Help for Your Horse to Trail Ride Alone - Horse&Rider

Help for Your Horse to Trail Ride Alone

Julie Goodnight helps our reader get her horse safely out on the trail alone, minus the company of other horses.
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Julie Goodnight | Photo by Heidi Nyland

Julie Goodnight | Photo by Heidi Nyland

Question: I love trail riding on my 8-year-old Appaloosa gelding, but I don't often have anyone to ride with me. When he's not with another horse, he will only go so far from the barn before putting up an escalating fuss. I don't want to get hurt, so I usually give in and return to the barn. Can you give me some advice on how to get my horse to accept going out on the trail alone?

Missy Hendon, South Carolina

Answer: Based on the mail Horse & Rider receives on this subject, yours is a common problem. And it's really no wonder why, because most readers keep their horses at home, in the company of familiar herdmates. As herd animals, horses instinctually are reluctant to go very far from the perceived safety of their herd. (For more on this, see "Why Solo Is No-Go," below.) This is where deliberate training comes in, as a way for you to override that instinct, and get the safe solo ride you want from your horse. I'll provide you with details on that training here. And, I'll be straight with you up-front: This isn't going to be an overnight process. You'll need to spend several weeks training, maybe longer, before going back out on the trail alone. But the payoff will be huge. You'll have better control over your horse's mind, as well as his body, and as a result, he'll be a safer, more willing and obedient mount when asked to go out alone. You'll begin with key groundwork designed to improve your horse's respect and obedience. Then, before you attempt to hit the trail alone, you'll firm up those skills with arena work under saddle.

Groundwork Is Key

Because it gives you a way to get your horse's mind focused on you, quality groundwork is essential to your longterm success. Plan to do at least 20 minutes of groundwork a day, four to six times a week. Your goal here will be to redirect your horse's attention on you--and away from his herdmates, the barn, or anything else potentially distracting.

Whether you're doing groundwork with your horse free in a round pen, or on a longe line or lead, work with purpose--don't just run him around in circles. To keep his attention, give him frequent directives, by asking him to reverse directions, change gait, halt, back up, and so on.

When he consistently obeys your cues, he's focused on you and is respecting you as boss. But when his head's up and he's frantically looking around, or calling to other horses, he's not fully focused on you, nor does he trust you to keep him safe. In this case, keep up the groundwork until you see progress. (For more in-depth instruction on groundwork, see the educational products available at juliegoodnight.com.)

Mounted Homework

With your groundwork obedience in place, you'll be ready to mount up and head for the arena. Here, your goal will be to reinforce the authority, from the saddle, that you established on the ground. This is also where you'll address any new respect or trust issues, and you'll need to be tuned in to them from the very start of your ride.

I call the first 5 to 10 minutes of each ride the "golden moments," because this is the time when your horse is forming an opinion of you as a rider and leader. He's asking, "Is she going to take charge? Or, am I going to be boss?" You must be assertive, apply clear and purposeful cues, and quickly correct any misbehaviors.

Follow these tips for work in your arena:

Demand respect. This translates to expecting obedience from your horse from the moment you mount up. If you let him get away with small disobediences from the start, you'll set him up to take even bigger liberties down the road. For example, if he's in the habit of walking off as you mount, don't keep struggling up in the saddle. Instead, stop and start over. This time, demand he stand still until you give him the "go forward" cue. No compromising!

Dictate the path. Be the driver, not a passenger. If your horse would prefer to avoid a puddle, a shadow, or an unusual object encountered in your arena or work area, make him walk through the perceived obstacle, and by the scary object. His job is to go where you tell him. Be similarly diligent about arena maneuvers. Make him stay on the path you have chosen, without cutting the corners, hugging the rail, and so forth.

Dictate his speed. You set the pace; your horse follows. If he bursts into a lope when you ask for a jog, demand he return to the jog. Or, if he jogs a few steps and collapses to a walk, insist he jog again--this time making him work harder, so he gets the message that walking is not acceptable when you ask for a jog. Make sure your transition cues are clear, and ride with confidence and purpose.

