One of the joys of springtime is the refreshing warmth of a sunny day that beckons us to leave the house for our favorite outdoor pastimes. Trail riding is one of those pleasurable activities — there is nothing quite as peaceful, relaxing and rejuvenating as riding a well-mannered horse in a beautiful setting, far from busy highways and the hustle-bustle of everyday life. There is also the satisfaction that comes from building a trusting relationship with your horse to become a dependable riding partner. Both horse and rider can enjoy traveling through scenic mountains and woods, across fragrant meadows and sparkling streams where birds, fish and wildlife abound.

No doubt you’ll be spending more time in the saddle as spring progresses, and both you and your horse will need to warm up your riding muscles before taking off on a long ride. But before starting out on your first trail ride of the season, it’s important to prepare your horse for any number of situations that might arise on a trail.

A trail horse needs special training, above that of an arena horse. On the trail, there are no boundaries — and even something that would appear (to a human) to limit where one could travel, such as a river/waterway, stand of trees or busy road, will not deter a horse that is badly spooked by something he does not anticipate encountering on the trail. Therefore, training for the trail involves not just getting your body in shape for hours in the saddle; it is having the ability to keep your horse under control in unexpected situations.

You can work with your horse at home or in an enclosed arena to start with the basics. Here are a few lessons your horse needs to learn before embarking on a trail ride for the first time.

  1. The horse should respond to your cues instantly — your hands, legs and seat — to provide you with a safe ride. There will be situations along the trail when you’ll need to change course, speed up or slow down — such as finding an obstruction in the middle of the trail, or needing to move along before encountering an animal, bicycle or vehicle, for example.
  2. Get your horse used to standing still while you mount up. You may have to dismount on the trail, and will need to depend on your horse to stand quietly. If the ground is very uneven you might use a makeshift ‘mounting block’ — it’s a good idea to practice ahead of time.
  3. Practice tying and leading. A horse that is tied should be able to stand still and not pull back, whether he is tied temporarily so that you can attend to another matter, or for a longer time, perhaps with a bag of hay during a lunch or dinner break. You also need to practice leading your horse without having him pull back — such as if you need to lead your horse from another horse. A horse that pulls back is dangerous on the trail.
  4. Work on “sacking out” or desensitizing your horse, and learn how he might respond to a potentially scary situation. This is one of the most important issues in training a trail horse. Even on a familiar trail, you may encounter the unexpected.

One day when I was riding Morgan on the trail along the trout stream that flows near our property, a fisherman came walking by wearing chest waders and carrying a large fishing rod. Morgan spooked a bit (her typical spook, a slight jump in place) so I greeted the man and we chatted briefly — which served to reassure her that this strange-looking creature was a human! She did seem a bit concerned with his fly-rod, so when we were back home I asked my husband to cast his fly-rod in the yard so that she could see someone familiar ‘waving’ what looked like a large whip, and realize it wasn’t a threat to her.

Bicycles encountered along the trail can also be extremely scary to an unsuspecting horse. Some years ago, I was riding another horse along a very lightly-used dirt road when we came upon a family that was trying to teach their child to ride a bicycle. I was surprised at my horse’s reaction, a large spook and rolling of his eyes — and it was only after my greeting the child and hearing him respond did my horse begin to relax. He was very eager to move on past the family, and upon returning at the end of our ride, he seemed just as startled to see them again. Remember that, like most prey animals, the horse’s eyes are located on both sides of its head and, as such, they see things differently from each eye. They can switch back and forth from monocular vision (seeing a wider range of vision out of each eye independently) to binocular vision, where they see an object with both eyes at the same time. This can cause an object to appear to move position even if it is stationary — which is why some horses will spook at inanimate objects. And coupling this with seeing something as scary and unusual as a bicycle (monster!) that ‘moves’ or makes noise, can be quite frightening to an unsuspecting horse.

  1. Practice water crossings. Even though there may not be a river or stream to cross on your trail, some horses may be reluctant or even afraid of walking through puddles, as we experienced years ago with a new gelding. You can use a tarp in your barnyard to start with — to familiarize your horse with the feeling of something less-than-solid underfoot — and to determine how well he trusts you in a familiar location, that you will not lead him into danger. Then progress to a stream or body of water you can enter with your horse once you know he will obey your commands.

Training for trail riding is mainly about being pro-active, and anticipating your horse’s reaction when you encounter what might be a scary object along the trail. Allow the horse to investigate and let him see it from both directions. Remember that objects behind a horse are more frightening than objects in front of them. If you hear something approaching from the rear, turn your horse in that direction so that he can see what is coming. This will also allow you to be in control of each situation.

It is important that you and your horse understand how to behave properly when out on a trail, far from a stable or barn, before embarking on a trial ride. Safety comes first — your safety, the safety of your horse, and the safety of other riders and their horses. Good manners on and off the trail will ensure a pleasant ride for all; as there is a direct correlation between proper trail manners and safety. By thinking ahead and having an obedient horse, you might even prevent problems that could occur with others whose horse might be less trail-savvy.

If your horse is new to trail riding, consider going along with an experienced trail horse. A young or inexperienced trail horse can learn a lot from an older, calm horse. Keep the young horse behind the experienced horse when encountering obstacles or crossings on the trail. Some horses will become fearful of being left behind, and will try desperately to catch up to the group. If you work with your horse ahead of time and teach him to be comfortable with and without other horses, he will be less likely to panic on the trail.

Be prepared before starting out by knowing what proper trail etiquette is: communicating with other riders (when passing, during rest stops or water crossings, or if you plan to change speed); keeping adequate distance between your horse and the one in front; maintaining an even speed with the group; yielding the trail to other users, such as hikers, bike riders, ATVs and other motorized vehicle, and make sure you enforce these rules of the trail in your horse.

Teach your horse not to rush uphill or downhill and keep a steady pace. In addition, when negotiating difficult terrain or coming upon obstacles in the trail, don’t crowd too closely to other horses.

Your horse should be taught to pass others as well as be passed on the trail safely. Approach other horses slowly, and if you are going to pass, announce your intention to the other rider whether you intend to pass on the right or left. And when a rider has dismounted, wait for him to remount before riding off.

A tune-up of your horse’s trail training, along with using common-sense trail manners will help ensure that your ride is a pleasant and fun experience for you and your horse.