 16 oz
White vinegar – 2 cups
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus – 1 tablespoon
Water – 1 cup
Apple Cider Vinegar – 2 cups
Dawn Dish Soap – 2 squirts
Water – 1 cup
Other supplies that may come in handy:
First aid kit, GPS Map Tracker, Solar Battery, Toilet Paper