There's no worse feeling than that of being out on a trail ride and finding out the hard way that you or your horse were unprepared for some unexpected obstacle and had to cut your ride short, or worse – got hurt. Planning ahead and practicing some simple obstacle challenges to prep your horse ahead of time can help identify areas that need a little extra attention and help make your next trail ride both safe and fun.
If there's one thing that I've truly been able to enjoy while I was working to get my confidence back in the saddle after my accident, is being able to work with my young horse on developing the skills necessary to be confident on the trail. I learned that just because I wasn't riding my horse yet, didn't mean I couldn't prepare her for many of the things that we would encounter out on the trail. From the time she was a weanling, we tackled many different obstacle challenges, went on long trail walks over varied terrain, and even had her carry various objects while wearing a bareback pad, and when she was big enough – the saddle. Not only did this build her confidence, but it built my own confidence and leadership skills in various situations we encountered. Exposing the horse to everything from the ground first before attempting it in the saddle sets you up for success when you are finally ready for that first trail ride.
One of the exercises I have found most beneficial for all my horses is teaching them to be okay with dragging objects and being okay with ropes dragging on the ground and touching them on all parts of their body while they are in motion. Many horses are quite fearful of things dragging on the ground and this can cause a HUGE train wreck if not addressed. What if you are the dragging object!?! Make sure that your horse is okay with ropes touching its legs and rump. This is a death spot for horses, so they are naturally fearful of anything touching them in these areas of the body. Start with your horse standing still. Once they are confident with that, then ask them to walk while doing some approach and retreat with the rope. Eventually you'll be able to have the rope dragging all around the horse while they are in motion and touching all areas of the body.
Make sure that your horse can handle walking behind an object being dragged (like a tarp), can walk beside it and have it dragging behind. Try testing various senarios, like first with the object on the same side as you are (for safety). Then when they are okay with that, try having it on the opposite side. Another challenge would be to have the horse backing up and the object coming towards them from the front. That one gets a LOT of horses!!
Try changing up the object you are dragging. Use your imagination. Get your horse okay with all kinds of different objects and they'll be less spooked by things they encounter on the trail.
Simulate Fallen Trees
You would be surprised at how many horses are NOT okay with going over an obstacle like a fallen tree or large fallen tree limbs. This is a common scenario on a wooded trail and could signal the end of your trail ride of your horse refuses to go over them. There are a lot of different ways you can practice this skill set and it will help set you up with the needed leadership skills for other things like water crossings. Start small by sending your horse over a pole on the ground first, then gradually raise it up. When they can travel freely over that obstacle move on to large obstacles like barrels or logs if you have them.
Another thing to test is that your horse is okay with straddling obstacles like this. The belly is another death spot, so lots of horses don't like to stand over obstacles. Make sure your horse is okay with standing over various obstacles. You can try using rocks, cones, or anything else that will fit under their bellies 🙂
A great tip I learned from my Parelli Natural Horsemanship Instructor Christi Rains that can help develop positive reflexes with going over jumps and other obstacles is to immediately reward your horse for going over the obstacle by sitting on the obstacle for 5 minutes. The key is that you have to immediately sit on the barrel or whatever you are jumping over and do NOTHING for a long time. It's a very motivating strategy for your horse.
Not all trails are nice and flat. There may be a time when your horse needs to to up or down a steep hill or step off a small ledge. Getting them comfortable with traveling over various types of terrain not only helps build them up physically, it helps them to learn where their feet are and what they are capable of. It's not fun riding a horse that rushes up or down a steep hill or that pops up a small embankment rather than purposefully walks up it. You'll be more likely to stay in the saddle with the latter! If you are lucky enough to have access to some hills and embankments to practice on, that's great! But if you don't, you can practice by using various sized platforms or pedestals. Getting them okay with stepping up and down in a relaxed manner.
Make sure that you practice getting your horse to stop part way down the hill, back up and then go forward again one step at a time. This is a great exercise in getting your horse to use it's hindquarters and not rush. Start it on the ground first and then test it in the saddle.
One of the more common challenges faced for the trail rider is water! It's quite amazing how even a small puddle can pose a problem for certain horses! Even my own. I had a mare that just couldn't STAND to get her feet wet at all. She would jump every little puddle or go the long way around, even when just out in the pasture after a rain shower. One of the first trail rides I went on with her just happened to have a small shallow creek crossing right at the beginning of the trail head. That was NOT fun to try and get across as a newbie and looking back, if I could do it all over again, I would definitely have gotten off my horse and just walked across on foot. Or, better yet, done some of these exercises at home first had I known them back then 🙂
Sending your horse into the water is a lot like trailer loading. You'll send the horse in zone by zone and "load the eyes" as I've heard Christi Rains say SO many times when doing a trailer loading demo. Reward the little tries. If the horse takes a step forward or puts a foot in, back off and stop asking. Then ask for a little bit more each time, remembering to "talk to the nose" and keep the horse's eyes and nose pointed in the direction you want them to go. And most important of all, protect your personal space! Maintain a safety zone between you and the horse and don't allow them to come through that imaginary bubble. That's where your leadership skills will really come into play.
If you don't have access to a small pond or creek to pratice on, you can simulate water by using a tarp laid out on the ground. For an added challenge, why not add some noise to the mix? A fun challenge is to create a box using landscaping timbers and filling the space with empty plastic bottles! This is a great way to boost your horse's confidence with stepping on objects that make noise, like aluminum cans, plastic and branches.
Another great challenge is to simulate a tight squeeze on a heavily wooded trail where tree branches or bushes will be brushing either side of your horse. This can be a very claustrophic situation for a horse. Not something that you want to find out last minute that your horse has a problem with. You can set up this simulation using simple pool noodles and a couple of posts or jump standards and zip ties. Send your horse back and forth through the obstacle until they can willingly and confidently go through without rushing.
While we can never foresee every single thing that we might encounter on the trail, the more things you expose your horse to, the more likely they will not be blown away when they come across something new or unexpected in your travels. Set up little tests and challenges on a regular basis for your horse. Engage the help of your other horse friends and make a play day of it. Your horse will continue to get braver and braver with each new thing you introduce. And always remember that if despite of all the preparation your horse has a problem with something on the trail that you don't feel confident to handle in the saddle, just GET OFF and live to ride another day! You can always work it out on the ground and get back on once you are past the problem spot.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork, using essential oils for animals and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".
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