Keep him focused. Whether you're riding or working your horse from the ground, make him keep his nose in front of his body, between the two points of his shoulders. This is a key indication he respects you as leader. If he's looking to either side of his body, he's seeking an escape route, illustrating that he's neither paying attention to you, nor does he trust that you will keep him safe. He needs to learn that when he's being handled or ridden, he must keep his nose in front of his chest--and respect you.

Back On The Trail

Let's assume you've done your homework faithfully for several weeks. Your horse's respect and obedience have improved markedly, and after a good arena warm-up, you decide to give the trail a go. (Tip: Take a halter and long lead with you, in case you need to dismount and do some groundwork reinforcement.) Here's my advice on how to handle several potential scenarios.

  • If your horse becomes anxious as you get away from home, assertively ask him for forward movement with leg pressure. If he continues to resist, make him go opposite the direction he wants to go, and in the direction you choose. For instance, if he veers or pulls to the left, firmly pull him to the right, using rightrein pressure and strong reinforcement from your left leg. If you quickly correct him with cues that say, "No, we're going my way," you'll give him the message that you're still in charge. (Note: In the above scenario, many riders try to regain control by circling in the direction chosen by the horse. To a horse, this isn't a correction--it's an affirmation that he can go in the direction he chooses. In other words, it's an inadvertent reward for unwanted behavior. If you let a horse get away with this once or twice, he'll assume he can dictate where you're going.)
  • If your horse wants to spook at a seemingly innocuous object on the trail, do your best to remain calmly in charge and make him walk by the object. At this point, you don't need to make him walk directly up to it--you just need to make him walk by it, so he can realize it's not a monster out to get him and that he can put his trust in you. Your main goal is to not allow him to turn away from the object. That would reward his lack of respect for your authority, and make it easier for his flight mentality to take over. If that happens, you could quickly lose control.
  • If you continue to have issues down the trail and you're concerned about your safety, avoid taking your horse back to the barn. This would only reinforce his behavior as acceptable. You might as well say, "Oh, it's OK if you don't want to do this. We'll just do whatever you want." Instead, dismount, and use your halter and lead to go through some onthe- spot groundwork exercises. Once you've regained your horse's attention, mount up again, and aim to go a little farther down the trail--only heading home when it's your idea.

Why Solo is No-Go

All herd animals, horses included, naturally favor being with a herd than being alone. To them, it's a matter of survival. If your horsekeeping setup places your horse in a herd-like environment (whether he's on pasture with other horses all or only some of the time), he's quite likely to feel insecure when you take him away from that environment. Even if he's stalled most of the time, a horse still finds comfort from the horses stalled near him, and gets a sense of security from the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of his regular surroundings. A horse's level of separation anxiety also depends on his ranking within the herd's hierarchy. If he's low on the proverbial totem pole, for example, he'll probably be even more insecure without his herdmates than a high-ranking horse would be. A horse's temperament can also be a factor. Some horses are naturally curious, brave, and independent; others are needy, easily frightened, and insecure. If your horse is usually brave toward new sights and sounds, he's likely more willing to leave the herd.

But if he's the needy and insecure type, he needs to gain substantial confidence and trust in you before he'll be comfortable leaving his buddies and his barn. Other factors could affect a particular horse's aversion to being ridden out alone. For example, if he's had a long layoff from regular work, and is suddenly put back to work, without any preliminary groundwork or arena exercise, you can expect problems. You also can expect issues once a horse has learned, through repeated episodes, that you'll give up and take him back to the barn when he acts up. And some horses simply need further training.

Solo-Safety Measures

  • Leave word with someone as to where you're going, what time you're leaving, and when you plan to return.
  • Carry a fully charged cell phone, and attach it to yourself--not your saddle or saddle bag--in case you're separated from your horse.
  • Attach a luggage tag to your saddle with your contact information. This way, if you're separated from your horse, someone will be able to contact you when he's found. (Chances are, however, that he'll head straight back home.)
  • Take a halter and lead line along, in case you need to correct his behavior from the ground.
  • Bring plenty of water and a snack, in case you're caught out longer than you'd planned.
  • Wear a helmet. When riding alone, don't take any unnecessary risks.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.