Group Options and Resources
The first logical requirement for group trail rides is having a reliable horse. If you haven’t invested in a dependable trail horse yet you may want to borrow a nice and reliable horse who is a seasoned veteran of group rides. This would also give you an opportunity to find an equestrian group or groups that you would feel comfortable with to plan future rides and even trips.
Not all group rides are equal! If you live in an area that has accessible trails and you know other folks with horses, you can organize your own group rides. If you don’t have horsey neighbors or are seeking new folks to ride with there are organized groups all over the country. In Texas, we have a great organization called Texas Equestrian Trail Riders Association (TETRA) and many other states have corresponding associations that you may join. (TB or TTUSA are great sources of information for your area)
What type of horse does it take?
If you are buying a horse, choose wisely, it is not just a monetary investment but an emotional one too which also carries physical ramifications in terms of your safety. If you already have a horse that you plan to ride on group rides, do an honest assessment of his skills; he may not be the perfect horse to enjoy group horse trail riding with.
The best trail horse candidates are confident individuals that have willing and generous natures. A horse with a confident nature can usually be trained or coached to do almost anything. Self-confidence will be a necessary trait for a horse ridden in group rides.
Not all horses are equal and some simply are not trailed, horse candidates. Some are just too nervous or timid and others are unsocial. Most trail problems stem from lack of confidence, which can manifest in behaviors such as jigging, shying, rearing and balking. Usually these problems can be corrected in a horse that has a confident nature; however, they are often very difficult to remedy in a horse that is by nature extremely nervous or insecure. Some timid and nervous horses can be taught a certain amount of confidence but there are individual horses that no (reasonable) amount of de-spooking or de-sensitizing will transform into safe or confident trail horses.
If you read “Buddy Bound” by Sean Patrick in last month’s TrailBlazer you will already have obtained some great insight into how to create a reliable companion horse. Sean (Patrick) clearly outlined strategies to correct the behaviors of a buddy-bound horse, which is great preparation for group rides. If you have a horse that suits your abilities and personality then you will need a checklist of skills that are needed for group riding and if you are purchasing a horse these same skills will apply to your shopping.
Group dynamics can greatly influence an individual horse’s concentration and in turn, his behavior. If your horse is proficient at the following skills, your chances for an enjoyable ride will be greatly increased.
Speed control, your horse should be obedient to pick up any speed that you ask and remain in it until asked to make a transition. Directional control, he should go where you ask him to go, willingly and without resistance and this includes forward or backing motion. Body control! This means his entire body; front end, middle section and hindquarters. In other words, is the maneuverable; will he let you guide his body especially in tight spots and on a variety of terrain?
Your trail horse should know several default behaviors or positions. The default behavior is a move or exercise that the horse knows very well and will perform on cue. Default moves that we like to use include the Park Out, the side pass, the Obeisance, shoulder-in, or even trotting circles. A horse can only concentrate on one thing at a time and if his concentration is on giving the default move or behavior that you ask, he will be less likely to engage in silliness. Of course, the type of terrain that you are on will dictate which defaults are useable in a particular instance. A narrow trail may prohibit a side pass but maybe a perfect place to ask for a few steps of shoulder-in or Spanish Walk. Engage the horse’s mind and his body to maintain control and good manners
Default moves are a form of manageable movement. It may take a few seconds or a few minutes to fully engage a horse’s mind even if his body is engaged. Plan ahead and decide what exercise helps your horse to relax and focus on you, his work, not on what other horses may be doing.
Play leapfrog with another horse or two (and rider) to get a horse acquainted with changing speeds and distances in a group. You can do this by one or two riders either walking quietly or standing while another trots or even lopes ahead a predetermined distance then, in turn, stand and wait for the others to catch up. Keep all horses involved in a clear vision of each other (at first) so keep separation stress to a minimum.
Displacing the hindquarters is a useful tactic when you need to gain control in a panic situation. Disengagement doesn’t really take power or energy away from the situation or the hindquarters, it only temporarily displaces it. If you need a few seconds delay time, by all means, displace the horse’s hind end but then immediately help him channel the energy forward with a meaningful exercise(s).