Of all the things that can cause excitement on a trail ride, one of the most unsettling for your horse is the appearance of one or more unfamiliar horses. In particular, having another rider come galloping up on you unexpectedly…well, that’s almost guaranteed to cause your horse to act up.

I’m going to give you three strategies for dealing with this situation. I’ll show you how to prepare your horse to stay under control while another horse approaches and passes; how to calm your horse down if he’s “surprised” into an eruption; and how to dismount and work out the problem on the ground any time you feel unsafe in the saddle.

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Once you know you always have a strategy to fall back on, you’ll feel much more at ease on the trail.

To Get The Most From This Clinic

  • You usually don’t know in advance when you’ll need to use these strategies on the trail, so outfit your horse in a bridle with a mecate rein, or else bring a longe line or one of my 14-foot leads with you whenever you head out for a ride.
  • Take your time and stay calm as you work with your horse. You can’t force him to calm down; you can only stay with him and insist he do as you ask as he works through his excitement. Losing your temper will only make you seem like a predator, which will unnerve your horse even more.
  • Work in both directions, so that your circles and flexing divide more or less equally to the left and right.
| Photos by Kevin McGowan

1. When you hear another rider approaching from a distance and have time to prepare your horse, follow this strategy: Don’t try to contain his excitement by pulling back on both reins; that will just make him feel claustrophobic, enhancing his fear. Instead, move him off to one side of the trail, then flex his neck to the side so that he’s facing the oncoming rider.

To bring his head around, use a pull-and release motion, with your hand moving straight back toward the place where the side seam of your jeans meets your belt. (This gives you a full range of motion; by contrast, if you pull toward your middle, your hand will be stopped by your belly.) If your horse will stand, as mine is, until the rider has passed, good. If he won’t, that’s OK; simply keep his neck flexed so that he moves in a small circle and remains under your control. (If you like, you can use your other hand to grab a fistful of mane for added security.)

2. If your horse gets surprised by an oncoming rider or any other “booger” on the trail, you won’t have the chance to pre-pare him in advance. If that happens, begin immediately to flex his head to the side…

3. .then work him in small circles, in both directions, keeping his neck flexed and his feet moving until…

4. .he’s willing to stand flat-footed, with his head still flexed to the side. At this point, if he feels calm and under control (his breathing has begun to slow and he’s paying more attention to you), you can resume your ride. But if you still feel uncertain of control (his body feels tight and “spring-loaded”), then it’s time to…

5. .take the opportunity to step off while he’s standing still, with his neck flexed (your left hand should clasp the rein against the saddle horn as you dismount).

6. Now, using the mecate rein (or the longe line or long lead you brought with you), send your horse out onto a longeing circle, being careful to stay out of kicking range of his hind end. Keep him moving at an energetic trot, with frequent changes in direction to get him thinking and paying attention to you. Don’t be in a hurry at this point; take the time it takes to let him work off energy, dial in to you, and quiet down.

7. When your horse finally relaxes (he “volunteers” to stand still, the expression in his eye softens, and/or he licks his lips and chews), give him an “attaboy,” mount back up, and resume your ride.

This article is reprinted from the June 2007 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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