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Building a Trustworthy Trail Horse

Three seasoned trail riders offer strategies for overcoming the most common spoilers of the great-outdoor horseback experience.

Ah! A nice, relaxing trail ride on a pleasant summer day: What could be better to break the tedium of ring work and soothe the stresses of show training? Just head for the hills, the woods, the rolling meadows on horseback, alone or in congenial company, and all your troubles will melt away. Yeah, right... until your horse refuses to cross the creek or runs in terror from an innocent boulder or takes up a bone-jarring jig that puts you both in a lather for the duration of the ride.

When horses and their riders are unprepared for the out-of-arena experience, a simple walk through the woods turns into a series of frustrating or frightening confrontations. The disconnect between expectations and reality often begins with the choice of mount.

"Most people don't select horses for trail riding," says Montana horseman Dan Aadland, an avid backcountry rider and author of several books on the topic. "I get tired of hearing, 'Well, she's not good enough for the show ring, but she'll make a good trail horse.' Why should trail riding be relegated to a secondary job for a horse? If you want to trail ride exclusively, buy a horse who excels at it, not one who can't do anything else."

Compounding the problem, says Aadland, is a tendency to overlook the importance of a trail-riding education: "We train horses for very specific arena jobs but expect them to just automatically know how to handle the trail. Then we get frustrated when they don't. Horses need to be taught to trail ride just like they are taught reining, roping or any other skill."

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In training for the trail, you're up against powerful instincts that tell a horse to avoid danger and preserve his herd ranking. You'll never entirely override instinctive behavior, but a well-trained trail horse learns to tolerate the unfamiliar, to heed your aids instead of his own urges, and to relax into the business of covering ground safely and efficiently. To help jump-start your trail training, Aadland and California endurance-horse trainers Donna Snyder-Smith and Kat Swigart share their insights into the four most common spoilers of safe, pleasurable trail outings. Along with explaining the reasons for the difficult behaviors, they suggest on-the-spot responses to resolve the immediate crisis and training strategies to avoid or overcome ingrained habits.

Water Phobia
Causes: The most common reason for a reluctance to cross water is fear of the unknown, either generally or specifically. "If your paddock or pasture has a creek in it and your horse is used to wading through, he may be much less sensitive about water crossings," says Aadland. "In my area of the country, people know that if you buy a horse from the dry parts of Montana you can expect a problem the first time you ask him to cross a creek."

Water phobia in horses who've seen the wet stuff only in buckets or coming from hoses is understandable. But what about the others, who are perfectly comfortable with the particular ponds, creeks and rivers in their normal range? Why do they turn phobic when faced with unfamiliar bodies of water? Prey animals, including horses, are hardwired to be on high alert at watering holes, a favorite hangout for predators, so the surrounding footing, sounds, odors and movements push their inborn alarm buttons.

The alarm is multiplied by lack of personal experience. "Green horses don't necessarily know that what is in front of them is water," says Swigart, who specializes in training horses for trail riding. "They just know it looks strange. Even if they smell it and put a foot in, they'll still be suspicious the first time. It's the same reaction they'd have to crossing a white line on the road or any other unfamiliar obstacle."

In rare cases, a bad experience with water can leave a horse chronically suspicious and fearful. For instance, a horse who steps off an underwater ledge and submerges himself may remember that dunking for a long time.

On-the-spot responses: When your horse balks at a water crossing, give him time to overcome his uncertainties. "A little bit of patience goes such a long way," says Snyder-Smith, who has trained horses and riders for top-level endurance events. "When you are in the saddle, 60 seconds feels like an eternity, but if you can calmly and quietly keep the horse between your aids and facing the water, many times he'll step in willingly after he has thought it over. It may take 10 minutes, though."

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