Trail Riding Position Preferences

Build your horse up to be both a confident trail leader, unafraid of the unknown ahead, and a fearless follower, not worried about being left behind.
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Build your horse up to be both a confident trail leader, unafraid of the unknown ahead, and a fearless follower, not worried about being left behind.
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A friend relayed a story to me recently. she runs a boarding barn, and teaches horsemanship and riding. In her group of school horses, she has a sweet, placid little horse named Petunia. Petunia's usual job is to tote nervous beginners in reassuringly monotonous circles around the arena. "And, boy, is she good at it," my friend told me. Petunia is her always-to-be-counted-on, bomb-proof ride. Until you get her out on the trail.

My friend had taken a group of more experienced riders out on a trail ride to practice the very common exercise of changing positions within a group, from front to middle to back and then front again. She described for me how, within moments of dropping to the back of the pack, Petunia slowed to a sullen stop, despite her rider's best efforts. "She crouched down slightly, and then suddenly exploded vertically into the air, hovering with her belly some five feet off the ground as she kicked out with both hind feet before landing almost exactly where she took off." Evidently, my friend noted, Petunia does not like to be in the back of a group when she is outside the arena.

Jockey for Position

  • Before you hit the trail, make sure you've taught and perfected important cues at home, in a safe environment.
  • Remember the motto: Ride where you can, not where you can't.
  • When you're on the trail, work as though you were at home.
  • Play leap frog on the trail with your friends to accustom all the horses to switching positions.

Safety in Numbers
Think of these group positions from the horse's perspective. The front horse has to be brave enough to face whatever the group may encounter first. Horses in the middle of the group may feel safer, but they also may feel crowded or as though they're constantly competing for position. The horse at the end of the group may be terrified that he's going to be left behind.

So it's quite common for horses to tell their riders very clearly that they prefer to be at the front, middle, or back of a group of horses depending on what their needs may be. They may communicate position preferences by jigging-for the entire ride. They may toss their heads-for the entire ride. They may slow down to the slowest crawl. They may shimmy off to the side. They may buck or shy at any opportunity.

All of these behaviors, however, can be extremely annoying to the rider, who-very correctly-feels as though he or she is not actually in control of the horse. These reactions can also happen in the arena, but position preference becomes much more obvious when you're no longer circling in an enclosed space, but are out with a group, going from Point A to Point B.

The purpose of going on a trail ride with friends is to have fun and enjoy a relaxing ride. That's not going to happen if your horse is ignoring you or actively fighting against control. Correcting this poor behavior is very doable, but it does require the rider to be aware and actively riding the horse, not just sitting up there chatting with friends.

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The Cue's the Thing

Every problem we have goes back to the horse not responding to a cue. Any time your horse doesn't behave the way you want him to, you have to figure out what cue it is that he's not responding to, then reteach it.

That cue isn't just a suggestion you hope the horse will follow. A cue is a signal you've taught your horse through a specific lesson for a specific purpose. It isn't a signal he happened to pick up coincidentally. You taught it carefully. The horse responds to the cue by immediately giving a specific reaction 100% of the time. This isn't a signal that gets a reaction 99% of the time. Even if your horse only ignores the cue to calm down 1% of the time, that 1% could end up with you in a nasty wreck.

Any cue you teach the horse must always be the same, no matter where you are, no matter what you're doing. It shouldn't matter how many horses are around or where you are in the group. As riders, we tend to get distracted by the environment and then blame our problems on the horse. We say our horse just won't ride in the back, or gets antsy on the trail, or doesn't like to be around other horses.

What's actually happening is that the horse isn't concentrating on his rider. This isn't the horse's fault. Although it's his job to respond whether we cue him to speed up or slow down, to go straight, to turn, or to back up, if he doesn't react as we wish, it's because we didn't teach him how to respond to the cue.

Do Your Homework
The first and safest place to teach your horse cues is at home. Yes, the important thing is the cue, not the environment. Eventually it shouldn't matter whether you're in the arena or on the trail. But when you begin to train-or retrain-a horse, you need to follow this basic riding safety rule: "Ride where you can, not where you can't." Don't try to teach your horse something in a situation you can't control.

Aside from the important safety factor, you'll give more consistent cues if you are relaxed and can concentrate on your horse. When you have your horse truly solid on his cues at home, you'll have the tools you need to deal with group issues on the trail. In fact, it's an excellent plan to go further with this training than you think you need.

Think for Yourself & Your Horse

Never put yourself, your horse, or others in danger. Training isn't a matter of "making the horse get through it." If you're uncomfortable in a situation, find the safest way to manage.

No matter who else is telling you what to do, stop and think for yourself. If you feel going farther will get anyone hurt, don't do it. If you need one person to wait with you while you settle your horse, do that. If you have to go back to the barn or trailer, do that. Then figure out what you missed teaching at home and work on it before your next ride.

Fill Your Toolbox
Think of a trail ride as a vacuum cleaner that sucks the training out of a horse! So you'll need to practice the speed control cues of "speed up, slow down, turn left, turn right, stop, and back up" with your horse at home to a much greater degree than you could expect him to deal with on the trail.

If your horse is excited on the trail, use the "calm down" cue. Since you've no doubt already taught your horse to lower his head on command, whether you're in the saddle or on the ground, you'll be prepared for this on the trail. When your horse drops his head, it has a major calming effect on him and also tends to make you, as the rider, relax more, as well. But it's important that you've worked with your horse on responding to this cue when he's nervous or confronted with a strange situation.

