Cross-Train Your Show-Pen Horse on the Trail

You'll make any horse--yes, even your best show-pen prospect or partner--a better horse by riding him out in the open as well as in an arena. Saddle up with some key whys and hows for going about it.

No matter how good you are at training, you can only teach a horse so much in an arena. To get one as well-broke as he possibly can be, expose him to the wider world out beyond the rails. | Photo by Caroline Fyffe

If you’re among those who do most of their riding and training in an arena, you’re not alone. In fact, as a trainer who specializes in preparing horses for arena competition, I’m right there with you. I do my own share of riding within an arena’s rails.

But I’m also a big believer in riding every horse, show horse or not, outside an arena as often as possible. In my view, no matter how well you can train a horse to go down the rail or perform maneuvers in the middle, you haven’t gotten him as broke as he can be–and should be–until you’ve also trained him to accept being ridden out in the real world beyond an arena gate. I’ll go so far as to say you haven’t made yourself as good a rider as you could be, either.

Our Arizona ranch offers good ride-out opportunities in the surrounding desert, and I’ve taken advantage of them, in various deliberate ways, throughout my entire career. Young prospect or seasoned campaigner, actively showing or on a show-pen layoff, my horses get benefits they just can’t get by going around in circles every time they’re saddled.

In this article, I’m going to share some key things I’ve learned about incorporating nonarena work into a horse’s life. I’ll also alert you to some common pitfalls. You can put these insights
to work in situations ranging from rides across big unfenced fields or desert areas, to rides on bona fide trails.

Whys and Wherefores

Occasionally, I’ve had aspiring young trainers question why they should take the time to get a horse broke to ride outside as well as inside an arena. To their way of thinking, they’re being paid to get a horse ready to show, not to go down a trail, making non-arena work a waste of time and money.

If you’re a dedicated arena rider, you may think along similar lines. Or, you may have had a bad experience in taking your arena-trained horse out on trails, and have made up your mind to avoid the whole idea.

Let’s talk about those thoughts for a minute.

When you want to be a good trainer, whether professionally or for your own purposes, I think you have a responsibility to cover all the bases in a horse’s education. That includes making sure he’s as willingly and obediently rideable out on a trail (or otherwise out in the open) as he is in a confined space.

Why? It’s his future-longevity insurance policy.

As I tell my assistant trainers, the best-bred show prospects don’t always make it as show horses, and it’s our job to provide backup for a substitute career that may very well be one of recreational trail riding. Horses live a long time, and may change hands several times in the course of youth to old age. The better the introduction to cross-training for another line of work, the better a failed show horse’s chances are of getting owners who’ll support him throughout his life span.

Even if you’re not training for the public, and are happy with limiting your personal horse to arena work, you still need to think about an important fact of life: Circumstances change. You get no guarantees that you’ll always be able to support your horse and that you won’t have to let him go to a new owner at some point. The more versatile you make him while he’s still under your control, the better his odds of getting a good next home.

If you’re still worried about the bad-experience issue, stick with me. I’ll get to some useful insights on that in a bit.

But before we move on, I want to say something about the way riding out improves your skills as a rider–physically and mentally. When you don’t have a containment rail as your subconscious limiter of the horse’s movement, you improve everything from your reflexes and timing to your steering ability and overall communication with your horse.

You also sharpen your ability to keep your mind in the middle of your horse–that is, to stay fully focused on what your horse is doing and thinking at every step. This is a mental skill that takes practice, and that’s harder to hone when the repetitive nature of arena work tempts your mind to drift.

To Trails and Back

There’s another big bonus to riding a horse out beyond an arena. It’s one any rider would appreciate, and also one that amounts to a kind of secret weapon for a competitor. It’s pretty simple to figure, too.

Riding out on trails or fields is a form of cross-training. Any horse becomes a better athlete from having to cover extended stretches of ground (uneven and ungroomed), with only his rider for direction. Think of how the best human athletes cross-train with activities that work their bodies and brains in more than one way. They end up having more to work with when they resume training for their primary sport.

You get the same kind of benefits with a horse. Let’s say you’re training yours for a demanding arena sport, such as barrel racing or reining. From a physical standpoint, that horse will be that much more sure of where he’s placing his feet, and that much better able to deal with a patch of bad show-pen ground, after he’s learned to pick his way through roots and rocks, and figured out how to handle otherwise unpredictable footing.

