3 Trail-Training Exercises

Clinton Anderson, America's favorite clinician from Down Under, offers three lessons for trail riders. Teach your horse how to perform lateral flexion and the whoa, and learn how to gain his focus.

Clinton Anderson, the founder of Downunder Horsemanship, is one of the best communicators in the business-and one of the most successful. His RFD-TV show is wildly popular. His Walkabout Tour clinics are standing room only. His name is a “horsehold” word. Originally from Australia, he now runs a state-of-the-art equine facility in Belle Center, Ohio.

At a recent Walkabout Tour in Wenatchee, Washington, Joel Penfold, a custom saddlemaker and farrier, was in the audience. “I’ve enjoyed his RFD-TV shows, but he’s even better in person,” Penfold reports. “There were about 20 riders, and he patiently worked with each of them until they achieved what they were attempting. It was educational and confidence-building. From an audience perspective, whatever skill level you might have, there was something for you. I was impressed.”

Here, Anderson shares three exercises designed to eliminate problems riders commonly face on the trail. Before you begin, outfit your horse in a snaffle bit – a true snaffle that doesn’t have shanks. A snaffle bit will apply pressure to your horse’s mouth only, which will enhance his response to your cues. Work in an enclosed arena with good footing.

Exercise #1: Perform Lateral Flexion.

To help gain control of your horse on the trail, work on his lateral flexion (side-to-side flexibility) at home. This will encourage him to be responsive to your leg and rein cues. Horses don’t have hard mouths – they have hard bodies! If you can soften and supple your horse’s body, his mouth will be soft and supple, too, which will lead to greater control. This exercise takes away his ability to balance against you, push against the reins, and run off.

Step 1. Flex to the left. Walk your horse counterclockwise on a three-to-four-foot-diameter circle. As you do, ask him to bend his head and neck until it touches your left foot. Do this by sliding your left hand down the left rein, and pulling it back toward your hip. Use inside (left) leg pressure to ask him to bend his rib cage.

Step 2. Reward the slightest try.Horsemanship isn’t so much about what you do-it’s about when you stop doing what you’re doing. So, the quicker you can release, the quicker your horse will understand; and the quicker he understands, the quicker you’ll see results. The instant your horse softens and gives – even a little bit – release the pressure on the rein and the leg. Be patient: It may take 15 to 20 minutes before he starts to soften.

Step 3. Flex to the right.After you’ve achieved a positive response on the left side, straighten up, walk straight for 15 feet, then repeat the exercise to the right.

Exercise #2: Teach the Whoa.

Does your horse get so excited on the trail that he ignores your request to stop? At home, use circles to get him calm, supple, and responsive. Then, teach him to stop on a loose rein when you say “whoa.” If he’ll stop quickly and calmly on a loose rein at home, his behavior on the trail should greatly improve. Good horsemanship is all about you doing less and your horse doing more.

Step 1. Warm up.Circle your horse for about 10 minutes to get him soft and supple on both sides. Then do trot-to-walk transitions to prepare him mentally for the lesson.

Step 2. Trot/whoa.Trot down the fence, posting as you go. Hold your reins loosely-you’ll dare your horse to stop on a loose rein. After about 20 or 30 feet, sit down, and say “whoa.” Then physically stop riding. Drop your weight down, put your legs slightly out in front of you, and over-exaggerate the movement of stopping. Keep your hands down, and let him decide whether or not to stop.

Step 3. Apply lateral cues.If your horse has always relied on a pull on the reins to stop, he’ll likely keep trotting straight ahead. If this happens, slide your left hand down the left rein, and turn him into the fence. Then quickly initiate a lateral flexion exercise to the left (see Exercise #1), and bend him around. That is, pull and release on the rein while using your inside leg; this will make it uncomfortable for him not to stop. This tells him that he needs to listen to you, that he needs to get soft, and he needs to pay attention to you. Pull and release him for at least seven or eight small circles or until you feel that he’s soft and supple again. Then allow him to flow back out to the opposite direction (clockwise) at a trot.

Step 4. Ask for the whoa.Now, on a very loose rein, trot your horse down the fence another 20 to 30 feet; make sure the rail is on your right. Say “whoa,” sit down, drop your weight, and leave him on a loose rein. Wait about two seconds before you correct him and remind him to listen to you. If he doesn’t stop, immediately slide your right hand down the right rein, and bend him into the fence.

Step 5. Repeat the whoa cue.Repeat Step #4 until when you say “whoa” on a loose rein, your horse begins to stop. At first, it may take him 10 feet before he actually stops moving his feet; consider this a starting point. Let him rest there for 45 seconds to a minute. Still on a loose rein, let him enjoy being stopped there and realize that he’s done something right. Rub his neck.

Step 6. Repeat the lateral exercise.After the brief rest, slide your hand down the rein, turn him back in to the fence, and repeat the lateral bending exercise. Then turn, and trot off. This time, your goal should be a stop on a loose rein in nine feet after you say “whoa.”

Expert tip:Horses are professional people trainers. They’re also professional cheats. We’d be in trouble if they played cards! When you say “whoa,” from the first time your horse listens to you and stops, he has to stop that good or better for the rest of his life.

Exercise #3: Gain Your Horse’s Focus.
Is your horse beautifully behaved at home, but turns into a basket case with a group of horses on the trail? Horses are reactive by nature. When you take them to a place where there are new sights, sounds, and other horses, they’re likely going to react. And, like kids, they have an abundance of energy that can intensify when they get into groups. If your horse behaves this way, here’s how to get his focus back on you.

Step 1. Perform groundwork.Before you climb into the saddle, perform 10 or 15 minutes of groundwork – as long as it takes – to get the fresh off your horse, and get him mentally back with you. Longe him, then perform the lateral flexion exercise described in Exercise #1 on the ground. Stand at his left side, slightly behind the cinch or girth, and flex his head gently to the left side. Repeat this exercise on his right side. Refocus his attention onto you, then mount.

Step 2. Keep him busy. Once you’re in the saddle, don’t be just a passenger! Keep your horse busy mentally. Give him a reason to listen to you. Every time you ride him, he learns from you, so consider how you’ll train on the trail. Weave through trees, circle bushes, walk over a fallen tree branch – then stop on a loose rein and walk back over it. There’s no limit to how you can make a trail ride interesting and educational. The more you engage your horse, the better partner he’ll be and the more fun you’ll have.

Clinton Anderson grew up in Queensland, Australia, learning to ride as a teenager and training with many of his country’s top horsemen. In 1997, he relocated to the United States to perfect his Downunder Horsemanship program. Under Anderson’s guidance, horses learn to respect and respond to their handlers, developing willing partnerships. To learn more about Downunder Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tours, and more, visit www.downunderhorsemanship.com.

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