Out on the trail is not the ideal time to train. That’s why we ride in an arena in a controlled environment. If you don’t have a fenced arena, create yourself a training area by roping off a section of your pasture, or put logs or poles on the ground to cordon off your training space. It’s not fun to discover that your horse’s brakes don’t work all that well when you pick up the canter with a couple of your riding cronies. Just as dangerous as no brakes is a sticky gas pedal. Your horse must know that going forward when asked is not a negotiable request. You can check your horse’s response to your aids by testing him in the arena. Take every opportunity to ride through the puddle, past the flapping jacket on the arena gait, walking over ground poles, riding in company and by yourself. Once you feel you are completely in charge and are comfortable with your horse’s response and cooperation in all gaits, you are ready to venture out.
Going out on the trail should mean a relaxing time for your horse. When you start out with a young horse, a new horse, or tuning up your horse, take baby steps to develop your horse’s attitude about the trail. You should first establish that trail riding means walking. Go for a short walk at the end of an arena session. Your horse is in a great state of mind to relax and just walk to cool down. Your first trail rides can be around the barn and around the property. Make the ride in a circular pattern. Don’t go out in one direction, make a 180, and then head straight back that might encourage anticipating returning home.
With your riding buddies, take turns leading the way, riding in the middle and following. If your horse acts up in any one of these positions, change back to his comfort zone position, and then give him short doses of what he doesn’t like. That way he doesn’t work himself up, and stays in a relaxed state of mind. Eventually you should be able to ride anywhere you like.
Increase the distance and time of your trail rides by increasing the circumference of your circle. Around the barn, over the hill, and back down the road. Then around the barn, over the hill, across the road to the next field and then back down the road. You get the idea. You and your horse will have no worries as the next steps are never too challenging. Follow a riding buddy to help you across the creek for the first time. Always set yourself up for success.
Once your horse proves to you he knows the trail is for relaxation, you can pick up the trot somewhere in the middle of your ride for a short period. Return to walk to be sure your horse maintains his calm walking demeanor. After several weeks, or months, you can add a loping or canter session keeping an eye on his attitude. Always quit while you’re ahead, there is always another ride tomorrow. Taking the time to advance your rides with baby steps can help the development of your laid-back and happy trail horse. And the old saying, “walk the first and last mile” is still sound advice.