Improving your Horse’s Trail Riding Skills

The following was prepared for an interview with The Horsemen's Yankee Pedlar magazine. During this interview Christina Wright provides advice on how to improve your horse’s trail riding skills.

What are the most common problems? How to identify where your horse needs the most improvement?

Learning to assess your horse and understand the core cause of undesirable behavior will be very beneficial in developing a plan for improvement. We use a three step approach: One, Identify the symptom. Two, understand the cause. Three, develop a plan for improvement. We often find several areas that we would like improvement but in many cases the there is just one underlying cause.

The three most common causes of problems we see on the trail are:

  1. Lack of respect and/or trust for the rider:

    The horse may follow other members of the group regardless of what the rider asks for or if alone may refuse to leave the safety of the stabling area. Other common symptoms of a respect or trust issues are constantly rooting their noses to pull the reins away from the rider, refusal to stop or stand, refusal cross an object or water, the horse will fight with the rider for control of the course and speed of the ride.

  2. Over anxiousness:

    Some common symptoms of over anxiousness include fidgeting and nervousness, walking away as soon as you mount, refusal to stand still once stopped, and excessive sweating. The horse may also jig or constantly try to jog instead of walk. When riding with others, the horse will be particularly worried about being left behind.

  3. Unresponsive and distracted:

    Common symptoms of distraction or lack of responsiveness are no attempt on the horse’s part to understand what the rider is asking for. Fearful, constantly assessing their surroundings, looking for objects or things that they may find fearful but they do not seek comfort or protection from their rider.

These three problems can have areas of overlap and certainly some of the symptoms like unwillingness to stop or stand can be caused by any of these core problems. Although some of the symptoms may be the same, they will often look quite different depending on the core problem: for example a horse that refuses to stop because they are anxious may respond to the queue by shortening their steps to slow their forward speed while maintaining the number of steps they take, where as a unresponsive distracted horse may simply ignore it altogether. Identifying the reason for the symptom is important as it will have a significant impact on the development of a training plan.

What are the most effective solutions that any rider can try?

One effective way to deal with some of these problems is to develop a warm up routine for your horse before setting out on the trail. With a good warm‐up routine you will be able to avoid many problems and have a much more enjoyable and relaxing trail ride.

We teach a three step warm‐up to help the horse focus and relax.

Step one: start by lunging at all three gaits (W, T, L) moving up and down in speed one gait at a time. Do this in both directions and continue until the horse is paying attention only to you and not looking for their friends or checking out what is going on elsewhere. They should be responding to your commands quickly to increase and decrease speed and most importantly stopping and standing still when asked.

You want your horse’s head in the game and on you. Remember: you can’t get your horse to do anything for you under‐saddle that they do not do for you on the ground first.

Step two: Now it is time to mount your horse and just stand still and not asking for anything while you sit in a relaxed position. Your horse should stand still and not move forward without being asked. This is an important skill but it can be one of the most difficult things to teach.

Here is how we do it: If your horse starts walking as soon as you mount, stop them and back them to where they started. If they still won’t stand still after 2 or 3 attempts, move to a one rein flexing exercise by pulling their head near your foot on the inside of the circle while applying pressure with your inside leg asking them to give their hind quarters. After a the horse responds a few times by moving off your leg cue, keep their head turned with the inside rein, but now release your leg pressure. Stay in this position until the horse stops turning on their own. Then release their head for positive reinforcement and just stand on a loose rein. If the horse begins to move again, repeat the exercise until they stand still when you release.

Step three: The last part of our warm up is just a walk in a few circles on a loose rein and practice a little stopping and backing.

We are all about prevention. A good, consistent warm‐up routine will help eliminate most problems before they occur and dramatically increase your chances of a safe, fun day on the trail. We always warm up our horses before every leaving the staging area. If you develop this routine, it will take only a short amount of time but pay nice dividends all day

There are many problems that rider’s experience on the trail. Many of these problems have their roots in the horse’s anxiety level. Variations of these warm up exercises can be used on the trail to help bring the horse’s focus back on the rider and away from the source of their anxiety.

Even the best trail horses require a few refreshers on the trail. By giving a quick, corrective lesson in the moment they stay great trail horses.

What are the most useful skills a horse can have for trail riding?

