Horse owners often send their horse for training to become better trail horses. They want their horses to get the necessary experience out on the trail in order to be safe, reliable mounts. When I get a horse intended to be a trail mount in for training I spend 75% of my time with this horse in the arena and 25% on the trail, at least for the first 2 months. Owners are sometimes disappointed to find this out because they want their horse to have experience on the trail, but I have good reasoning for my method.
If my horse doesn’t respond to my cues in an arena (a controlled setting), you can bet he won’t respond to my cues out on the trail. The trail offers so many outside stimuli that the horse must process, it is important that he learns to listen and respond to me before he responds to the stimuli found out on the trail. This foundation must be built in a safe environment where learning can occur, such as an arena.
I want my trail horse to know 4 vital skills before he ever sets foot in the open. These 4 skills are: Forward, whoa (including the one rein stop), the start of collection, and yielding to leg pressure. My first priority in training a horse is safety. By practicing these developing 4 skills in an arena, these requests become second nature to both me and the horse. That is why it is also important that the owner takes lessons and learns the cues that I teach the horse. When I need to make the request out on the trail, for example, if the horse bolts, the horse will rely on the prior knowledge he learned in the arena instead of following his original instinct to flee. I will describe each skill I teach my trail horses below and include why it is important to set the foundation for each skill in the arena first.
Forward – Forward is the first thing any horse should learn. I teach my horses forward first on the ground with verbal and visual cues, then from the saddle with seat and leg aids (and the ends of my reins if needed). If I point my horse in a direction and ask him to go forward his only question of me should be “How fast?”. This is usually easy to get in an arena free from distraction. The horse feels comfortable going around, following the fence on nice even ground. The horse learns to carry me at all speeds without worry of losing his footing. He also learns to follow my direction at any speed. It is unfair to ask my young horses to learn to carry my weight out on the trail on uneven terrain. They must first learn to carry me and move forward at all 3 gaits on flat ground. How many times have you heard someone complain of a horse that will not leave the barn? Simply put, this horse is refusing to go forward. This type of horse did not develop a response to the “go forward” cue, or he was spoiled by someone who did not enforce the “go forward” cue. Once the horse is comfortable going forward off of a cue in an empty arena I will begin adding obstacles that I expect my horse to go over. These obstacles can include tarps, bridges, poles, water etc. The horse learns that no matter what is in front of him, he must trust me to move forward at the pace I ask him to go. Now that he’s learned to go forward in a controlled setting, he will have the confidence to go forward out on the trail.
Whoa – Whoa is the second thing any horse should learn. A horse can’t learn “whoa” until he can go forward. Again, I teach my horses on the ground first with verbal and visual cues, and then from the saddle with verbal, seat, and rein cues. I should be able to use any single one of those aids (verbal, seat, rein) or all three together to stop my horse. I probably do not need to go into great detail as to why it is important that my horse knows how to stop out on the trail. Anybody who has ever been on a horse that bolts can tell you how dangerous this situation can be, not only to the horse and rider, but to anyone else who may be in the bolting horse’s path. I teach my horses to be soft, supple, and light in the bridle. If I pick up on a rein, I expect my horse to give me his face. If I move a leg back I expect my horse to disengage his hindquarters as well. Those two cues together are what is known as the one rein stop. If a horse bolts and he does not respond to my verbal, seat, or rein cues to whoa I know I will be able to stop him with the one rein stop. I practice this in the arena. He knows how to give his face and disengage his hip before I take him out on the trail. By taking his face from him and disengaging his hip he has no power left to propel himself forward and bolt. This technique can also be used to stop a bucker.
The start of collection - I say the start of collection because this can take years to develop, but it is very important that a trail horse knows how to give his face, round his back, and use his hind end. Imagine riding down a steep embankment after a rain storm. Would you rather have a horse that blindly throws his head in the air and charges down the hill on his forehand or a horse that gives his face, rounds his back, and sits on his haunches to slide down that hill in a controlled manner? I would much rather have a horse that knows how to collect and sit on his haunches down that hill. The same is true for going up hills. Do you want a horse that scrambles up the hill, practically dragging himself up it by his front legs, or a horse that powers from behind with his rear end and propels himself up the hill. The horse who knows how to use himself will be sure footed on the trail. Horses need to be taught how to correctly carry themselves and the weight of their rider.
Yield to my legs – The next thing I will teach my young trail horses is how to move off of my leg aids. Imagine heading down a narrow winding trail (such as those found at Magnolia Bluff). Trees are on either side of you making the path seem as if it is closing in on you and your horse. If your horse moves off to one side or the other you’ll end up needing a knee replacement. A horse that moves off of leg aids would have no trouble negotiating through a trail like this safely, but if your legs mean nothing to your horse you are in a dangerous situation. I teach my horses lateral movements such as the side pass and leg yield. I also teach them to move their front end independently from their hind end and vice versa. Again, all of this is done in order to prepare the horse to be a safe mount out on the trail.
I teach my trail horse all of these skills before we venture out on the trails so that I truly set him up for success. It would be absolutely unfair to ask my horse to do any of these tasks without first practicing at home. One of the best qualities in a trail horse is confidence and the only way to get that confidence is to prepare the horse for what lies ahead.