Improve Your Trail Horse’s Behavior

Is your trail horse’s behavior problematic? Try Warwick Schiller’s “50-foot trail ride” exercise to improve a variety of difficulties.
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Is your horse nervous on the trail? Pokey on the way out? Overeager on the way back? Always wanting to stop or turn?

If so, you need my “50-foot trail ride.” It’s a simple exercise that works with your horse’s psychology to remove his natural reluctance to be away from “home”—whether home is the barn or the trailer.

It’s a simple concept: You practice trail riding by going a short distance, then turning around and returning to your starting place. Then you ride back out, going farther this time, then turning back again. Over time, you increase the distance you travel on each start-over, gradually reducing your horse’s anxiety about leaving home.

Why This Works

This exercise teaches your horse to have confidence that he will be able to go home at some point. Returning home is something horses often obsess about. When they pass their “I can’t stand it!” threshold, they begin the balky or rushy behavior that can ruin a trail ride.

By repeatedly turning back for home, you short-circuit this worry cycle. Over time, that worry is replaced with confidence as your horse realizes he’s not actually leaving home forever.

Think of dropping your child off at day care. You wouldn’t set him down and say you’ll be back in nine hours. No, you start by leaving him for five minutes, then 10, then half an hour. You increase the time incrementally as your child develops trust that you always will come back.

For your horse, you’re resetting his tension level to zero every time you turn back. Eventually, he’s no longer thinking about wanting to go back. He’s not tense or concerned, because he’s learned he’ll be going home for certain at some point.

[WARWICK’S EVOLUTION: Why he changed how he trains.]

[RELATED: 10 tips for better (safer!) trail rides.]

Key to Success

The most challenging aspect of this exercise is keeping the right attitude. You can’t think of this training as “something you have to do before you get to go on your trail ride.” You must think of it as your trail ride.

Or, as my friend and equestrian mindset coach Jane Pike says, “If you’re thinking about the end result of the work you’re doing, you’re not doing the work.”

Look at it this way: If you went for an hour-long trail ride, you wouldn’t get 50 feet out and be thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait to be on my trail ride!” You’re already on it. And even when you’re almost home, you’d still be on the trail ride—you’re not finished until you’re all the way back.

In the same vein, when you’re first starting out and then turning back, over and over, you should consider all of that as part of your trail ride.

How? Stay in the moment. Remain present. Be thinking, “Hey, we’re having a great time on this trail ride!” That gives you a relaxed, positive energy, instead of the tight, nervous energy of wishing you were doing something different. And that matters to your horse.

Step 1: Start, Turn

Here I’ve set out on a normal trail ride and have gone only a short distance before turning back. That’s key—you must turn back before your horse starts to get anxious, or you’re not achieving the goal of making the trail ride nonthreatening to him. If you wait until he’s concerned, you’re too late.

As you turn back, remember to control your perception. Don’t think of it as training. Think, I’m trail riding!

Warwick Schiller working his horse.

Step 2: Go Farther

Here I’ve ridden again to the point where I turned around, only now I’ll keep going a little farther. Increase the distances proportionally a bit more as you go along. For example, for your second time out, you may go just half again as far as you went the first time. So if you went 100 feet the first time, you’ll go 150 feet this time.

Then the next time, you might go double what you went the previous time—so 300 feet instead of 150. And so on. The distances start to increase in a hurry.

Again, always adjust the distances as need be so that you’re turning back before your horse starts to fret.

Warwick Schiller working his horse.

Step 3: Turn Again

Here I’m turning back at a spot that’s half again as far as I went the first time. I’ll keep doing this, and my distances will start to build. It’s OK, though, to start as small as your horse needs. This out-and-back gives your horse a lot of confidence, because you’re always stopping before you get to his can’t-do-it point. You never have to work through the “no.”

The first time you try the 50-foot trail ride, you may get only 100 yards up the trail all told. But you’ll find it easy to go much farther the next time you try it.

Warwick Schiller working his horse.

Step 4: Keep Going

Here I’m making it out farther still, and my horse is still calm and happy. Repeat this exercise over different days, and you’ll find you’re able to go farther and farther between turn-backs. Soon you’ll be out there having the trail ride you’ve always wanted—on a happy, relaxed horse! 

Warwick Schiller working his horse.

Book: Trail Riding: A Complete Guide

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