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.

Learn to Dismount Safely in an Emergency

Nobody has to tell the horseback riders that the unexpected should be expected, or that the exception to the rule is the norm. We’ve seen it all, from crazy terrain in the backcountry to wild reactions from a horse. The trail can throw a lot of curveballs our way! To help us all stay safe, we will discuss a variety of situations that may or may not require a controlled, quick departure from the saddle.

Commit to the Ride

Most of the time, you are safer in the saddle. When I start colts I commit to the ride and do not look for a place to land or cloud my thoughts with “what if.” I confidently sit down and ride the horse. When jumps, side-steps and bucks happen, I stay centered and teach the horse that everything is still alright and I’m not going anywhere. This is not the time to bail. My horse gains confidence and I stay safe remaining balanced and mounted.

In order to continue building personal confidence in addition to a better equestrian trail riding seat, stay with horses that suit your ability and ride in areas that are easy to negotiate. With experience—time in the saddle—you can then recognize true danger. I used to ride with my boss’s brother. He was not an experienced horseman. At the first sign of “trouble” he would clasp his hands together and dive off the saddle onto the ground below. It actually became a bit funny to the rest of us. In my opinion he would have been better off committing to the ride.

The “Step Off”

To learn how to step off your horse quickly, focus on getting on better. In my training program I spend ample time doing “up downs.” This is a confidence-building exercise for the horse where I stay energized beside him and progressively mount the horse until both my legs are in the stirrups. This actually does a lot for the rider, since it teaches our body to both mount and dismount smoothly and quickly without pulling on the saddle. If you can get on with grace, you can most likely “step off” with some too.

When I trail ride I usually have a full rain suit, sweater and vest all rolled and tied behind the cantle in addition to saddle bags. These items can impede your leg from swinging off. Practice mounting and dismounting with “up downs” at home and make sure that you are confident and ready to react correctly when needed.

Helping the Horse

Sometimes you need to step off the horse to help him. A good example would be a horse that has sunken in a mud bog. Obviously, this was not a planned event, but now that you feel your horse unable to lift himself out of this sloppy footing, you can smoothly swing your leg over the cantle and stand beside him. This takes all that extra weight off him and allows him to hopefully regain his balance quickly. In this case you would not let go of your reins if you can help it. Once he is back on solid ground, take a moment and check him over letting him settle before you mount up again and move off.

Another example is when a horse stumbles from time to time. In almost all of these cases, staying on is the right answer. But, every once and a while, such as last week for me, a horse stumbles down to both knees. In this situation, you can quickly step off him and let him regain his legs from under him. This has happened to me in the snow, on rocks and with young horses that are on their first few rides. When a horse is stumbling it is not always helpful to offset your weight by trying to get off. Sometimes you can make it worse. Experience will help you decide.

For the Riders Sake

Stepping off the saddle quickly is best for your safety. An example might be a horse that is rearing up and might flip backwards. Nobody wants this to happen to them, but even good horses stumble on ground wasps from time to time. Again, experience will tell you if you should stay on or step down, but if you do decide to dismount, decide quickly. Lean forward and grab the mane as you swing your leg off and step down. And, if there are ground wasps, run for the water!

Another case where you might step off for your own safety is when a horse starts to buck on unsafe footing, such as rocks or near a cliff. If your horse sees sand or water and likes to drop and roll, be prepared to step off as this is not a safe type of reaction. I once rode a horse named Sampson that would drop in a small puddle if he was hot. I only stepped off him once and then watched as others found his quirk over the years.

Mountain Settings
On steep—severe—climbs I have never had a situation that warranted an emergency dismount. I have always felt safer staying centered and with the horse; whereas, on steep declines I have. Sometimes a long downhill trek can really shift your saddle up the horse’s neck. It’s usually by surprise, or else you would already be on foot. In this case stay very centered until you’re ready and then step off quickly to the high side of the trail. If you were to fall forward, it could be very dangerous. Remember, long downhill trails should be taken with the horse in hand. When you are on a sloped trail, where one side is high and the other drops off remember to step to the high side.

If you want to see a quick “step off” in action, watch a calf roper. Those boys swing off the saddle and hit the ground running. It takes a lot of dismounts to be that quick and smooth, but practice will prepare you for the time you need it most. Stay aware and attentive to your balance, your horse and the footing on the trail and remember that a swan dive is never the answer. Have fun and safe horse trail riding!