How To Train A Trail Horse

Do you have a method for training your trail horse?  Do you just get on and ride?  Do you spend specific "lessons" with your horse working on particular things?  I admit that the majority of my younger years I never thought much about training for trails, because I spent work time with my horses training for whatever arena discipline they were competing in.  We did a lot of trail riding, but just headed out the gate and down the trail.

I had some of the best rides of my life that way.  There isn’t a thing wrong with it, as long as your horse is safe.  I WILL NOT ride a horse out of an enclosed area that I don’t feel I have complete control of.  About 10 years ago friends started sending me their horses to make them trail safe.  I had to start putting thought into training a trail horse.  Bring out the plastic bags!

Joking.  I don’t know that I’ve ever used a plastic bag to train a horse.  Nor have I hung a tarp off of them.  My first goal with every horse to get that most important cue in the world: Whoa.  Whoa means whoa means whoa.  No matter what is happening, whoa means whoa.  I learned that lesson in my early twenties riding a mule of my aunts who was super fancy, until she decided she was going somewhere.  There were no brakes then and it was ugly.  I have scars.  I can’t be seen in public.  Well, maybe not that bad, but it scarred me permanently in that I won’t ride a mule again.  lol

When I am sure that the horse I have will walk, jog, lope, stop, turn, will NOT buck, bolt or rear, then and only then will I take them on the trail.  In fact, if they’ve never been on a trail, I will usually pony them off a steady trail horse.  For their first ride, I ride with someone on a steady trail horse.

I started looking for particular things to train for to make a pleasant trail horse.  Will the horse stand if I want to get off and back on?  I can’t be dancing around in circles with 1 foot in the stirrup out in the open.  Will they walk on a loose rein without little jigging or jog steps?  I HATE to spend an hour in the saddle doing the walk/jig dance.  Can I ask the horse to jog or lope down the trail and come back calmly to a walk without being antsy?  If the other rider or riders move ahead or stay behind, is my horse going to go insane?

Now I find that I want all of those things from my horses.  ALL of my horses.  So I do have lessons where I work on particular things.  One more all important button I have put on my horse is the “Step” cue.  That means that if my horse is hesitant or down right refusing to go somewhere, if I put my hand down and say the word “step,” they will take 1 step forward.  I discovered this cue in searching for a solution to Ruby refusing to step in a 3′ puddle.

I love this cue.  It’s like a calming agent for my horses.  I start by teaching the cue on the ground, over a pole.  I ask them to step 1 foot over it.  Every time they put another foot over the pole I say the word step.  Then we work on another surface/obstacle.  One foot at a time.  “Step” onto the rubber mat.  “Step” onto the cement wash rack.  “Step over the bale of hay.  “Step” onto the tarp.  “Step” into the trailer (OMG!  It helps with trailer loading.  I taught this cue to a friend’s mare and within days she was easily loading in the trailer.)

Then I just start using the cue while in the saddle.  I use it over super easy things so that they remember I won’t ask them to do something dangerous.  It’s not a fast cue.  It’s a request to calmly, quietly place 1 foot forward and it works!  I can now get Ruby to go in, over and through just about anything.

This is one of those cues that I didn’t know I was missing until I had it.


Send comments and questions to Stephanie at [email protected]Join Stephanie on the Horsecity Forums by clicking here.

Find trails or places to ride your horse on the beach with our trail finder.

Read more On the Trail With Stephanie:

The Great Escape (sort of)

Hello Fellow Trail Riders