Can your horse learn to love trails?

Freedom Trail Riding
Freedom was very anxious at first but he's turned into a great trail horse - brave, willing and mostly calm!

I’ve met several people who have told me that their horse “hates” trail riding — they are anxious, spooky and generally unpleasant to ride. Mostly, I think these are horses that were never properly introduced to the concept of trail riding. And with some patience and training, they can be turned into great trail partners.

Several of my horses came to me with no previous trail riding experience — some right off the track where they were exposed to all kinds of equipment, noise and excitement but almost had heart failure the first time a duck landed on a pond near them. They weren’t all great rides at the beginning but they all were at least decent trail horses in the end and some have turned out to be exceptional trail horses.

Step 1: Establish Ground Manners

Before I take a horse out on the trails, I start by establishing ground manners. I want my horses to walk quietly beside me and follow me where I go without questioning my directions.  If your horse trusts you and sees you as a leader they will be much more likely to respect your choices on the trail and be more relaxed when you ride in new territories or face situations that scare them.

Step 2: Hand Walk on Trails

Pretty early in the process I start hand walking my horse on the trails. It’s a great way to encourage them to leave the property alone (this can be a real stumbling block for some horses). Most horses get a lot of comfort from having their owner beside them and a pocketful of treats can help encourage them to walk through water, cross bridges, or face other horse-eating monsters. If you think your horse will be agitated, I suggest either leading them in a bridle or with a halter and a chain over their nose. If your horse really gets balky, try backing them up and then leading them forward.

This is a good time to train a verbal “whoa” and give a treat when your horse stands quietly.

Step 3: Ride out with a Steady Eddie

If you have a friend with a horse that’s good on the trails, they can help you train your horse to be relaxed on the trail. I like to start slowly — the beginning trail rides are mostly at a walk and, if possible, on wooded trails. I’ve found that horses are more likely to get agitated in open fields.

Most of the time it works best if you follow the established trail horse. Freedom, however, always wanted to go first and was calmer if I let him lead. The downside was when we came across something scary. Then, I’d either have to let the other horse go first for awhile or dismount and lead him past whatever concerned him. In the beginning I would judge the success of the ride by how many (or few) times I had to get off!

Once a horse can walk quietly on the trail I introduce some short trot sets. I try to keep the trotting slow and always come back to a walk if I think the horse is getting over excited. I don’t start to canter until I’m sure the horse can handle walk/trot transitions and is willing to trot on without becoming distracted by his surroundings.

Again, I spend a lot of time with “whoa.”

Step 4: Going out Alone

I start riding alone pretty early on — at my barn it’s not always possible to have a partner. It can be more difficult than riding with a partner because at least at the beginning, your horse may become anxious. If and when that happens, I start by going only a short distance from the barn and try to turn around (initially) before the horse gets upset. They need to learn that we will return to home base! Each time you can take your horse a little bit farther. If a horse gets balky or starts to get too worried, I’ll get off and lead for awhile. You don’t want to get to the point where you feel afraid because your horse will feed off of that anxiety.

Where I’ve had the most trouble (especially with Freedom) is riding back to the barn. Horses have a good sense of direction and they usually know when you are heading back home. All of a sudden the horse that was pokey going out starts to jig and bounce coming home. There are a couple of ways to deal with this:

If you have all the time in the world, when your horse starts to jig, turn him around and ride back out. Don’t try this when you need to be back at a certain time. It is guaranteed not to work if you start to get frustrated or impatient.

Another method is to put your horse into a leg yield or shoulder in position. Then if he jigs, it is more work for him than simply walking.

If your horse really gets worked up, certainly you can dismount. It’s always best for you to feel safe and to stay in control.

Bits, Martingales & Neck Straps

If your horse is flipping his head and jumping up and down (like Freedom used to), you can try riding with a running martingale. I’m not a big fan of bitting up an anxious horse as it can just cause them to drop behind the bit. A running martingale gives you a little bit more leverage and helps keep his head down. A standing martingale can also be a life saver when riding a horse that flips its head. I had a mare who must have been part giraffe and that standing martingale saved my nose a few times!

Another useful piece of tack is a neck strap — I use an old stirrup leather — that goes around his neck. Pressure on the neck strap is calming and allows you to exert control without constant pressure on the bit. If I’m riding a horse that’s acting up, I’ll hook a finger or two through the neck strap and give it some steady pressure. Not only does it give a slow down cue, but it helps keep your hands still which can also help.

Finally, try to ride with a loose rein. It’s not always possible but it does help your horse relax.

You can certainly talk to your horse if they find it calming and I’ve known a few folks who sing (I suspect my singing might have the opposite effect). The trick is to keep breathing and stay relaxed.

How about you? Did your horse love the trails the right from the first? Do you still have butterflies about the scary trail monsters? What has your experience been?

7 thoughts on “Can your horse learn to love trails?

  1. My horse has evented, and from actual cross country jumping and conditioning gallops, he is terrible on the trails around my house. Unfortunately, they’re not really safe to do anything but walk, so there is no way to allow him to let out the anticipatory tension he builds. I just go a tiny bit farther each time, and he was gradually getting better and better. Then we had problems with packs of dogs attacking horses, and I decided staying within a fenced enclosure was a good idea for a while… I need some sort of animal repellant I can control enough to keep it out of his eyes/nose, because I want back out there! My other horse was my mom’s trail horse, and that was all she had done in her life – she’s obviously fantastic to take out!

  2. I think that a horse that can’t ride out isn’t a trained horse, no mater what s/he can do in an arena. Rather than hand walking, I pony a new/young horse off my mare, who is forward but calm and non-reactive. They learn how to do it all without a rider, and adding a rider after that is no big deal.

    1. I was extremely lucky. I rescued a horse who was extremely under weight and had a horrible leg injury. (The vet actually told me it was a 50/50% chance of recovery) After a few months of twice daily wound care and lots of groceries he was finally ready to ride. Turns out he’s a world class trail horse. Nothing spooks him, he goes through water, over bridges, on roads, anywhere you ask. I lucked out. I now take all the newbies out on trails at our barn. I think your advise is great though. The only problem I would have is I cant mount from the ground (too many old injuries and too tall of a horse). Luckily I have never been in a situation where I have had to dismount.

  3. 90% of my riding life was spent on either open land or trails. Then I wanted to learn how to ‘ride’. 😉 I ended up on a lot of arena Divas. And really missed what I learned was dangerous and stupid (pre-cell phones) riding: no one knowing I was going out, where, or when I was coming back.
    Your advice is spot on. I like the ‘one-rein stop’ as a good pre-installed button too, before you go out. My other requirement: horse has to know how to follow cues to back up directionally: around a corner, sideways, off just one leg, etc. Practicing opening and closing gates, or in a pole ‘course’ first can help bring home that idea.
    Excellent post!

  4. My horse is a work in progress out on the trail. He’s super confident in-hand, yet when I hop on he looses his nerves. So we’re kind of just going back and forth trying to get him confident with me on him out there. He’s made a ton of progress though since our first try out there.

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