Stemming from the desire for more realistic obstacles in a classic trail class about 20 years ago, came extreme mountain trail. With elaborate man-made landscape and obstacles to maneuver, an extreme mountain trail course consists of log crossings, streams, boulders, bridges, water obstacles, a teeter-totter bridge, and just about anything else you can dream of.
Over the years, I have hosted and participated in many extreme mountain trail competitions and clinics, and I have seen what it takes to be successful. In this article, I’m going to talk about the fundamentals that a good extreme mountain trail horse and rider need to tackle the challenging obstacles put in front of them. But first, I’m going to tell you how to introduce a new horse to the discipline so that you can safely ride your horse over obstacles. Trust me, once you start, you’ll never want to stop!
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Begin with Basics
It’s important to understand that extreme mountain trail is different than almost any discipline out there. So, you can’t expect your horse to automatically be able to master a course and feel comfortable out on the trail the first time you attempt it. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t ever be able to do it. Before you begin teaching your horse the fundamentals he needs to do this event, you first need to introduce him to extreme mountain trail obstacles to help set him up for success.
Groundwork in an arena. Start in an arena so you can safely introduce your horse to obstacles in a controlled environment. Even if you have an extremely broke “been there, done that” trail horse, starting on the ground can help your horse get used to any foreign obstacles. It’s natural for a horse to get intimidated by strange obstacles at first, especially if he’s completely new to this kind of riding, so always start slow and build from there. This allows you to guide him through each obstacle step-by-step and help him gain the confidence he needs before you ask him to do it with you on his back. You can’t expect him to master the course the first time you go over it—give him time to figure out where to place his feet, move his body, and adjust to intimidating obstacles in front of him.
Riding obstacles in an arena. After taking your horse through the course a few times on foot, you should feel him start to naturally maneuver through each obstacle. Once he seems to understand what you’re asking him to do and is confident in getting through each part of the obstacle, you’re ready to mount up. You might think that riding through the course will be a breeze since your horse is comfortable with going over obstacles on the ground. But it’s going to take your horse some time to get used to negotiating certain obstacles without your help guiding him from the ground. Start by riding him around the arena as you normally would and then gradually take him to an obstacle. Give him time to find his balance and footing with you on his back. When he feels relaxed, you can start working your way through the rest of the trail course.
Relaxed and willing. One of the most important things you need from your horse during an extreme mountain trail ride is for him to be relaxed and willing to go through the course. If he’s tense, nervous, or afraid of what’s in front of him, he won’t be able to focus enough to maneuver a difficult obstacle. Horses have a fight or flight instinct, and if you’re not helping him understand there’s nothing to be afraid of, he’ll likely go into fight-or-flight mode. It’s normal for your horse to be nervous when they’re first introduced to extreme mountain trail, so give your horse time to adjust and don’t force him into anything.
Your horse isn’t the only one that needs to stay relaxed during an extreme trail course, though. You should be able to keep him on a relaxed rein and keep your eyes up and forward as you make your way through the course. This helps you stay on the proper path and reassures your horse that everything is okay. Instead of keeping your head down and focusing on where your horse’s head is or what’s underneath you, be sure to keep your eyes up and forward.
When you stay relaxed, you let your horse know he can relax, as well. And when you’re confident in your decision-making, he’s going to be more willing to tackle an unfamiliar obstacle.
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The name itself tells you that this sport is extreme. Not every horse can handle the pressure of extreme mountain trail, and as a horse owner that’s something you must recognize and accept. Forcing your horse through a treacherous trail or over extreme obstacles puts both of you in a dangerous position. If at any point your horse is overwhelmed, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Don’t try to force him over something he’s nervous about.
Hunting the trail. I use the term “hunting the trail” frequently and I believe it’s one of the key fundamentals a good extreme mountain trail horse should have. Hunting the trail is when your horse is naturally intrigued by the obstacle you’re working. He should approach each obstacle by reaching his head down to observe it, sniff it, and even touch his nose to it if he’s that curious. When your horse does this, he’s letting you know he isn’t afraid of what he’s walking into and is preparing himself for what’s to come. It also helps him find his footing when he’s asked to walk over obstacles.
For example, if you ask your horse to walk over a bridge that starts to fill with water as he steps on it, and he doesn’t put his head down to really see what he’s about to step on, he might spook once the water starts to gush out. But, if he walks up to it slowly, sniffs the bridge, hears the water underneath, and then watches what happens as he steps onto the bridge, he’s likely to be more confident in his actions.
Horses are curious by nature, so it’s usually instinctive to want to inspect an obstacle like this. The most common issue I see with horses not hunting the trail is because their riders simply won’t let them. Most riders think that they need to be in complete control of their horse while maneuvering an obstacle. So, they keep a tight rein and try to control where their horse’s head is every step of the way. This might be necessary in some instances, but for the most part, this is only going to make your horse nervous and uncomfortable. It’s important to give your horse some rein, and let him explore his surroundings when you’re asking him to go over obstacles.
Be his guide. As a rider, you only need to give your horse the freedom to follow his instincts and observe things for himself, but also be there to guide him through areas he needs help with. You can’t expect him to automatically know how to maneuver through a gate, but you can help guide him and tell him where he should move his body before letting him figure out the best place to put his feet.
Another scenario you might run into is dealing with slippery rocks on a trail. When you see that a portion of the trail you’re on has slippery rocks, you know to avoid those sections. Your horse probably won’t be able to recognize what he’s about to step on, however, so it’s your job to guide him to a part of the trail that’s safe. Once you put him on the correct path, he’ll be able to use his instincts to place his feet where he feels most balanced, but you have to guide him there first.
But remember, you can guide your horse through an obstacle without having a death grip on the reins and trying to have complete control of the situation. The biggest mistake I see new riders make is when a rider tries to have too much control during a tight obstacle or on an area of the trail that needs to be taken one step at a time. It’s hardly ever because their horse isn’t willing to do it; they just have nowhere to go when their rider has such a tight grip on the reins (which means they’re probably tight in their seat and legs, too).
The best thing you can do is to stay out of your horse’s way while paying attention to where he’s going in case he needs assistance. This kind of riding is different for most riders and horses, so it’ll take some practice before you and your horse are effectively communicating with each other.
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Build a partnership. You might have noticed that most of these fundamentals have all included something along the lines of trusting your horse. Building a partnership with your horse and being able to trust each other is one of the most important tools you can have during extreme mountain trail. Sure, you can probably get through a course with a horse you haven’t built a relationship with, but it won’t be easy. You’ll be amazed at how much easier and less stressful navigating a tough course will be if you can rely on your horse to do his job.
Trust between the horse and rider is undoubtedly the most important part of being a successful extreme mountain trail rider—and probably the hardest thing to learn. Remember to take it back to the basics and slowly learn the obstacles together before just jumping right in.
Once you and your partner are working together, you’ll be able to navigate any obstacle you come across one step at a time.