Trail riding: it’s not just for endurance or western pleasure riders. Trail riding is a great compliment to horses and riders of all disciplines for a few reasons. Firstly, it allows a horse to become more familiar with unfamiliar situations. If a horse goes to new places on trail rides, he won’t be so bound to his surroundings to be confident.
Secondly, trail rides can deepen the partnership between a horse and rider, because a horse will look more to his rider about how to react to new situations, and develop a deeper sense of trust.
Thirdly, trail riding is also a great way to develop certain muscle groups more rapidly. Going up and down hills causes horses to engage their hind end and core muscles without any extra cue from the rider. Furthermore, uneven terrain helps develop balance and mental focus in a horse.
With all of these benefits, desensitizing your green horse for the trails could be a great addition to your training program. However, riding a trail-ready horse and training a new horse for the trails are two entirely different experiences.
How To Train A Horse For Trail Riding?
Fortunately, there are many ways to desensitize a green horse for trail riding. You can use any of these tools that seem to fit your horse and riding style the best, and even mix and match until your horse is confident on the trails.
Objects & Obstacles
When desensitizing a green horse for trail riding, a good place to start is within their comfort zone. A great way to begin is simply by introducing new objects and situations. Think of object and obstacle training as the simulation stage of training your horse for the trails.
Before you bring them to a new location, spend time in an arena or round pen that they’re familiar with. Introduce odd objects, like plastic grocery bags and empty water bottles. Allow your horse to see them from afar at first, then try to approach. Let them hear the different sounds they make and see how they move.
Now, when it comes to introducing your horse to potentially “scary” objects, the line between encouraging and pushing is a delicate one. Pay extra attention to your horse’s body language. The more curiosity and bravery you can encourage, the better. The point of these desensitization sessions is to introduce something new to them, but it’s not supposed to leave them feeling like they just have to stand there in fear.
Horses learn to be brave by seeing that they didn’t get hurt. How do you reinforce this? Every time your horse allows a closer proximity to the “scary” object, remove the object out of your horse’s personal space. What this does is teaches your horse that they made it through the encounter without something happening. The release patterns their brain for positive experience with the object.
As with objects, obstacle courses are a great way to deepen their desensitization process by giving them the opportunity to choose to walk through new circumstances. Many horse owners will create their own obstacle courses with funny objects, like pool noodles attached to jumps, tires staggered in two rows for a horse to walk through, shallow water splash pads, and traffic cones.
Other horse owners make natural obstacle courses by paving a dirt path through a tree-filled edge of the property and adding a small fake bridge in the middle of the path. These are all great ways to desensitize a horse to trails in a controlled environment.
Once you feel your horse is confident enough to venture outside your property, you can lead up to trail riding by simply hand-walking him to new places. If your barn or property is close to trails or even gravel roads, start by walking your green horse off the property.
Since horses are herd animals, it is always a good idea to start by going with at least one other horse and rider. Your green horse will not only feel comfort in the security of numbers, but also look to the other horses’ reactions to all the new stimuli.
Start small to see what your horse is comfortable with, then extend both the length of time and the distance that you travel. When your horse encounters things that cause him apprehension, take some time to just let him look at whatever it is.
Whether it’s a barking dog behind a fence, or just a mailbox, just let your horse “hang out” with his buddy until the fear passes. Many horses, when given time to just evaluate the danger from a safe distance, will realize that there is no real threat.
When you feel confident to go to an actual trail, ponying is a great way to ride the trails before actually being on your horse’s back. If you’ve never ponied before, you may want to practice at home first to get comfortable with it.
Ponying is simply walking your horse next to you on a lead rope as you ride another horse. This is only really worthwhile if the horse you ride is already calm and confident on the trails. The point of ponying is to allow your horse to experience the trails without being ridden yet, potentially saving you both from added pressure and fear while introducing new surroundings.
When ponying, remember to never wrap the lead rope all the way around your hand, and keep your horse close to you. You want your horse to be parallel to the horse you’re riding, with his nose right around the mid-belly or flank.
You as the rider know best when your horse is ready to be ridden on the trails. This could be right after some desensitization work, or after going through all of these phases of trail training multiple times. But when you finally do hit the trails, just remember to relax. Allow your horse to be curious when he’s apprehensive about something new.
You may be nervous about your horse’s first reactions to everything. But remember, he’s taking his fear cues from you. So often we as riders give our horses reasons to fear by just worrying about their potential reactions! Even if your horse were to spook at something, you’ll think better on your feet if you’re relaxed first. Start with shorter rides, and build on them by going to new places each time.
And remember, also, to simply enjoy this time with your horse. Your adventures on the trail will allow you to learn and develop trust together that will carry over to all other aspects of your riding and create a well-rounded partnership.