A trail ride is supposed to be relaxing and fun – not a race. For your safety and the safety of others you might encounter on the trail, speed does not have much of a place. Once our horses have a solid foundation of overall saddle skills and are responsive at all gaits, we focus on slowing everything down.

From my point of view the four most critical skills you need to teach a horse for trail riding are:

  • Being able to maintain control when the unexpected pops up and spooks the horses:

    It is essential that your horse remains responsive even when they are frightened or overly anxious. You can’t really bomb proof a horse for every situation but you can teach them to remain responsive and look to you for leadership in every situation. Teach them to look you for leadership and to be responsive with their head which in turns helps you control the horse when in spooks.

  • Maintaining the walk on a loose rein:

    Teaching your horse to maintain a walk while riding on a loose rein, this critical for the safety and enjoyment of both you and your horse. The horse needs to have freedom of their head to watch their step, look where they is going, and balance themselves. Trails can be rocky and uneven with unexpected obstacles such as fallen trees or branches, slippery sections with water, mud or ice. We must be prepared to navigate these types of obstacles as they are all quite common. The only safe way for you and your horse to find your way through all of these situations is at a walk, with your horse carefully looking and choosing where they puts their feet, to do this they must have the freedom to move their head without trying to increase speed.

  • Learning to relax on the trail and look to their rider for companionship:

    A tense, nervous horse never performs well on the trail. If your horse is the type that is ready to take you to the Olympics when your toe touches the stirrup it is likely that some of the things you ask for while riding to them seem like Olympic sized requests. To help relax these horses for the trail develop some small exercises that reset in their mind what your expectations are when you mount up. They need to learn that your expectation of them on the trail is virtually the same as the way they walk around their paddock all on their own.

  • Accepting leadership:

    The horse must learn to accept your judgment on the trail. It is impossible to teach the horse how to handle everything that will be encountered on the trail. You cannot create a situation that simulates a stream in an arena. But you can create a situation that conditions the horse to build trust in you as their leader. But remember, if they are to trust you as their leader you must be trust worthy, have a plan and don’t let them down. If you are not sure they can do what you are asking them to do safely, don’t ask them to do it.

How to design a strategy for improvement and begin gently and safely?

Trail riding is not about controlling how the horse moves in a particular gait, what lead they are on or how flexed they are at the pole. It is about you being able to choose and maintain a gait, guide them gently along a path and have them trust your judgment regarding their safety. What would be judged as an excellent ride in the jumping or reining arena would not be good at all on a relaxing trail ride through the woods. Some horse can successfully learn to do both but we need to realize when we decide to take our horses to the trail we are teaching them a new skill. Training for the trail should begin in the arena or a similar safe confined environment.

Before you go for your first trail ride your horse should be relaxed enough to rest (head at neutral, eyes half closed) with you just sitting on them in a relaxed manner.

The horse should willingly maintain a loose rein walk without an increase in speed.

The horse should remain responsive to a one rein stop by flexing and turning easy to the desired side, giving their head and their hind quarters without resistance even when spooked.

The horse should remain responsive and willingly perform small exercises like backing, turning and flexing when in the presence of something new or fearful. Within a reasonable period, approach and investigate the object at the request of the rider.

The horse should remain calm and focused when separated from other horses or away from the comfort of is living space.

What are ways to practice these trail skills off the trail, (i.e., in a ring)?

We commonly use the “cruise control” exercise at home to condition the horse to maintain course and speed on the trail, for example the loose rein walk. In this exercise, we ride the horse on a loose rein following the rail around the arena. Start with the walk and whenever the horse starts to increase speed, immediately deploy your one‐rein turn (away from the rail to the inside) and circle them once around in a small circle returning to the walk along the rail. You can also practice this at the trot and lope by employing your one‐rein stop move to slow down if they start to pick up speed or if they slow down use verbal and leg cues to get them to speed up. Also, maintain your course along the rail. If your horse moves off the rail, immediately move them back to the rail by using your outside rein and your inside leg returning to a loose rein once they are back on course.

Remember you always choose the course and speed. We practice this in the arena until the horse understands the exercise and will perform it with minimal cues.

Also, practice approaching and crossing objects and scary things in your arena before you take your horse on the trail. We use tarps, blankets, an old jacket, etc. whatever is handy that the horse is not too familiar with. For inexperienced horses or one that has never done this before, start by lunging them close to it and then as they relax move them progressively closer until they are comfortable.

