What can you do to prepare your horse for large rides instead of training on the spot? Gather a select few trail-riding friends and plan trail-training rides before attending a large-scale ride.
Here, I’ll share my tips for setting up an on-the-trail training club. With a small group of friends committed to helping everyone’s horses remain calm and obedient, you can make sure your horse is ready for any trail riding scenario before signing up for a large-scale ride.
No Place to Train
Large-scale trail rides often benefit good causes and aim to bring horse owners together. These big rides can be great fun, but they aren’t the best place for training a young horse or a horse that has specific training needs.
Does your horse cross water? Make sure you know before the big ride. It’s not a good idea to stop and train your horse when a large group of riders is moving on; your horse will become more worried if he’s separated from the herd. Horses are instinctively excited when they’re in a group of new horses. If your horse hasn’t crossed a bridge or stepped over large logs, it isn’t the right time to introduce him to these challenges when his friends are riding away. Your horse will be distracted and difficult to train when you’re riding in a large, unfamiliar group.
The best training occurs when your horse’s mind is calm and relaxed and he can think through what you’re asking. These conditions won’t exist at a large function. If you want to test your horse’s behavior on the trail—or know that you need to get him used to new stimuli—plan training sessions prior to a large, organized event.
Start Your Group
The riders who join your trail-riding training club must know that your rides will include time to help other members of the group. On your training rides, you’ll stop to work on a skill to be mastered. This isn’t a distance-covering ride; it’s your chance to work on an issue.
Ask riders to join you if they are competent and confident. Aim for a group of three or four riders who have well-behaved horses and who take responsibility for themselves and their horses. Have a solid, reliable horse as a role model that can demonstrate what another horse needs to learn.
Make your training lists and coordinate on some strategic planning. List out what you know your horse needs help with and what obstacles you’d like to introduce. Consider which horse in the group needs to work first and what you’ll do to help find a solution for the training issue. Research training techniques and choose the method you’ll use.
Focus on one horse and rider at a time and develop a plan so everyone in the group can help further one horse’s training. If you get together as a group but everyone works independently, you won’t get the benefit of working together. Schedule out your rides so that everyone in the group has a chance to get help with a goal. Make sure you have the terrain or setup you need. If you want to work with a horse that’s afraid to cross water, you’ll need to travel to a creek. If your horse runs off when he gets to a large meadow, you’ll need a trail that opens to a large field. If your horse challenges for the lead spot on the trail, you’ll need a safe area to ride where you won’t be in danger if the horse tries to rush ahead.
Here’s a list of on-the-trail skills all horses should master and training suggestions to help you progress. Test your horse’s skills as you ride with your trail-training group.
Basic Obedience: Make sure your horse walks at the speed you choose on a loose rein when you’re leaving for your ride, and as you return to your starting point. Your horse shouldn’t slow down as you leave or speed up on his return route.
If your horse is “jiggy” and prances on the way home while riding with your small group, his behavior will be worse when you ride toward home in a large group. If your horse prances, stop him abruptly then ask him to walk forward on a lose rein. Don’t allow the fast jig; show your horse that you’re only asking for a calm, relaxed walk.
New Horses: Make sure your horse is comfortable in groups of new horses and that you can keep his attention no matter how many others are around. If your horse is distracted in your small group, he will likely be overwhelmed in a large group.
Make sure your horse knows that he can’t interact with other horses in any way when you are in the saddle. He is not to touch another horse in any way.
Correct your horse by turning his head away from other horses. Use your reins to keep his nose in front of his chest and stop him from looking around. This basic obedience will help him remember to tune in to you and not to worry about the larger herd.
Bye to Buddies: Many horses don’t want to be separated from the horses they know well. While it’s hard to stop and work on this issue in a large group, the answer is to purposely have your friends ride away (a short but visible distance) and to allow space for your horse to focus on you.
If your horse is buddy-sour, he’ll pull toward and constantly look around for his equine friends. He’ll become nervous and uncooperative if what you ask doesn’t bring him closer to his buddies.
If the problem is big, you’ll need to outfit your horse in a rope halter and work from the ground, insisting on your horse’s focus and obedience as he’s separated from—but can see—his buddies. (See “Bye Bye Buddy,” below).
Lead/Follow: Make sure your horse accepts any place in the trail lineup. If he thinks he has to be in front the whole time, you’re in for a miserable ride.
Play leap frog to make sure that your horse can be in any position in your small group of horses and riders. Line up so that all horses are in a head-to-tail line with exactly one horse length between horses. Test your mount and make sure he’s rating his speed off the horse in front of him—not you holding him back. The line can move at a walk, trot or canter, depending on the group members’ skill levels.
Let each horse maintain the lead for a bit, then ask the horse and rider at the back of the line to move to the lead position. Each horse then adjusts to his new spot and must rate his speed to stay in line. Continue in this fashion until all the horses have been at the front and at the back.
Approach the Fear: Make sure that your horse will approach any new and spooky obstacle on the trail. When you plan your group training rides, agree ahead of time that you will take whatever time is needed to work a horse through the spook and teach him to face what he’s afraid of. (See “Approach Something New,” below.)
Keep in mind that on these trail training days that you don’t have to travel far from home. Consider setting up an obstacle course in a nearby field and challenge everyone in your group to walk over a tarp or other new item. Remember that you can always lead your horse from the ground to boost his (and your) confidence.
If you test your horse on all of these issues and spend time helping each horse-rider pair in the group, you’ll not only boost your skills and camaraderie, you’ll all be ready for anything you approach on any trail ride. Lean on your friends and take your time as you improve your horsemanship.
Trail Training Tip: Bye Bye Buddy
For a horse that’s seriously herd bound, you’ll need to work through it from the ground. Insist on your horse’s focus and obedience as he’s separated from—but can see—his buddies.
Outfit your horse in a rope halter and ask him to stand still and focus on you. If he turns his head at all, correct him by pulling on your lead line and moving his head back in front of his chest. He isn’t to look around; he’s to focus on you. Then put your horse to work circling and changing directions.
Once your horse’s attention improves while working from the ground, you need to make sure you have his attention while riding. Every time he looks at the barn or another horse, give him lots of commands (transition from slow to fast and constantly change directions) so he has to focus on you.
Correct him from pulling toward his friends: If he wants to turn to the right, turn him to the left. If he wants to look to the right, pick up your left rein and correct the direction of his nose. Soon he’ll realize that his antics are fruitless. Every time he focuses on his buddy horse, he’ll have to work harder and will be separated even more in the process.
Trail Training Tip: Approach Something New
If you’re working on an obstacle that may spook or frighten your horse, take the time your horse needs to think it through. Don’t push him toward the obstacle too fast. Ride near it, but insist on his straightness and obedience.
If he veers away from the obstacle when you’re riding past it (not aiming him at it), address his disobedience and cue him toward the object. Work on riding with straightness and willingness as you pass by the scary thing. Once you’ve regained your horse’s obedience, you’re ready to tackle the obstacle.
Help from a Friend: It helps to have a more confident horse walk through or by the obstacle first. Make sure that your horse can see what his friend is doing.
Don’t Look Away: When it’s your turn, keep your horse pointed toward the object and don’t allow him to turn away. As long as he’s willingly looking forward, allow him to rest. Be patient. Correct his nose if he starts to turn. Soon, your horse will learn he can rest if he looks at the scary object and he’ll become curious. You’ll feel him want to move toward the thing that was scary.
Walk Through It: It’s not a failure to get off your horse and walk him thorough the obstacle before you ride it. Your goal is to instill confidence in your horse, and he’ll have more confidence with you on the ground in front of him than when you are up on his back.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!