You'll want to teach the "hips over" cue thoroughly so you have an emergency stop if you need it on the trail. Finally, practice your serpentines so often that the horse's reaction to your cue to turn is automatic.

You're going to use all of these techniques on the trail to deal with a frustrated horse that's jigging along, desperately wanting to be somewhere else in the group than where he is right now. Jigging isn't a walk. It isn't a trot. It's a way a horse that hasn't been taught basic speed control shows frustration. It's the same problem as a slow, pluggy horse. Both actually need to work on cues for speeding up as well as slowing down.

Jigging can make a nervous rider fearful and can frustrate the heck out of a confident one. The timid rider in this situation generally will clamp down on the reins for fear the horse will take off. The more confident rider is going to get more and more irritated, which will further frustrate the horse, which will further irritate the rider. In either case, no one-including the horse-is having fun here.

The jiggy horse is trying to speed up on his own rather than waiting for the rider to ask for an increase in speed. The way to correct this isn't to take hold of the reins while both of you get increasingly irritated. Nor will forcing him into a slower jig teach him anything. Going the same speed isn't practicing a cue that will teach him to speed up or slow down reliably.

Rather, teach the horse that when you tell him to speed up, he does that. When you tell him to slow down, he does that. You teach him this by having him change speeds every few strides, but only when you give the cue.

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Disciplined Imagination: An Important Aid

Getting your horse's cue responses solid is an excellent time to work on yourself. The most important part of your horseman's toolbox of skills is what's going on in your own head. Discipline your mind and use your own imagination as you work your horse.

It isn't a change of equipment, or the other horses, or the trail terrain that makes a difference. It isn't even a different specific cue. The significant difference is inside your head. If you're distracted by trail ride situations, you're not going to give clear signals. If you don't give clear signals, it isn't fair to blame the horse for not responding correctly.

If you know you are going out on the trail in three months, picture riding out there now, while you are in the arena. Practice crossing the creek ahead of time, when you're at home. (Tarps are useful for this.) Or imagine that your horse is behind a kicker and you need to back up in a hurry.

The key to a successful trail ride is not to see the trail ride, so when you're on the trail, reverse the situation. Work as you do at home. Change speeds and direction. Practice control of his front end and hindquarters as though you were working in the arena by yourself, with no distractions. Imagine that you're at home and riding around a cone. Or imagine you are riding between two narrowly placed milk jugs instead of the narrow tree passage you're actually facing. It makes what you're doing at home more important and takes the fear out of the trail if you imagine you're working on the same exercise, just in a different spot.

Remember, ride where you can, not where you can't. If you have to ride at the front, middle, or back of the group to practice doing things correctly when you start on your trail rides, do that. Don't put the horse in the position of doing things incorrectly. Little by little, you're going to show the horse that he can be comfortable wherever you place him, but it doesn't have to happen immediately, so don't pick a fight.

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Idle Hooves Are the Devil's Workshop
Your horse must, however, learn to look to you for instructions at all times. It "untrains" the horse to let him make the decisions. Say you climb on him at the barn. The other horses move off. So does yours. They turn to the right. So does yours. They stop, speed up, or whatever. So does yours. You haven't told him anything. He's made all the decisions. Then you pick up the reins. Why should he listen to you now?

You must make all the decisions about speed and direction. Go around trees. Go in a slightly different direction or speed from everyone else. Keep riding your horse, not just sitting up there! Eventually you'll be able to drop the reins and visit, but maybe not today.

You want the horse to stay focused on you. For that, you have to have something for him to do. You have to give him a job. If you want him to focus on you instead of the other horses-whether they're in front or behind you-it is your job to give him a specific cue or exercise to keep his mind on you. He needs a project, and you have to focus on that project, as well.

Playing Leap Frog
Moving your horse's position from front to middle to back to the sides is an excellent exercise to work on once your horse is really solid on his cues, and you've graduated him to going out with other horses and riders. Let your companions know what you're going to do beforehand, so they can work with you and everyone can make adjustments as necessary.

The key to success is to begin this exercise as yet another example of "ride where you can, not where you can't." If your horse is comfortable working in front, start working from there. If he's more relaxed in the middle or back or side, start there.

Quietly practice any cues you want to perfect: going faster, slower, right, left, etc. This isn't punishment, but he does need to be working. About the time your horse might start to think, "I'd really like to take it easy for a little bit," drop back or move forward and ride alongside another horse for 10 seconds at a nice, relaxed walk. Doing what you want him to do becomes his reward.

Before your horse can act up, return to the front (or wherever you started) and do some more work on those basic commands. Then go back to riding alongside that other horse for another 10 seconds before doing more exercises where he used to insist on being. Eventually he'll figure out that quietly accompanying that other horse is a nice, easy place to be. Do this from all sorts of positions in the group-front, middle, back-and to each side as the trail allows.

Be considerate of your companions when you speed up, slow down, turn left, and turn right or back. But note that these exercises will benefit all horses, so just let each other know what you're going to do before you do it.

It may not happen in one ride, but if your basic cues are solid and you're consistent, eventually your horse will figure out that listening to your directions is relaxing, easy, and the perfect way for both of you to enjoy a trail ride, no matter how many horses are in the group or where you choose to ride within the group.