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Trail-Ride Fixes with Jonathan Field

These smart solutions to common problems will boost your fun and safety on the trail.

These trail-riding solutions for common problems will increase your safety--and fun--on a trail ride.
Photo by Robin Duncan

Lesson Objective
To give you strategies for dealing with common trail-ride problems. Whether your horse is an experienced trail mount or a show horse in need of a change of scenery, these bothersome scenarios can ruin your fun. Here’s how to avoid or correct them.

Everyone loves a trail ride—except when things go wrong. From my experience as a clinician, I’ve found that certain problems seem to be particularly common. This is because they’re tied to a horse’s natural inclinations to be (1) wary of novel experiences, (2) influenced by their herdmates, (3) reluctant to leave the group, and (4) over-eager to return home.

Here, I’ll explain how to deal effectively with each of these challenges, either through pre- ride preparation or with strategies on the trail. Add these solutions to your problem-solving kit, and you’ll boost the enjoyment factor—and the safety—of your future rides.

1. ‘Tame the tourist.’ When your horse hasn’t been out on the trail in a while, that first big ride can wind up subjecting your horse—and you—to what I call “first-outing misery.” After hanging around at home, your horse is overwhelmed by the abrupt stimulation of being with other horses and experiencing new sights, sounds, and locales. The solution is to go on a few practice rides before venturing out with larger groups. Buddy up with just one or two other riders on familiar horses, keep the jaunts reasonably short, and don’t go too far from home. These easier outings will help prepare your horse’s mind for the stimulation of larger, busier rides.

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2. Ride with like-minded others. Riding with the wrong group can be a disaster. People who don’t know better than to take off suddenly at a gallop, for example, can cause your horse to become overexcited and hard to contain. The solution is to pick your riding partners carefully, and make a plan. When I oversee large group rides from our ranch, I make it clear from the beginning that we’ll all wait for the most novice rider. We make sure everyone understands our system of shouting up to the front of the ride to stop if someone needs help, and other safety/ courtesy rules. If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for (and fully capable of) a good gallop, then find riders of equal skill and experience, and make them your partners for the day. It’s all about good fit and smart planning.

3A. Find the distance/stay near. Knowing how to ride within a group can help your horse overcome the anxiety of being left behind. Hanging back and fighting with him definitely isn’t the answer, however. Instead, at the beginning of a ride, stay reasonably close to the other horses, as we are here, without resorting to rigid head-to-tail following. Put your horse on his own track—even if only slightly off the track of the other horses—asking him to follow your guiding rather than the footsteps of the horse in front of him. Connect his ears back to you once in a while by asking for a small movement that may require some concentration, like a little sidepass or haunches-in.

3B. Find the distance/spread out. Then after you've been riding for a bit and your horse has settled in, gradually begin guiding him a bit more apart from the group, as the riders are doing here. Swap positions with other riders and spread out. Going up a long hill, where the horses really have to work, is a good place to practice hanging back just a little. Your horse will be busy climbing, and will begin to realize that being back a few extra feet is OK. Build a little separation into his comfort zone over time, and pretty soon your horse will be primarily connected to you—rather than the herd.

4A. Break the loop: the problem. A “loop ride” is where you start at point A, ride out for a while, then turn for home and go right back to point A. It’s the worst training program for a trail horse, as he’ll quickly learn when the turn for home has occurred and begin rushing to get the ride over. Obviously, riding out and then back on a road like this one constitutes a loop ride. If you feel your horse beginning to walk out away from home or the trailer a bit slower than he walks back, you’ll know you need to start breaking things up, which you can do if you…

4B. Break the loop: the solution....become less predictable. Go back a different way from the route you ordinarily take, as the group is doing here. Or, when you arrive back home or back at the trailer, don’t let your horse rest as he’s expecting to. Go back out on the same trail, or a different one, or do some suppling exercises. Keep him guessing, and you’ll eventually convince him he can’t really predict what’s coming next—so he might as well just wait and listen to you.

Jonathan Field of Abbotsford, British Columbia, is a popular clinician at horse expos around Canada and the U.S. He also offers home-study programs, plus clinics and camps at the James Creek Ranch at the base of the Cascade Mountains outside Merritt, British Columbia (jonathanfield.net).

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