How Team Skills Influence your Your Horse Trail

If you maintain a positive attitude, it will be easier for your horse to focus.

Be committed towards success and be willing to work within your horse’s capacity to learn new skills regularly. Educating a great trail horse takes time, as much time as is necessary, which doesn’t mean 30-day increments. It may take years to develop the ultimate companion horse but it is well worth it.

Start with a single horse and rider and if all goes well, then move on to a group of two or three riding partners before joining a larger group. Introduce a new element of possibilities one at a time. Horses love security whether it is a familiar horse trail riding, or being in familiar company. If any of the elements change, be prepared for new or slightly different behavior from your horse.

Tip the herd dynamics scale

If you find that your horse has more problems with herd dynamics than you anticipated there are a few things that I have found useful. Get your horse comfortable working with other horses by trotting two or three around the round pen as described in Liberty Training II (issue).

Work a dominant horse in the round pen while mounted on a more timid horse. Go easy as the goal is to slowly herd the more dominant horse. Keep enough distance between horses to avoid being kicked and always carry a long whip for this exercise.

Tie horses that will be riding together in close proximity several times during the week for varying periods of time before riding them together.

The Human Equation

Choose riding partners carefully. Consider each horse/rider combination as a team. Choose the best team members you feel comfortable with, that you like and that you trust. In preparation for large equestrian trail riding, introduce trustworthy riding partners to your horse one at a time.

Planning helps to prevent long term problems, so get pertinent ride information before you commit to any group ride. Here are some examples: How many horses will be included? What is the level of difficulty for the trails that will be ridden? Are there ride rules or guidelines to help provide a safe atmosphere? Is there a ride steward or trail boss?

Be a defensive rider. Don’t assume that all riders or horses are courteous and well behaved. The nicest horse on the planet is capable of some surprising behavior when put in a new or stressful situation.

Be aware of your surroundings and of group dynamics at all times. Be constantly conscious of the change.

Pair up with an experienced horse and rider until your own horse is comfortable. If we take out more than one green (inexperienced) horse in a small equestrian group, we pair each green horse with a reliable horse.

Choose a human/horse teammate that will allow you to buddy up with if your horse needs a calming influence or even help in negotiating an obstacle.

If you have any doubt at all that you can control your horse in any situation that may arise, it means that you are probably not ready to join a group ride.

A great source of information for trail riders is “Trail Riding” by Rhonda Hart Poe. Study up on trail etiquette and observe it.

The goal of preparation is to help a horse develop the skills required to be a solid and steady mount in any situation. In other words, the Ultimate Companion Horse.

Is Your Horse Ready for a Group Trail Ride?

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.

Skills Required

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).