Determining a Horse's Suitability for Trail Riding

The following was prepared for an interview with The Horsemen's Yankee Pedlar magazine. During this interview Christina Wright provides advice on determining the suitability for a horse for trail riding.

What makes a good trail horse? What are the most desirable traits?

There are very few absolutes in the horse world. But this is one: behavior can be trained, temperament cannot.

If you can remember that, things will be much easier for you when assessing your own horse or evaluating a horse to buy.

While we screen for many traits along the way, there are two temperament traits that a trail horse must possess:

  1. Low reactivity to fear
  2. Trust in people

These two temperament traits are fundamental critical success factors. These two traits separate success from failure; they separate fun from sorrow; they separate satisfaction from regret. All other traits merely determine how well your horse will succeed.

Have you ever had a boss you did not trust? You probably frequently questioned their motives and their judgment. Your horse must trust you before they accept you as a leader, their boss. On the trail you need to make the decisions and the horse needs trust your judgment and believe you will keep them safe.

Trust and low reactivity are crucial on the trail; when something that frightens them pops up, their reactions must be predictable and controllable, otherwise your safety is in danger.

On the trail a fearful horse or a horse that transfers their anxieties to the rider, is a dangerous horse to you and other trail riders.

What are things your horse might do now during the normal scope of daily riding that can give you an idea whether or not they are good for the trail?

We always begin with our horses in an arena and that setting is the safest way to determine if your horse will be safe on the trail.

They must demonstrate they can hold it together in a confined space of an arena where the environment is by and large controlled and somewhat normal to them. During your normal course of riding there are enough situations that will pop up that gives you the opportunity to assess your horse for the trail.

Watch how they react when they spook at something and ask yourself: Do they over react or do they stop and face it and eventually approach whatever it was that scared them? Have they learned or are they spooking at the same things over and over again? Do they check in with you or do they buck you off or bolt? Are they easy to keep in control when things do not go perfectly?

They also constantly give you feedback about their trust level. Every time they step out of their comfort zone there is instant feedback on their level of trust. Observe: are they willing or do they resist your judgment?

But perhaps the best gage is how you feel with every ride. Are you usually smiling when the ride is over? Are there too many days that you just did not enjoy yourself or were frightened yourself? Keep in mind: things are amplified on the trail so be sure things are going well in the arena before you venture out on the trail.

Why is a sound mind more crucial for trail riding than any other type of riding?

The main difference is when you are out on the trail; you are in a totally uncontrolled environment and often at a place your horse has never been to before. Fear and trust will be tested.

On every trail ride you will encounter something that your horse has not encountered before. When your horse spooks, you want your horse’s reaction to be “stop and look” and then to check in with you to see if it is something to worry about. You need them to take comfort in your presence.

When you are in an arena you never have to worry about a deer bolting, a sudden gust of wind breaking a tree branch, or a bear wondering across your path. You also don’t have to worry about having miles of open space, or not so open space, for your horse to escape to and perhaps leave you stranded to walk back.

What are some tests you can run your horse through to determine their suitability?

We test our trail horses very progressively over the course of a few years. However, there are some basic tests that we use as early indicators that we rely on to screen which horses enter our program or not. Sadly, at least 50% of the horses will fail these early tests and never make it past our pre‐rider training level. (Please note: our target market is beginner and intermediate riders which greatly reduces the number of candidate horses that are appropriate to enter our program)

Catching, haltering and leading: Here is where we first assess the horse’s level of trust in people. If a horse is continually hard to catch and/or halter, that horse is telling you they do not trust you. The same is true if they do not learn to relax when you are leading them. When they tell you so clearly that they do not trust us, you should believe them and not put your safety at risk. Chances are the first time they encounter a situation that troubles them they will transfer their concerns to the rider.

Reactivity to normal things: Here we look for their reactions to simple items they will encounter everyday in life as a saddle horse such as ropes, lunge lines, jackets, tarps, a brush falling off the fence, the puppy playing fetch, vehicles, etc. We look for two things: First, how they react when one of these things frightens them? Do they face it while snorting and fidgeting or do they attempt an escape. Second, how do they react over time? A horse should learn over time that these things are not going to hurt them. For example, have they learned that a rope is nothing to fear and stop reacting or is everyday a new day for the horse with the same things.

Reaction to tack: A horse must accept being tacked as a way of life; no big deal. Habitual cinchiness or tensing up every time they are tacked is signs of trust or fear issues.

These are not tests you can perform in one day; rather you observed them over time to determine if issues are part of their temperament. A bad reaction or two is perfectly acceptable as long as the horse shows progress through behavior changes. If change is slow to happen, then you are dealing with a temperament issue.

We always give our horses an extended break from time to time during pre‐saddle training to evaluate behavior changes. If you find yourself back at square one, that is a sign of a temperament issue and that Page 4 of 4 really can never be trained out of a horse. For example, if your horse over reacts to that same hay tarp the same way they did a month earlier when you last had them in, then that should be a red flag to you. A horse that is trusting and one with low reactivity to fear will remember that the tarp is not a big deal especially when you are with them.

What can you do if you decide your horse isn't suitable for trail riding? Can they learn?

It depends on the issues. Horses with high reactivity to fear or horse that are mistrusting need to be kept in their comfort zones for best results which usually means the confines of a familiar arena.

To break it down a little finer: First, fearful horses are untrustworthy on the trail and you will get hurt, it is only a matter of time. So if that is the issue, we recommend you move on.

If it is a trust issue, there is hope, but the success rate varies.

Given enough time and effort this horse can learn to trust, however their trust is usually connected to the individual doing the training and not people in general. This happens over a long period of time through frequent and repeated training as well as lots of positive reinforcement in the horse’s mind. We have seen people have success with a horse through dedication, training the horse themselves and lots of love. When you hear them tell their stories, it was a tail of success over years of challenge; but you can tell how strong that relationship developed over those years.

We stress the one‐person aspect because if the horse is sold, the horse generally digresses during a transition to the new owner and will require some work by the new owner to establish trust; these horses do not transfer trust from rider to rider easily. They can learn to trust one person at a time but not people in general.