The Trail As Training Ground

When the prescription for my recovering horse was “no ring work,” I learned to use trail time to brush up on my skills and improve my relationship with my horse.
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When the prescription for my recovering horse was “no ring work,” I learned to use trail time to brush up on my skills and improve my relationship with my horse.

No arena work for at least two months. Avoid cantering and circles. Only straight lines over cavalletti, walking and trotting. The more hills, the better.” My veterinarian’s eyes scanned the rolling expanse surrounding my farm. "That shouldn’t be a problem for you. Not here."

The prescription made me wince. I had just started Luke, my 4-year-old Friesian-Morgan cross, under saddle when he injured his shoulder playing with his buddies in the field. His shoulder healed with weeks of pasture rest, but he became fat and flabby. And that, paired with a dramatic growth spurt, led to an ailment common among younger draft horses: locking stifles.

This condition, also called “upward fixation of the patella,” occurs when one of the ligaments in the stifle slips over a projection on the end of the femur and temporarily locks the joint into a straight position. Ordinarily, this is the “stay mechanism” that allows a horse to sleep while standing. But when it happens while he is in motion, the horse may experience anything from a mild hitch in his gait to total rigidity of the joint. Unfit horses and those with a straighter leg conformation are more susceptible to locking stifles. Surgery may be necessary in severe cases, but veterinarians generally start by prescribing exercise to strengthen the hind end, especially the quadri-ceps muscle.

That was the good news: The prescription to this new problem was riding, and lots of it, specifically the exercises my veterinarian had suggested. The bad news? If I had to stick to riding in straight lines, I’d have to give up schooling in my round pen and arena, and that meant I couldn’t focus on the lateral work and balancing that can only come from circles, and lots of them. Right?

Wrong, I’d soon discover. I’ve always ridden my show horses on the trail, because it’s a wonderful way to clear the mind and simply relax together in a beautiful environment. And thanks to my gracious neighbors, I’m lucky to have access to hundreds of acres of varied terrain. Trail riding, to me, was a treat---something done strictly for enjoyment after the real work was done. 

Now, however, if I was to continue Luke’s training, I was going to have to use our time on the trail more strategically. So I began to think differently about the challenges and opportunities that riding the trails can present. Not only have I found that I can indeed advance Luke’s schooling using “only the trail” as a tool, I’ve discovered how gaining his trust and attention despite the distractions has greatly enhanced our partnership. And I look forward to seeing how our improvement out in the field will take shape once I get back to the ring. 

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in the months I spent training Luke

on the trail.

• Patience pays. Before you can start working on advanced skills out on the trail, you have to be sure your horse is relaxed and mentally ready to work in a strange environment. In the arena, Luke had been as soft in the face as they come. Thanks to preparatory groundwork I’d done since he was a yearling, he was bendy and loose and could “give” with the best of them. In our first forays on the trail, however, away from his “safe zone,” Luke was giving me the classic Friesian “four on the floor” moments---his thick, Baroque neck sprang up like an overinflated balloon-animal giraffe, his back hollowed in horror---in other words, exactly the opposite of the forward, rounded, relaxed frame we desire in a working horse.

Out on the trail, I found, you need to drop that pressure to “get it done.” Let your horse stop and drop his head and sniff that boulder monster or woodpile until he’s done snorting and blowing. Let him get bored with it before you urge him on, and never just rush by so you don’t have to deal with it on a deeper level. So what if you don’t get as far as you’d planned before having to turn back? We live in a culture increasingly obsessed with getting more things done in less time. We need to work against that model when it comes to working with our horses.

• Sometimes you need to adjust your expectations. You, too, need to be mentally ready to work on the trail. For me, the three things that are the biggest impediments to great riding are lack of knowledge, fear and ego. The knowledge part is easiest to address---if you’re like me, you’re always educating yourself in all kinds of ways. But the fear and ego parts are sometimes harder to admit. If you’re afraid, your horse knows it, and it’s not fair to ask him to be bold when you’re quivering in your boots. Address what it is that you’re afraid of, and work on things like balance and desensitization so you feel ready to be a confident leader.

As for ego, it’s hard not to let your sense of self get wrapped up in your horse’s attitude and performance. Like it or not, our horses reflect who we are. But no one is judging you on the trail. Let your horse have his moments. Let go of the need to be perfect. Focus on building a respectful bond with your horse and don’t worry about what other people think about your process or your progress.

• Variety keeps the ride interesting. Let’s face it, arena work can be repetitive. But once you and your horse are comfortable and trail savvy, you have the luxury of creating a tailor-made classroom-in-the-woods. You can work through your training exercises exactly as you do in the arena, but break up the routines. Work on your transitions. Ask for extension in an intentional way and then bring your horse back to you. Did you know you can finesse a shoulder-in on a trail? It’s more challenging than in an arena, but it’s a perfectly achievable goal. The changing scenery alone will reduce the boredom---and in fact, can be a benefit. I’ve been amazed at how the constant desensitization that the trail affords has tied in with the more formal aspects of Luke’s training. 

Luke wasn’t ready to work on the bit when he started his stint at trail school, but I was amazed at how much better he got at listening to my seat and how much more responsive he became to my leg, which will prepare him nicely for the next steps in his training when we do return to the arena. Because one of his biggest issues is giving laterally when he’s distracted, I really work on what I call “micro-adjustments,” which consists of asking for his head in each direction while he’s walking or trotting along---just until I can see the flare of his nostril.

• Nature provides an abundant obstacle course. Get creative with a natural cross-country course. If you have a long, flat stretch with decent footing, get a few logs (“nature’s cavalletti”), set them up like ground poles and trot through them in each direction a few times. (Be sure to remove them when you’re done if your trail is shared with others, especially walkers or bikers.)

• Riding with others will benefit both you and your horse. Because I have my own place and rarely have people to ride with, all of my horses learn to ride out alone. But riding with others on the trail is another great opportunity for schooling. Working through the inevitable spacing issues there will help your horse navigate your next giant pleasure class with ease. You can practice half halts and work on walking calmly when the others are trotting ahead, getting your horse out of that “monkey see, monkey do” mentality. Have your horse lead, bring up the rear and hang out in the middle, no matter what his natural tendencies. If you earn his allegiance and respect, he won’t care where the other horses are, because ultimately he finds his comfort with you.

• If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Because otherwise, what’s the point? Remember that wherever you’re working, your fundamental purpose is to build your relationship with your horse, and achieving that goal ought to be enjoyable. This is not to say that you won’t have to endure stretches of frustration or feeling stuck, because you most certainly will. The key is to maintain your sense of humor and be creative with your problem solving.

I’ve taught myself to laugh it off when Luke spooks at something stupid. It’s a reflex now, and instantly relaxes both of us. Every once in a while, I like to remind myself to breathe. Singing or humming often works remarkably well, acting as a balm for both of us. Luke thrives on positive reinforcement, so I’m not stingy with praise or neck rubs. 

For some of us, horses are part of our jobs, and for others, they’re a way of de-stressing after our jobs. Either way, if our experiences with them aren’t constructive and life-giving, we’re doing it wrong.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #440.