So many people who own horses, love to trail ride. Most people who describe a horse they just trail ride on will say “he’s just a trail horse”. They make it sound as if a good trail horse lacks value for some reason! To me, a good trail horse is one of the hardest things to find. There is so much a trail horse has to endure that other disciples just don’t achieve all at once. I think that statement really discredits the value of a solid trail horse.
As a trainer, I get a lot of customers that want their horses to be better on the trail. Often times the trouble is the horses will spook, shy, bolt, refuse obstacles, jig, buddy sour, panic if they get separated, etc. While these problems are usually symptoms of other issues, they are achievable in fixing by creating a more well rounded training and maintenance program.
Most problems on the trail stem from anxiety. Anxiety is an emotion that stems from not feeling like you have control over what happens to you. You are basically living in the future and thinking and reacting to things that may happen but haven’t happened yet, therefore triggers are everywhere. With horses, when they feel insecure, the react in fight, flight or freeze. The more we can help them understand and practice what bothers them, the more their confidence builds. The important part though, in my opinion, is to have a good starting point where you and the horse have a good relationship and line of communication through solid basics.
Something that changed my program is learning to watch the whole horse, especially the eye. Often times, when a horse spooks or is getting ready to leave during a training exercise, they are looking the other way before their body every shifts. Every horse has a weak spot somewhere. It may be things lying or dragging on the ground, things above them, things behind them or things approaching them from the front. Once I started to take note of the eyes, I realized that the horses weren’t able to look at the thing they were afraid of and at some point they’d escape as the pressure built up. A change to my program was to diversify the exercises I do and incorporating things that teach a horse how to look at the object rather than look away. To my surprise, I found that the things that once bothered a horse, became less and less of an issue if I gave them time look at the thing and check it out. The secret was in the eyes… the eyes said it all!
A common practice is desensitizing a horse to “spooky” objects. I did that for a long time but still found the same weaknesses in the horses as well as dullness to to aids. What I do now, is go back and use some of the same objects but instead of teaching the horse to stand and tolerate them, I work on having the horse connect to the object. When a horse connects to an object with their eyes, the next thing that happens is their body will start to soften. Teach the horse to interact with something spooky rather than just ignore it. When a horse understands how to look at something that bothers them, basically you teach them to rationally approach a situation, they build confidence in the task at hand.
A common issues is working with a horse on water obstacles. Depending on the horse, some have trouble with large bodies of water and some struggle with little creeks. Same goes with tarp work… The key is understanding how that horse looks at the obstacles. Horses don’t have very good depth perception and often they need to look at an obstacle one eye at a time as well as being able to move their head up or down to get a good look at the obstacle. Most riders see a horse moving their head and neck away from the obstacle as a sign of resistance and urge the horse forward. It’s kind of like standing at the edge of a cliff, looking over the side carefully to see what’s below and then having someone come push you closer… it causes you to push back to stay out of danger. Horses are no different.
When working on weaknesses of the horse, I really try and stay patient. If the horse has previous history of being urged off the cliff so to speak, the horse is likely to automatically defend himself in anticipation that you’ll push him. This is a habit that needs to be replaced with another habit of teaching the horse to look and to have him feel that we will allow him to look and investigate the object or situation. If you slow down and allow a horse to do his own investigation, the chances of getting in a fight with your horse will be slim. On the other side of that, there needs to be an effective line of communication. Most horses seek the easiest possible option, not because they are stubborn but because their brains aren’t wired for higher moral thought of doing the right thing even if its the harder thing to do. Having tools on your horse where you can work on obstacles and the horse thinks the obstacle is the easiest option, that is a tool that is your best friend.
Another common problem is horses not wanting to go towards something. They tend to not want to leave the barn, or go towards something they perceive dangerous and we urge them on in an attempt to get them to go. This is very much the same pushing them off the cliff mentality. When you pressure your horse to go forward in a direction they don’t want to go, you are making the right thing hard. Again, horses lack the capacity to understand to do the right thing if they perceive it as the harder thing to do. The resistance you deal with, usually causes us to think of the animal as being stubborn or willful when in reality he’s just seeking doing the easy thing. The trouble with barn sourness, buddy sourness, approaching tough situations, is because the horse already has a level of anxiety about the task because you are taking them out of their comfort zone. When we push them, we double the anxiety they feel as well as push them much further out of their comfort zone. Pretty soon it becomes a learned habit to resist harder and harder because they feel more and more uncomfortable. Hopefully that makes sense… basically to fix a horse that has issues like this, you do the opposite. Instead of pushing them where you want to go, you allow them to go where they feel comfortable and reestablish a place where they feel at peace and can regain their confidence that they have control over what happens to them. The more a horse feels like they have control of their environment, the more confident they get. BUT… as humans we seem to resist the idea that a horse should control anything… When you change that mindset, everything gets easier!
Building a more confident trail horse is all based around preparation and execution of good psychology practices. The more you prepare with the tools and communication, the more productive lessons you’ll be able to work through with your horse. An attitude where we assume the horse is being stubborn, is often the source of a lot of learned resistance from the horse. Understanding that horses are only wired to do what they feel is easy, allows us to teach them so much without all the turmoil. The old saying of make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult isn’t just a fad statement in the horsemanship world but rather a statement that science backs up. Horses are wired to do what they feel is the easiest thing because energy preservation is the key to survival. Figuring out how to make the right thing easy is the secret to having a confident and fun horse to ride. Happy Trails!