Question: I love trail riding on my 8-year-old Appaloosa gelding, but I don't often have anyone to ride with me. When he's not with another horse, he will only go so far from the barn before putting up an escalating fuss. I don't want to get hurt, so I usually give in and return to the barn. Can you give me some advice on how to get my horse to accept going out on the trail alone?
Missy Hendon, South Carolina
Answer: Based on the mail Horse & Rider receives on this subject, yours is a common problem. And it's really no wonder why, because most readers keep their horses at home, in the company of familiar herdmates. As herd animals, horses instinctually are reluctant to go very far from the perceived safety of their herd. (For more on this, see "Why Solo Is No-Go," below.) This is where deliberate training comes in, as a way for you to override that instinct, and get the safe solo ride you want from your horse. I'll provide you with details on that training here. And, I'll be straight with you up-front: This isn't going to be an overnight process. You'll need to spend several weeks training, maybe longer, before going back out on the trail alone. But the payoff will be huge. You'll have better control over your horse's mind, as well as his body, and as a result, he'll be a safer, more willing and obedient mount when asked to go out alone. You'll begin with key groundwork designed to improve your horse's respect and obedience. Then, before you attempt to hit the trail alone, you'll firm up those skills with arena work under saddle.
Groundwork Is Key
Because it gives you a way to get your horse's mind focused on you, quality groundwork is essential to your longterm success. Plan to do at least 20 minutes of groundwork a day, four to six times a week. Your goal here will be to redirect your horse's attention on you--and away from his herdmates, the barn, or anything else potentially distracting.
Whether you're doing groundwork with your horse free in a round pen, or on a longe line or lead, work with purpose--don't just run him around in circles. To keep his attention, give him frequent directives, by asking him to reverse directions, change gait, halt, back up, and so on.
When he consistently obeys your cues, he's focused on you and is respecting you as boss. But when his head's up and he's frantically looking around, or calling to other horses, he's not fully focused on you, nor does he trust you to keep him safe. In this case, keep up the groundwork until you see progress. (For more in-depth instruction on groundwork, see the educational products available at juliegoodnight.com.)
With your groundwork obedience in place, you'll be ready to mount up and head for the arena. Here, your goal will be to reinforce the authority, from the saddle, that you established on the ground. This is also where you'll address any new respect or trust issues, and you'll need to be tuned in to them from the very start of your ride.
I call the first 5 to 10 minutes of each ride the "golden moments," because this is the time when your horse is forming an opinion of you as a rider and leader. He's asking, "Is she going to take charge? Or, am I going to be boss?" You must be assertive, apply clear and purposeful cues, and quickly correct any misbehaviors.
Follow these tips for work in your arena:
Demand respect. This translates to expecting obedience from your horse from the moment you mount up. If you let him get away with small disobediences from the start, you'll set him up to take even bigger liberties down the road. For example, if he's in the habit of walking off as you mount, don't keep struggling up in the saddle. Instead, stop and start over. This time, demand he stand still until you give him the "go forward" cue. No compromising!
Dictate the path. Be the driver, not a passenger. If your horse would prefer to avoid a puddle, a shadow, or an unusual object encountered in your arena or work area, make him walk through the perceived obstacle, and by the scary object. His job is to go where you tell him. Be similarly diligent about arena maneuvers. Make him stay on the path you have chosen, without cutting the corners, hugging the rail, and so forth.