A horse that won’t settle down to business can ruin a group trail ride. If he gets so rattled that he tries to bolt with you, your pleasurable outing can even turn into a wreck.
I’ll explain why your horse may misbehave out on the trail, then tell you how to get him calmed down and back under control while maintaining your own safety.
I’ll also suggest training strategies to use at home to keep the problem from happening again. In the box you’ll find key plan-ahead reminders to increase your chances of having a successful ride every time you hit the trail.
(A caveat: A horse that acts up on the trail isn’t something you can fix permanently in one ride. You’ll need consistent work over time to recondition your horse’s responses. If you try these techniques and still feel overwhelmed by your horse’s behavior, you’re outmatched and should seek professional help.)
Why Does He Act Up?
There are many reasons why your horse might get worked up or even try to run off with you on a group trail ride. (We’ll assume your horse is broke enough to be out on the trail in the first place; if not, that’s your primary factor.)
Being around other horses is naturally exciting for any horse, especially if the horses are unfamiliar to him. The more horses on the ride, the more anxiety your horse may feel as he fusses over keeping up with or getting ahead of the group.
Unfamiliar surroundings are also unsettling. As an animal of prey, your horse hates not knowing what to expect in a new location. Might a predator lurk around the next bend? Or behind that rock outcropping? Your horse worries about this.
He may also simply be feeling disrespectful (an indication he’s not getting enough consistent “maintenance” riding), and/or have excess energy to burn on this day. As in all situations with horses, too much energy will aggravate the lack-of-respect issue.
Any one or combination of these factors can cause your horse to get “on the muscle” and difficult to control on a trail ride.
How Should You Respond?
Re-direct. Regardless of the exact reasons for your horse’s behavior, solve the problem by redirecting his negative energy. Take control of his feet and make him work—first unmounted, for safety’s sake, then under saddle.
This focused effort enables him to work off steam, plus—more importantly—gets him thinking and remembering you are in charge. Moving his feet with energy overrides the reactive side of his brain—the side worried about his surroundings, other horses, hidden predators, and whatnot.
As he concentrates on following your commands and hustling his feet without tripping himself up, he’s using instead the thinking side of his brain—which dials him in to you.
Don't 'secure' him. A big mistake a lot of riders make on a trail ride, especially if they’re worried in advance their horse might act up, is trying to “secure” him by holding on to his mouth. Don’t do this! It makes your horse feel claustrophobic and ups the likelihood he will in fact get antsy.
Ultimately, you want him to “be responsible” for behaving correctly. So let him make the mistake of acting up if he’s going to, then correct him by making his feet work. This way, he’ll learn that behaving in the first place is a lot easier than acting up and then having to work really hard.
Regain Control, Step-by-Step
In the box titled "Plan, Prepare to Prevent Trail Woes," below, I describe the measures that can help you avoid this kind of trail trouble in the first place.
But let's just say you've joined an impromptu outing with friends, and your horse begins to act up, threatening to get out of control.
Here's what to do.
Don’t pull on both reins. Taking back on both reins simply increases your horse’s anxiety, plus it sets up a tug-of-war you can’t possibly win. Your horse will simply brace his neck and pull you forward while continuing to do as he pleases. Or he’ll stick his head in the air, open his mouth, and drag you wherever he wants to go.
Use a one-rein stop. Instead of pulling on both reins, slide your hand down one rein for leverage, then draw your horse’s head to that side, flexing his neck to bring him around in a small circle and back under control.
Use this maneuver as soon as you feel your horse even thinking about taking off. (Remember—you don’t want to hang on your horse’s mouth in advance. Give him his head and expect him to behave. If he doesn’t, correct him and “get him back” immediately.)
If, despite your best effort, your horse gets the jump on you and bolts, still go for the one-rein stop. It may take a moment or two longer, and you may need to gradually decrease the size of the circle he’s making. But drawing on one rein is always the best way to get him back under control. It gives you the leverage you need to outmuscle him and limits the range of his movement while you do.
