Question of the Week: From Show Horse to Trail Horse

How to transition safely to trail riding with a lifelong show horse.

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Q: My horse has spent his life in the show ring. I’d like to take a year off from competing and just ride on the trails. But even though my horse is very mellow, he’s never been on the trails. What are some ways to help make our trail time fun and safe?

Rocky Mountain Horse on the trail

 

A: It’s a wonderful idea to let a show horse take a vacation from competition. It often improves their outlook on life and can reduce the wear and tear on their body. Riders also benefit, because they get a chance to connect with their horse on a different level. Yet not every show horse transitions easily to being a trail horse.

Though show horses get exposed to all sorts of stimuli, from banners and water trucks to loud speakers and golf carts, the environment is pretty consistent from showground to showground. Out on the trails, however, the scenery is constantly changing. And, unlike the show scene, there are very few other horses out on the trails. Many veteran show horses feel vulnerable without the comfort of “the herd”. With all this in mind, here are a few suggestions.

First, before you head off on the trails, make sure your horse doesn’t have a bundle of excess energy. A show horse used to regular work is a fit athlete, and if he’s been standing around for a few days he could become a handful out in the open. Consider giving him a turnout or a brief longe.

Second, keep your safety in mind. Wear a helmet and appropriate boots, choose sturdy tack and start out slowly. Don’t plan to circumnavigate the countryside on your initial adventure. Choose a short, uncomplicated trail (perhaps one leading from your stable) and buddy up with another rider who’s mounted on a calm, experienced trail horse that can serve as your horse’s mentor. Introduce challenges like crossing water or using a bridge in a step-by-step method. Don’t overwhelm your horse with new tasks. Next, watch for signs that your horse is beginning to meltdown mentally. If he begins to wind up, becoming anxious and tense (like jigging instead of walking or repeatedly spooking), then stop your ride and try again another day. Gradually build up the length of your trail rides as his confidence improves.

Finally, remember that each time you ride your horse you’re training him, even on the trails. If you allow him to pick up the wrong lead, trot too fast or otherwise ignore your aids, those acquired bad habits may come back to haunt you when you do return to showing.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I BELIEVE SHOW HORSES CAN BE TRAIL HORSES TOO. ITS NICE TO SEE PEOPLE WHO SHOW HORSES WANT TO TAKE THEM OUT ON THE TRAIL. I FEEL SORRY FOR THOSE HORSES WHO LIVE THEIR ENTIRE LIFE IN A STALL AND SHOWRING. SHOW HORSES NEED TO HAVE FUN TOO, NOT JUST THE SAME OVER AND OVER BORING JOB, GOING IN CIRCLES AROUND A RING. GOING OUT FOR A TRAIL RIDE TO THEM, I THINK, WOULD BE LIKE A LITTLE VACATION. (ONCE THEY ARE EXPERIENCED ON THE TRAIL) WE LIKE TO TAKE VACATIONS FROM OUR SAME OLD OVER AND OVER JOB DONT WE? SO WHY SHOULDNT THEY?

  2. In 2008 after the death of my good friend I became the owner of his hosre. This horse was in a show barn since the age of two, he was seven when he came to me. I took off his blankets, unbraided his tail, and cut it so not to drag on the ground and turned him out. I let him just get used to the ohter horses, and new enviroment for the winter ( he came to me late sept. ) In May 2009 i started riding him on local trails he adjusted well but didnt pay attention to the footing as i assume in the arena he didnt have to step ove tree branches etc.. On mmay 18th that same year I pushed his skills to far and took him a pretty steep hill, he stumbled on a rock, went to one knee and tried to recover side ways on the trail. He sliped, we rolled, I was knocked out the first time he rolled over me. We ended up after tumbling 30ft several times right where we started. He was fine, I ended up with my pelvic broken in 3 places, my back broken in 2 places, 2 broken ribs and 12 fracutres. The dr. recomened i dont ride anymore (yeah like that was gonna happen)After therapy and lots of work, I was back in the saddle on Sept. 15th that same year. I am again riding the same horse on some awsome trails, beaches etc.. we learned to trust each other again and I dont push him to fast. He has learned that the ground he now travels requires attention.

  3. Boy, Jolene, you sound like you are being held together with safety pins and duct tape. Good aditude, just keep on going. Wish you and your horse the best of luck on those trails.

  4. Thanks for the interesting article.
    There is a special service for helping people start trail riding at http://www.coastalhorseback.com. This company uses the comfort of the herd to calm novice trailer riders/horses in a beautiful setting on the San Mateo Coast in California. The trails have normal obstacles like kids with skateboards, kite flyers, dogs, motorcycles, etc. and the novice horse learns from the accompanying experienced horses how to cope with these things. The offer rides on the beach and through redwoods.

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