During this exercise, the handler should not focus on the object but rather ignore it. Treat it as a training exercise that focuses on maintaining the horses attention on the handler by asking for small exercises the horse knows how do. For example backing, stopping, standing, turning, flexing, etc. Once they start to calm or at least showed that they are willing to focus on the handler, allow them to rest near the object. If they seem to be relaxed ask them to go closer to the object asking them to stop and back away from it before they refuse to go closer. Continue moving closer to the object with a pattern of 4 steps forward and 3 steps back. Also, ask them to flex and turn circles in between advances. Continue this exercise allowing them to stop and rest at a point that you are satisfied with near or on the object.

This method is also very effective on the trail when the horse begins to spook. Using this exercise to desensitize them to objects they are uncomfortable with will teach them a new safe way to respond when faced with fear.

In the event that they respond to fear by running away from the object pull on one rein with as much pressure as necessary to get them into a circle to allow you to stop them.

There is only one way to condition a horse to be comfortable with separation for other horses, separate them and keep them apart until they calm down and realize they are going to be ok alone. Depending on where you keep your horse this may be easy or it may be difficult. Here are some ideas.

  • Tie them out of sight of other horse, leaving them there until they begin to calm. Depending on the horse this will likely take multiple sessions of a few hours at a time. If you have access to a safe place to tie away from their usual living area this works best.
  • The horse can be left in their stall while others are turned out or if you have access to a private paddock without other horses close by, will help as well.

How to reward your horse for their improvement?

We only use a praising voice, a pet and allowing them to rest during a lesson.

The ride is the horse’s job, the best reward is to let them know it is over and they are on their own time. Just like your own job, the best reward for a good day at the office is to go home and do things you like.

One key thing to remember is never end the day on a down note. Reward effort with rest. Do not quit until the horse has at least tried. If you quit before the horse tried, you have inadvertently rewarded them for the wrong behavior.

What is the most common mistakes rider make on the trail?

The three we see the most are:

  • Skipping the warm up. This is the biggest mistake most weekend warriors make. Once a horse has even had few days of down time, their head may no longer be in the game. Warming a horse up is a way to clear their head and get them to focus on their job. Just like when you first return to work after holidays, it usually takes a day or two back at work before you are fully there mentally and at your best.
  • Not teaching the horse to follow the course and maintain speed. On the trail this leads to a spiral of progressively bad things. The rider then needs constantly correct the horse to keep him on the trail or slow their pace. This then leads to the horse feeling nagged and increases their anxiety. Anxiety leads to an unhappy horse and rider. This spiral can sometimes continue and as it does; thing get progressively worse often leading to unsafe behavior
  • Not teaching your horse to be ok when separated from the group. Many horses are not conditioned to be comfortable when separated from other horses or the area they feel safe. As a result they begin to act up as soon as they are separated or other horses are on the move. This is often the cause of unsafe behavior on the trail.

Does the trot or canter have a place on the trail?

Definitely. You will find those perfect moments when you can see the trail ahead, your horse is relaxed, and no other groups are in sight and you can pick up the pace. Those moments are so fun.

You and your horse may be good with faster gaits on the trail, but for everyone’s safety you must pick your moments. Horses that encounter another horse racing down the trail will immediately think they need to get out of there and this can cause an unsafe situation for horses or riders in other groups.

That’s why we advise taking it easy unless you know you are the only riders in the area and everyone in your group can handle it.

What advice do you have for riders who primarily participate in arena activities, like dressage or hunter/jumper?

First you need to assess your horse’s temperament. While behavior can be trained, temperament cannot. If your horse is fearful or reactive, they will likely not make a safe trail horse.

If you horse has a calm; willing nature, the occasion trail ride can provide a nice relaxing break from discipline training. Follow the steps we outlined above and practice them on a regular basis; perhaps your days off from your discipline.

You may want to use different tack and a different routine as a clear sign that the expectations for your horse has changed. Not only will your horse need to learn to ride with a loose rein, but you will as well. The contact that makes good things happen in your discipline, may work against you on the trail. Loose and relaxed; that’s what you want.

Trail riding is about the whole experience; both on the trail and at trail’s end. Relax and just to have fun.