Q: How can I increase trust with my new horse on a new trail? I look forward to riding my new horse on the trail but our relationship is brand-new, and he hasn't left the arena too much in the past. I just brought him to a boarding barn near my home, and there are lots of great trails we can get to easily. These trails are new to me, though. What can I do to calm my nerves so I don't make him spooky? How else can I prepare for trail challenges?
A: Connie, you're starting off right by making sure you have a plan before you hit the trails with your new horse. Everything is new for you right now. How you start off this relationship with him will affect many future rides.
Start by building confidence with your new horse — getting to know him and his reactions at home and on the trail. Take these steps slowly. Give yourself time to gain confidence with your horse, the trails you'll ride, and your own riding skills.
Step 1: Give Him Time
Your horse is new to you, so you're still building a relationship. You don't know yet how he'll respond in different circumstances. Until you know his typical reactions, approaching new things can be intimidating.
Keep in mind that everything is new for your horse right now, too. He's at a new barn with new surroundings, new horses, new sounds, and more.
There's a lot your horse can be worried about when he goes to a new home. Give him time to get to know his surroundings, so that he feels safe and at home and isn't overwhelmed.
If your horse is middle-aged, well-trained, and gentle-minded, he may not be affected at all by his new locale. However, if he's young and this is the first time he's left the farm where he was raised, he's facing a whole new world he didn't know existed.
Step 2: Perform Ground Work
Start off your new relationship with your horse by doing lots of ground work. Start in the arena, where he's most comfortable. Work on starting and stopping him and making sure he stays right with you. Make sure he can back, turn, and change directions while focused on your cues.
Once your horse knows what you're asking and that he needs to follow your commands, take him on walks around the stable, and practice the same skills. Get to know his reactions to everything in his new environment.
Work in the round pen. Take the time to know that your horse will go anywhere with you and know that you're the leader.
Once your horse knows you're in charge, he'll have confidence in you. And your confidence will increase, because you're getting to know more about his personality and what to expect.
Step 3: Prep for the Trail
You, as the rider, need to know all about the trails you plan to ride. You have to know what to expect when it comes to terrain, as well as things your horse may see and react to on the trail.
For instance, you might encounter wildlife and other trail users. Is your horse okay with bicycles riding by? Will he be okay with fishermen walking by with long poles that may look like whips?
Find out what your horse may see on the trails where you'll ride, and first introduce him to the stimulus at home.
If your horse seems bothered by any gear, use the advance-and-retreat method to help him accept that it won't hurt him. (For more on this method, search for "advance and retreat" in the Training Library section of www.juliegoodnight.com.)
Seek out riders at your barn who know the trails well. Ask them what you'll see, and if there are any places to avoid. They'll know if there's a dog that runs out to greet you at Mile 2 or if the next farm over uses horse-eating leaf blowers.
Step 4: Pony Your Horse
When I start horses myself, I like to get them out of the arena early in their training. I like to first pony a young horse out on the trail. From the time the horse is a yearling, he'll be led by a good, reliable trail horse and know he can go anywhere out of the arena.
Horses will mirror the reactions of other horses around them. If they have a solid, well-mannered horse to follow, they'll be more likely to walk by obstacles that would otherwise concern them.
You can apply the same training to an older horse. Ask an experienced horseman and horse to pony your horse on the new trails for a few trips. Later, ride with the same steady horse-and-rider team, so you and your horse will feel comfortable.
If you don't have anyone to help you, lead your horse down the trail. Let him know you're in charge in the arena, around the barn, and on the trail. Then, when you're on his back, he'll be more likely to know you're in charge, even when in scary territory.
Find grassy areas, and allow your horse to graze. Then he'll think of the trail as a nice place to be.
Step 5: Cue for Confidence
Horses are herd and prey animals. As such, they'll tune into your emotions to find out whether the environment is safe. Here are three things you can control to cue your horse to have confidence.
- Control your eyes. Keep your eyes focused and scanning the environment. This engages your mind and helps you stay in the moment, instead of worrying about what could happen. That way, you won't panic by thinking too far ahead.
- Control your breathing. If you feel fear building, breathe with deep, abdominal breaths to calm yourself. Practice deep breathing before you need it, so that you can breathe slowly and with purpose.
- Check your body language. Are you tense and clamping on the reins? Are you leaning forward? Convey confidence with your body language. If you're calm, your horse will think he should be, as well.
If you control these three components, you'll affect your body, mind, and spirit, and stay in the moment.
For more information on gate-opening, see Julie Goodnight's new book, Goodnight's Guide to Great Trail Riding, available from HorseBooksEtc.com. Learn more riding and training tips on Goodnight's Horse Master television show, which airs on RFD-TV.
Julie Goodnight lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She's also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association.
Heidi Nyland Melocco is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Longmont, Colorado.