Top-10 Trail-Horse Skills

Ten essential skills will lead you down the path of trail riding relaxation.

As you know, a few hours in the saddle can provide a much-needed respite from your busy life. That might include taking a leisurely ride along a scenic path, ambling down a country road, exploring an urban trail system, or simply rediscovering your own back pasture.

The American Paint Horse Association’s Ride America program reflects the popularity of recreational riding. Since its inception in 1995, thousands of riders have enrolled and logged hours spent riding or driving their Paint Horses, earning awesome incentive-level prizes along the way.

Our Experts

Trail riding at its most basic is one of the least expensive equine pursuits; all you need is a horse and a place to ride. What is required, however, is a specific set of equine skills, outlined here by three experts, to ensure a pleasant and safe experience for both horse and rider.

Alice Singleton is a lifetime member of the association and an avid Ride America fan. Singleton has logged hours on a number of Paint Horses, including 5,300 hours on her 1992 sorrel overo gelding, Sir Jeta Moon.

Bonnie Davis, The Trail Rider’s consulting editor, is a San Francisco Bay-area resident, freelance writer, and trail-riding advocate with more than 30 years of riding experience. She’s an expert on horse camping, giving lectures on where to go, how to select a campsite, and how to meet environmental regulations on national park and forest service land.

• Judi Daly of Parma, Ohio, the author of Trail Training for the Horse and Rider, firmly believes “good trail horses are made, not born.” One of Daly’s favorite trail horses is her 1995 bay solid Paint-bred gelding, Dream Domino.

The Top-10 Skills

All three experts agree that you must be consistent with your discipline when riding your trail horse. And don’t expect to take a horse that has been loafing in the pasture for a few months on a long ride. Condition him with some shorter rides, first.

Review this list, refresh your horse’s education, and get ready to have an even more relaxing and rejuvenating time on the trails than ever before.

1. Solid basic training. Your trail horse needs to be well-trained and able to walk, trot, canter, and stop on command, as well as respond to leg cues. Unless these basics have been mastered, he isn’t considered safe to ride.

2. Stands quietly. A good trail horse stands calmly anytime he isn’t asked to move out, including for mounting and dismounting, being tied, adjusting tack, and waiting for other horses. “I want a horse that will stand regardless, even if there’s something scary up ahead,” Daly says.

3. Easy to trailer. Nothing spoils a planned outing quicker than a horse that refuses to get into the trailer. And if you plan to share the driving with friends, make sure your horse is comfortable with different types of trailers.

4. Willingness to negotiate obstacles. You’ll encounter obstacles on the trail, whether you ride in the city or the country, on groomed trails or open pasture. In the city, it could be traffic cones, high curbs, and trash bags; in the country your horse might need to step over fallen logs, crosscreeks, navigate steep hills, and pick a path around boulders.

“A trail horse should be able to cross water, whether or not he can see the bottom,” Davis notes. “Mud puddles in the barnyard are a great place to practice.”

5. Steady reverse. Your horse might be willing to navigate obstacles, but to do so, he needs the skill to move backward as well as forward. A narrow trail might dead end without room to safely turn around. Your mount must be able to back up slowly, serenely, and in a relatively straight line.

6. Sidepassing. The ability to sidepass is useful for more than opening gates without dismounting. Like backing, you can use sidepassing to move your horse off a narrow trail to let other riders or hikers pass, maneuver him out of tight quarters, or park him in a line for a group photo.

7. Independent action. A good trail horse has the ability to operate as an individual at all times. He listens to his rider rather than the other horses in the group. Not only will he be willing to leave a group and head out on his own, but he’ll also allow other horses to leave him without a fuss.

“I want my horse to be scanning the trail and terrain and watching out for both of us,” Davis says. “I’ve seen horses walk up to an obstacle and wait for the riders to guide them around it. I want my horse to pay attention to where he’s going and choose the best path for us.”

8. Good group manners. Your trail riding pleasure will be diminished if your horse’s poor manners force you to ride a distance from the rest of the group. Crowding, biting, kicking, or racing is unacceptable, no matter in what part of the group you are riding. If your horse kicks on occasion, attach a red ribbon to his tail. Then make sure everyone in the riding party understands the meaning of the ribbon. Novice trail riders might think a ribbon on the tail is simply a decoration, like braids in the mane.

“A good trail horse should be sociable,” Singleton says. “Once, on a trail ride, my mare kicked at the horse behind her. My best friend was riding the horse, and the kick caught my friend in the leg and broke it. That was the end of that mare’s trail career.”

9. Startle-free. Regardless of where you trail ride, you’ll encounter objects that might blow by your horse, brush against him, catch his tail or make loud noises. In addition, you might drop your gloves, lose your hat, or break a saddle strap. A good trail horse takes these distractions in stride, without going ballistic.

“My horse, Mingo, is a very calm horse,” Daly says. “Even though he’s pretty serene, I spent a long time getting him used to traffic. It’s not enough for your horse to be calm, you have to expose him to the kinds of scary stuff he might regularly encounter on the trail.”

10. Easy drinker. Horses that are fussy about where they drink can cause problems on the trail; a proper watering trough might not be an option along your trail route. A good trail horse will take his water wherever he can get it, whether from a lake, creek, or clean puddle. If you ride your horse with a tie-down, unsnap it so he can get his head down far enough to drink.

“My horses will drink anywhere, but occasionally, on mountain trails, they can’t get down to the water,” Davis says. “I carry a folding canvas water pail on my saddle. I tie my lariat to the handles, toss the pail down in the stream, pull it up, and carry it to the horses.” 

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