Brush up on your trail-safety savvy! Here, world champion reining competitor and top clinician Stacy Westfall offers her top trail riding tips. Plus, she shows you an exercise designed to teach your horse to be soft and supple, and lays the foundation for the one-rein emergency stop.
10 Trail-Safety Tips
For more trail tips from Stacy Westfall, order the free DVD, Ride Safely on the Trail with Weaver Leather.
You can do this one-rein-stop exercise in the arena or on the trail. It helps your horse soften to bit pressure, and counters head-tossing and rein-pulling resistance. These are also the beginning steps of teaching the one-rein, emergency stop.
Goal: Your goal is to bend your horse’s head back to his shoulder while his feet stay still.
You’ll teach him that if you pick up on the rein and give no cues to move (such as leg pressure), he should just turn his head without moving his feet.
You’ll start on the ground, then graduate to the saddle.
Before you begin: Outfit your horse in his usual saddle, bridle, and breastcollar. If he’s young, a snaffle bit is best, as it applies direct rein pressure to his mouth for clarity of cues. (A shanked curb bit applies indirect pressure, so only use this bit if your horse is trained to respond to it.)
Note: If at any time during this exercise your horse seems anxious or confused, go back a step or two. Slow down the process, then work back toward your goal.
Step 1. Get into position. First, you’ll ask for a bend to the left. Stand at your horse’s left side. Anchor your right hand on the saddle, toward the back. This will help you move with your horse for safety and control; the closer you stay with him, the less likely it is that he’ll step on you.
Choose a spot on the breastcollar where you’ll anchor your left hand; otherwise, you might be tempted to continue to move it back as your horse gives.
Step 2. Bend to the left. With your left hand, gently pull your horse’s head back toward his left shoulder, taking the slack out of the rein.
Step 3. Release the pressure. If your horse moves his head, showing no resistance, while keeping his feet still, immediately release the rein pressure. As soon as you see and feel the rein get loose, release.
Note that even if your horse gives his head inadvertently, such as to swat a fly, still release the pressure. “Sometimes those accidental spots are where the horse actually discovers the reward,” says Westfall.
If your horse shows resistance and/or moves his feet, keep up the rein pressure until he stops moving, then release. By releasing the rein pressure as soon as he gives the desired response, you’ll teach him that this is what you’re looking for.
Watch for signs that your horse understands what you want, such as spreading his feet for balance.
Step 4. Repeat the exercise. Repeat this exercise on the left side a few times, until your horse will bend his head without resistance or foot movement.
Step 5. Switch sides. Step in front of your horse, and position yourself on your horse’s right side. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 on his right side.
Step 6. Gradually increase the flex. At first, ask for just a little give, then build up to bringing your horse’s head all the way around to the saddle, in both directions. Note that he’ll need to learn to stretch his neck muscles. Practice this exercise consistently so he’ll be able to attain and maintain flexibility.
Step 7. Gradually increase the difficulty. Note that on the trail, your actions might be quick, such as if a deer jumps in front of you. There’s nothing wrong with moving your hands quickly, as long as you move them smoothly, but be sure to get your horse used to quick movements in advance.
When your horse is comfortable with this exercise, gradually increase the difficulty by picking up the rein more quickly while still releasing the pressure with the right timing. Then switch left, right, left, right more quickly.
Step 8. Mount up. When you can flex your horse’s head in both directions while he stays still — and while you move quickly from one side to other — mount up, and repeat the process using the same steps you used on the ground.
Stacy Westfall of Westfall Horsemanship is a world champion reining competitor and top clinician. In 2003, she won the National Reining Horse Association freestyle reining competition riding with no bridle or neck rope. She went undefeated for two years straight in major freestyle reining competitions; in 2006, she won twice while riding bridleless and bareback.
In 2006, Westfall was the first woman to compete in the prestigious Road to the Horse colt-starting competition. During the competition, she bought her mount, Popcorn (Doctor T Tari), now an 8-year-old Quarter Horse gelding. You can purchase Westfall's book Smart Start: Building A Strong Foundation For Your Horse at HorseBooksEtc.com.
Westfall is based in Mount Gilead, Ohio, where she lives with husband and coach Jesse Westfall, and their three children, Caleb, Joshua, and Nathan.