He’ll also be stronger and more flexible, overall, from having to use himself in ways not required in a level arena. Climbing hills, for instance, builds loin, hock, and hindquarter strength in a way that flat riding can’t achieve. I’m aware that many would-be trail riders hold back due to fear of how their horses might react to unpredictable circumstances.

I’m sympathetic, but only up to a certain point, because this is really a man-made and self-reinforcing problem that’s only solved when you face it.

I’ll explain. In today’s world, we have more horses raised in box stalls and small pens than we do out in wide-open spaces, and as a result, have created horses that are like hot-house plants when it comes to the unexpected. They over-react when a bird or rabbit jumps up, because they’ve been protected from the experience. It’s perpetuated when owners address their own fear by holding back from exposing their horses to what they might fear.

This helps explain why those good old range-raised ranch horses–the bombproof kind that people line up to buy when they’re available–are the way they are. They’ve had the built-in opportunity to become mentally versatile in terms of what they can deal with in their environment. That mental-versatility benefit is one more reason why I encourage you to ride out beyond an arena when you can.

Let’s look at some ways for you to accomplish that, from a training perspective.

Frame Your Mind

Although step-by-step trails training is beyond the scope of this single article, I do want you to remember this one big thing: When you’re introducing an arena- trained horse to rides in the outside world, it’s not about getting him from Point A to Point B. It’s about using these rides as a way to get your horse more responsive and better-broke, and about using them as a horsemanship challenge and learning experience for yourself.

For this to happen, you initially have to think of all non-arena riding area–whatever ones you choose to use–not as distances to cover, nor as ways to pass the time while you view the scenery, but as additional spaces for proactively improving and reinforcing your horse’s training.

Some examples: Instead of trying to hustle past obstacles, use them as focal points for work on turning, stopping, sidepassing, or backing. Instead of giving your horse free rein to go at the speed and gait he picks, deliberately ask for and insist on what you want, as the one in charge. If you come to an area with footing that’s good for circling or lateral work, pause there to perform some of that work, to your satisfaction, before continuing toward your destination. Rather than fight with your horse if he wants to act high-headed and chargey, redirect his energy (and his mind) by giving him a hill (or two) to climb.

For the first few times you take a horse out, I think it’s a good idea to have someone accompany you on a seasoned, reliable mount, preferably a horse yours already knows. For one thing, it’s safer to have company than to go out alone. And because horses learn by observing the behavior and reactions of other horses, the seasoned horse’s presence will also teach and help breed confidence in the one that’s less experienced.

However, it’s usually not a good idea to take your horse out his first few times in a group of horses, particularly unfamiliar ones. The strange environment is likely to make him somewhat anxious in the first place, so dropping him into a new herd of horses isn’t going to do much to put him in a calm, ready-to-learn frame of mind. If you’ve ever taken a well-seasoned arena horse to a big group trail ride and been made miserable by his hyped-up, half-panicked behavior, you’ll know what I mean. An experience like this amounts to too much, too soon for a horse without more gradual exposure to the task.

While I’m in favor of the two-horse buddy system mentioned above, you do need to be smart about preventing undesirable buddying behaviors. For instance, don’t just put the seasoned horse in the lead, and then let yours glue himself to the other horse’s rear end. Instead, vary the distances between horses, and get yours out in front often. Not only does this help affirm that you’re the one in charge of his position at all times, it also teaches your horse to rely on himself (with your reassurance) to gauge footing, distances, upcoming objects, and so forth.

One more thing: A good horseman considers his horse’s frame of mind when planning a training session, and this extends to your rides out in the open or on trails.

For instance, I know that most young horses are going to be in a fresh frame at the start of any ride, so I’ll plan to work a youngster in my arena first, then relax and cool him out with a trip out into the desert. Most get so they look forward to it, and they end up learning good ridingout basics without even knowing they’re being taught.

But with a veteran who knows his competitive job inside and out, and who’s maybe a little sour on getting drilled, I’ll use a desert ride at the start, when his mind’s most in need of freshening. I usually get back to the arena with a whole new horse.

I hope I’ve convinced you to add more out-in-the-open riding to your horse’s routine, to whatever degree you can. It’s just a good deal, all the way around.

This article originally appeared as “From Rails to Trails” in the May 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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