Preparing a Horse for the Trail

It takes time and many wet saddle blankets to make a good trail horse. It's true some horses are naturally more tolerant than others. Even so, it helps to prepare our horses (and ourselves) ahead of time in an arena, round pen or corral. Much like an actor rehearses before a big show, we can "rehearse" for the trail. Obstacles present themselves almost constantly when horseback riding on the trail. Whether it is birds popping up out of the bushes or the sound of some unknown monster (likely licking its lips) crashing through the brush, our trail horses face it all.

Essential horse skills which are crucial for safety on the trail include hauling, standing tied quietly, well maintained equipment and trail specific desensitizing. Most importantly, trail horses must be patient. The skills presented here may sound simple. However, after hauling your horse for several miles, unloading in a strange place, possibly, with other horses and whatever unknown scary horse-eating monsters might be present, your normally calm cool and collected horse might not be so calm, cool and collected after all. To master basic trail skills at home will prepare you and your horse to handle stressors better on the trail.

Standing quietly, for a horse, is equivalent to telling a two year old to sit on their hands. There is so much to see and do for our curious horse buddies, standing still seems like such a drag. So, how do you teach a horse to stand quietly? Most of the tried and true methods include spending lots of time with your horse on the ground at home. Teaching a horse patience is one of the most important aspects of training. A great way to teach a horse patience is to tie them, safely, often and for extended periods of time. Start light with 15 minutes at a time. Then, work your way up to whatever time you think would be fair and necessary. You never know when you'll need to tie your horse to a tree or trailer when you're on the trail. It's a great quality we often take for granted until we need it.

Loading a horse in the trailer can be like stuffing a salmon in a sardine can. Again, patience comes into play here. There are many ways to address this issue with horses. In my opinion, the best way is to practice, practice, and when you're done, practice some more. A few years ago I was having some difficulty getting my horse to load. A friend of mine asked if I had ever had a bad experience with a horse in the trailer. The answer was, heck YEAH! I had two horses blow out of the trailer and I was completely reliving the experience, at least subconsciously, with my new horse. I was, literally, holding my breath as we entered the trailer. My very wise friend suggested that I try to visualize safely entering the trailer, putting the lead rope through the window, closing the gate, walking out and tying her from the outside. Now, it didn't go exactly that way at first. But, with time and practice, we now load and unload regularly without a hitch (knock on wood).

Try not to hesitate or get in front of the horse when loading. A horse should be able to stay at your side or, even better, load up with you standing by the trailer. Teaching your horse to lead properly will help you with many trailering issues. I have created a routine with my horse that is very effective for us. I send her through, then walk in, throw the lead through the window, put up the divide, walk around the other side and tie her. This is what works for me. There are countless ways to load up. No matter what you do, remember, this is one of the most dangerous situations you can get into with a horse. Be safe!

Another often overlooked trail tip is tacking up. How many times have you swung the saddle up on a horse that is no longer there? Not only do you feel foolish, but, the last one tacked up is a rotten egg. There are many tips to help a horse get over this. Mostly, it's a practice issue. Spend some time at the hitching post swinging the saddle up and taking it off. It's also a good idea to check you tack before getting on. Make sure everything fits correctly and is in good working condition.

Saddle fit has become quite a technical process with countless websites dedicated to the subject. I'm not going to go into detail here. But, I will say, tack fit is very important when it comes to the comfort for you and your horse. Over time an uncomfortable horse will become more easily agitated. Things that might not normally bother him will cause him to react. Imagine walking around in tight pants with an itchy tag. It may not bother you much at first, but, after a while you would get pretty irritated. It's definitely worth looking into.

Siding up to mount is a great little tool to have on the trail. The words that come to mind when I think about this aspect of training are time consuming and frustrating. Therefore, I like to start this part of training after my coffee edge wears off, around noon or so. You can't be in a hurry to teach a horse to be still. I set up the mounting block, 5 gallon bucket, a rock, a stump or whatever I have on hand in the arena. The, I put the horse in positions; this is not too difficult until you stand on the object you are trying to mount from. About this time, the horse realizes what you are trying to do and proceeds to make it clear that he isn't about to let you. Aw, patience, that word again. I will lead and push my horse through the fence line and mounting block several times (while the horse consistently swings his rear away from me) until he gets tired and finally fives in.

Once we have an understanding about the positioning and we're okay with me being a few inches taller than he remembered, I rattle the saddle back and forth, making sure he is still quiet. I mount up; make him stand for several seconds and away we go. I will practice this in the arena three to four times in a day. I can't tell you what a difference it makes. Another tip is when you're on the trail, prior to mounting, survey the area for any potential horse eating, spook makers. And never, ever, ever, did I say never, walk off before the folks you are riding with are in the saddle and ready to go.

Now for the fun part. Welcome to the Halloween portion of the show. De-spooking is our friend. Prepare your horse and yourself by setting up obstacles that mirror those that you might find on the trail. It can be fun to experiment, just remember, your horse can become overwhelmed if you do too much at once. As with all training, breaking things down into steps helps you and your horse develop trust. You might want to expose your horse to ATV;s, plastic bags, tarps, cars, hikers/backpacks, umbrellas and slickers. Ironically, the horse is most likely to spook at a rock or a split tree on the trail. Our friend says he's sure the horse doesn't want to be eaten by whatever laid that rock.

One fun exercise that can help with this is to tie a rope to a broken branch or shrub and have a friend drag it on the other side of your training area while you have your horse in hand. Walk around keeping the same distance until the horse relaxes. Bring the branch closer as the horses' reaction dictates. Take your time and eventually your horse will be able to drag the shrub or branch from the saddle. Be creative and have fun with desensitizing. Over time, your horse can learn to be calm under many potentially hazardous conditions. Giving to the rope is a great lesson for our trail pals. I didn't realize how important this was until my horse got her leg caught in a lead rope while we were horse camping. She was about a hundred feet from me, but, it felt like an ocean between us. I thought for sure she would pull her leg off and I could do nothing but watch it happen. Fortunately, because of her training (an cool head) she waited until I got there, realized her leg and let me take care of the situation. I was so grateful she wan not harmed.

Try this trick to help your horse give to the pressure of a rope. Wrap one end of a soft cotton lead rope just below the fetlock while holding the other end in your hand. Take care to release quickly if the horse seems agitated. Once you have a loop, pull gently until the horse fives to the pressure and lifts the leg. The, release the end of the lead immediately. As the horse becomes more comfortable giving to the pressure of the rope, keep the leg up a little longer. Repeat the process with all 5 of the legs (just making sure you're still with me).

There are countless websites, magazine articles, books, videos and clinicians dedicated to horse training. I'm just a crusty old horse chick with a few tricks up her sleeve. The most important information I can offer is to practice, be consistent, be patient, honor you horses' instincts and prepare your horse one step at a time. The most essential tool in a horse and human relationship is, trust. So, be trustworthy. Your horse will learn to look to you for answers.

Written by Roberta Beene

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