To bring him completely to a stop, once he’s slowed down, use your leg on the same side as the pulling rein, four or five inches behind the cinch, to push his hindquarters to the side. This “disengages” his hind end, which inhibits forward movement.
[Do you know? One-rein stop or pulley stop? Learn the differences.]
Dismount. The old rule of thumb about never dismounting when your horse is misbehaving—because it will reward his bad behavior—applies only if you then let him rest or put him up for the day. If, instead, you put him right to work, really hustling his feet, he’ll know he’s being corrected for wayward behavior, plus you’ll get him safely back under control.
Longe for respect. The best groundwork for hustling a horse’s feet is the highly active exercise I call “longeing for respect.” The secret to its success, and what makes it different from regular longeing? Frequent changes of direction that require your horse to pay attention to you and work hard. (Note: You can longe your horse with the mecate rein of his bridle, as I am in the photos, or with the 14-foot lead rope you carry with you on all trail rides just for this purpose.)
To longe for respect, send your horse around you at a brisk trot, asking for a change of direction at least every two or three circles. To encourage him not to drag on the line, pull and release on the line in a way that says: “If you stay light and responsive to my body language, I’ll stay light and won’t drag on your face.”
Continue in this fashion for a good 10 to 15 minutes, or until your horse moves evenly, responds consistently, and keeps his full attention on you. At this point, the edge will be off his energy, making it easier for him to relax.
Remount, flex. Now step back on and check your horse’s level of relaxation and attention to you. Do this by asking him to flex his neck first one way, then the other, walking calmly in small circles in each direction.
As you slide your hand down the rein to ask for the circle, be sure to allow enough slack in the other rein so your horse’s head can come fully around.
Ride small circles. Now pick up the pace and ride a few circles in each direction at a trot. If possible, use a tree or other feature of the terrain as the center point of your circle, working your horse both ways around it. This additional exercise confirms for your horse that you’re calling the shots and his job is to obey.
Keep him engaged. When your horse is fully under control and you resume the trail ride, use extra care to keep him focused on you. As I describe in the “Plan, Prepare” box, ride every step, asking for small adjustments in gait and positioning that let your horse know you’re paying attention to him—so he’d best pay attention to you.
Homework to Finish the Job
Once you’ve survived your horse’s acting up on the trail, you’re on formal notice that you need extra work at home to make sure your next group ride is uneventful.
Here’s what to do.
Ride regularly. Horses need lots of consistent groundwork and riding in order to become—and remain—fully broke. If you bring your horse out mainly to go down the trail on weekends, you’re much more likely to run into problems than if you also ride and do groundwork consistently during the week. The more time you spend working your horse, the more satisfaction and fun you’ll get back out of him.
Train all the time. Make every moment with your horse count by constantly requiring some little obedience from him. When you’re cleaning his stall, have him move around you, rather than vice versa. If he lifts his head when you’re trying to put on his blanket, take the time to remind him to cooperate. As you’re leading him, insist that he follow willingly, without hanging back or dragging you around. Make the fact that you’re in control of him a constant in his mind.
Watch for ‘cheats.’ Your horse will constantly test you to discover: “Is she serious, or not?” He’ll push into your space, wait a heartbeat before responding to a request, attempt to “get an inch” here and there, all while observing how you respond. If you don’t correct him on these small “cheats,” he’ll eventually pull a much larger one—quite likely out on the trail. Keep him honest—all the time.
Practice easy rides. Before you go out on another major group ride, arrange a few practice rides to get him better prepared for the real deal. Ride around the area surrounding your own place, if possible, with just one or two other riders. Or haul to a nearby location. Practice letting your horse go first, last, in the middle. Change up which horse-and-rider pair you ride next to.
Try to simulate, as best you can, the circumstances your horse will face on a real trail ride.
If you follow these recommendations faithfully (plus those in the box), your chances of enjoying great trail rides with your horse will skyrocket.
Clinton Anderson is a clinician, horse trainer, and competitor; Learn more about his clinics, appearances, and educational materials at DownunderHorsemanship.com.