by Robert M. Liner
A large amount of time that is spent with horses pulls the horse and human relationship closer and closer to a bond that transcends words and thoughts.
There are times you’ll spend with horses that will challenge your beliefs, patience and mental fortitude, but it is precisely these particular instances that can yield the most valuable information about the human and horse interaction.
When riding and schooling are the everyday priority, the constant repetition and routine need to be emphasized for keeping a horse sharp and physically fit. To make sure this is still accomplished without mental fatigue or building a bored and sour horse, a nice trail ride can be just the thing to freshen up the program while still achieving your goals.
The benefits of a good trail ride include physical fitness and mental freshness while nurturing the soul. Let’s look at each particular facet of each of those benefits.
The trail has a specific function that the arena doesn’t, and that is the actual purpose of truly riding a horse. By riding on the trail, you engage the same discipline and form as you would in the arena, but it allows you to utilize different terrain.
When using muscles for climbing and descending, you’re still training, but on the trail, sessions can be more fun to do with the change of routine and pace. There is no rail or confined space to make lap after lap in. Here, you are an explorer again and so is your horse. Besides the ever changing scenery and terrain, you are also riding in an environment surrounded by new sights and smells. Instead of orange cones to weave in and out of, you can use trees or rocks to perform the same moves.
When you want to do some technical maneuvers like jumping, as long as you’re safe and have the skill level, then use fallen trees or even creek crossings as a training aid. This is using the trail wisely and effectively while benefiting from the physical challenges and mental concentration. If you feel exhausted, slow down, take breaks and use the trail as your equine health club.
It seems that no matter how large an arena is, it’s never big enough for a horse. Confinement is confinement and while we do need to utilize the structure of refining our horsemanship skills in an arena, horses can benefit from life outside the school room. Many times when horses appear sullen or start to act grouchy or even lame, what he really need is a free ride just to break the monotony.
It’s amazing to see the difference when they do get a chance to just walk down a trail or out in a pasture. These perks extend to your rides as well, and when you use trail riding for wellness adventures as well as fine tuning, your motivated to do it more often. That’s what trail riding is, motivating without aggravating.
Don’t forget that it’s not all about riding. If you find a spot that looks good for grazing, use that as a place to stretch you legs, and let your horse eat some lush grass. Still keep yourself alert and connected to your horse and the environment and if you can, use a halter bridle so he can graze without the bit in his mouth.
Back to the Barn
One tip about riding back to the barn; If your horse is really motivated to move faster going back than he was going out, don’t fight it. Don’t let him get so charged up that he wants to bolt or even lope back. If that’s the case, it’s better to stop and assess the situation. If you’re far from the barn you’ll want to avoid turning your trail ride into a training session. This means putting him in circles and fighting the horse for control. If you can stay at a jog or trot, then do it, and follow the next steps.
On the other hand, if you are close to the barn and this starts to occur, stop, get off and let him graze or simple walk him back. You can’t blame a horse for wanting to hurry back if that’s his desire. Have you ever noticed people on the highway driving faster on Sunday evening going home from vacation than going out on Friday? He’s getting back to where he knows he’ll be un-tacked, turned out and fed, but that’s the next step that you were encouraged to follow earlier.
When you do get back do not ride to the barn. Instead, ride to the arena or an area where you can use that energy he had charging home. Your message to the horse “Hey look, what you were in a hurry to get back to, more arena work, trotting, loping, roll backs etc.”
If time permits, ride out toward to the trail and then when you feel like you’re far enough away to try it, turn around and see how he does heading back home. It may not take more than one of those sessions, or it may take several. However, in time he’ll catch on that it’s a whole lot easier to just cruise home than to get all juiced up heading back.
When you feel the change then be sure to never dismount at the barn. Ride to an area away from the barn. Wait a few minutes, dismount and then walk him over to un-tack. Again, this is all for the pushy, edgy or chargy horse, but it works well for all horses. This approach will keep you and your horse mentally aware and that can greatly reduce the stress of riding, going out and coming back.
A truly fun trail ride is always a safe ride. So in the pursuit of helping your horse move freer mentally and physically, don’t forget to ride with a purpose. That means stay alert. Stay alive. Stay astride.