Q:My horse behaves great on trail, except when I trail ride with a group of young riders (under 16 years old), who ride fast and frequently change positions. Then my horse becomes uncontrollable. Even if I circle him, he won't slow down much, and sometimes he falls. The only remedy seems to be getting away from the others. I'd like to be able to ride with my young friends. What can I do to change my horse's behavior?
A: The situation you're experiencing is a dangerous one. You're wise to ask for advice. First understand that the problem isn't only with your horse's behavior, but also that of your young friends, who need a lesson in safety and responsible horsemanship. Their on-trail actions are exciting your horse to a point at which you lose control of him. They're also exciting their own horses and therefore are at risk of losing control.
A horse is both a prey and a herd animal. When other horses run by and around your horse, he wants to join in with the rest of them, because his herd instinct kicks in. He's displaying this behavior because he feels more secure with the other horses than he does with you. You're losing control over him because you haven't yet established a true, solid leadership position with him.
To tackle your problem, you first need to tell your young friends, in a respectful, but blunt, manner that they're endangering themselves and their own horses by their irresponsible behavior. Tell them they need to put safety first and respect you and your horse. These are fundamental elements of responsible horsemanship. (Of course, your young friends should also wear helmets.)
If your young friends are unwilling to comply, find new riding partners. Period. Choose riding partners who practice responsible horsemanship, set ground rules before you embark on a ride, and obey trail etiquette.
At the same time, work with your horse to establish a leadership position and develop a tight bond with him. To do so, you'll need to work with him on a regular basis four sessions in a row per week.
Start with ground work, then progress to under-saddle work. For specific exercises, see my past columns: "Flex for Control," May/June '05; "Speed Control," September/October '06; "Help for a Herdbound Horse," November/December '06; and "Longeing Basics," September/October '08. (To read these columns, visit www.myhorse.com/leadership.)
To build on the exercises in my past columns, here's a desensitization exercise to help you with your specific situation.
Before you begin, be sure you've established your leadership position on the ground and under saddle. Outfit your horse in your usual trail-riding tack. Then find two or three experienced, safety-conscious, knowledgeable, well-qualified horse-and-rider pairs, and head to a large, safe arena. Your ultimate goal is for your horse to stay stopped, calmly and patiently, during the entire desensitizing exercise.
Step 1. Circle at the walk. Mount up, and position your horse in the center of the arena. Ask one rider to make a circle around you at a walk, then gradually make the circles smaller and smaller until he or she comes very close to you and your horse.
If your horse gets upset at any time, ask the other rider to stop until you feel that your horse is relaxed again and you're in control. Then start the exercise again. Have your helper circle you in both directions.
Step 2. Circle at the trot. When your horse stays calm at a walk in both directions, ask your helper to circle you at a trot. He or she should start with a large circle and gradually make ever-tighter circles.
Step 3. Circle at the lope. When your horse stays calm at a trot in both directions, ask your helper to circle you at the lope, as he or she did in the first two steps.
Step 4. Change gaits. When your horse stays calm at a lope in both directions, ask two or three helpers to ride around you while frequently changing gaits.
Step 5. Go on the rail. When your horse stays calm during gait transitions in both directions, take your horse onto the arena rail at a walk. Then ask your helpers to ride around and past your horse while frequently changing gaits.
Always keep a safe distance between horses. A good rule of thumb in the arena and on the trail is to stay at least one horse length away from another horse-and-rider pair.