One of the most common reasons riders are leery of heading out of the ring is the fear of shying. But, just as you train to perfect your jog or trot, you can train your horse to accept surprises without the "flight" response. Your reward will be a relaxing trail ride that breaks up intense training programs and helps your horse return to the arena fresher.
Even the calmest horse can be startled by something-a covey of dove flushing out of the hedgerow, a plastic bag billowing out of the bushes or an ATV barreling around the bend. If you familiarize your horse with the potential "monsters" he might meet on the trail, you can minimize the danger of being surprised and maybe dumped off. If you're not sure what your horse might do, slow down and do some things to prepare it for what he might encounter on even the most leisurely walk in the woods.
Things that are the norm to us can unnerve a horse. That simple plastic grocery bag is an everyday item for us, but not for a horse-and certainly not when it's bouncing and blowing across a field. It looks like a predator, and in the face of danger a horse's instinct is to whirl and flee-fast! Horses don't take the time to analyze the situation. If it looks weird, they're outta there.
Even the best of riders can be caught off guard. Horses don't always recognize that a bicycle as just a human being on wheels. Same thing goes for a hiker padded out of the familiar "people" shape by a backpack. Might look more like a bear to a horse. You might be heading back to the barn in a drizzle and encounter a couple walking with an umbrella--a strangely-shaped creature with four legs that terrifies your horse.
One of the first lines of defense when encountering hikers and bikers on the trail is to call out to the person and ask him or her to speak so your horse will recognize that it is a human being. The familiar sound of a human voice is often enough to quell a horse's fears. Many times people you meet on the trail don't speak either because it's not their thing, or for fear of spooking the horse. Call out in a friendly voice, "Hi, How are you? Would you please say something so my horse will realize that you are a person?"
Crossing streams and puddles, walking over bridges, negotiating downed trees…all of these things will come up down the trail. Some prep work at home can help minimize the horse's fear when he encounters them. The greatest confidence builder, of course, is to ride behind an experienced trail horse the first couple of times. Horses take their cues from each other and if that soggy bottom doesn't bother the horse in front of you, there's a good chance your horse will slog right through it behind him.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Before going out on your first trail ride, make sure your horse will go forward, stop and back up on cue. Practice getting control of the hindquarters and moving them to the left or right whenever you want. Develop a cue to get your horse's attention refocused on you when needed-could be a jiggle in one rein, a half-halt, a "head down" cue-whatever works. Being able to get your horse's attention and direct his body helps you control his fears if something pops up on the trail.