California Riding Magazine • July, 2013

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Preparing for the trail.

Question: I have the opportunity to do some trail riding this summer but I have not been out on the trail with my horse for some time. Could you give me some tips on preparation for trail riding this summer?

Answer: I do have some good tips on getting ready for summer trail riding and I am happy to share them because a lot of problems that happen out on the trail are caused because we don't do any, or the right preparation. There are several aspects we need to consider before we go on the trail.

First, we need to consider how well trained our horse is. Many horses out on the trail should not really be out there. People go out thinking that because they can get the horse to walk and trot, the horse is safe to go out on the trail. Going forward is good but there are many more aspects to be considered. One important question to ask is, can you stop your horse easily? Does your horse listen to you? For example, will your horse back up and are you able to steer your horse? When you show the horse where to go with the right rein does it follow its nose or try to go to the left? Are you hoping or praying that the horse will do what you ask in any of these situations or do you know your horse will respond appropriately? It is important that your horse has solid basic foundation training before you go out on the trail.

In the Creek.

Can you physically control your horse? Just because a horse performs well at home in the arena where it is a quiet, safe, familiar environment, does not mean the horse will do well out on the trail. On the trail there is stuff rattling in the bushes and there may be deer, cattle, hikers or even bikers. These circumstances bring an entirely new dynamic to the situation. Even a good, quiet, well broke horse can become distracted and not want to listen to what you are requesting.
Emotional preparedness is another aspect you need to consider.

While we certainly need to have physical control of the horse and we also need to think about the emotional level of our horse, in other words, the flight instinct. When you are at home and you move too quick, does your horse jump out of the way? If the answer is yes, I would say your horse is not ready to go out on the trail. We want to set the horse up so that you are both safe and have a successful, enjoyable ride. Most horses, on average, weigh 900 to 1200 pounds and when those feet start moving it may be hard to stop when the flight instinct kicks in.

Is your horse mentally ready for the trail? Is your horse thinking about you and what you are asking it to do, or is it so distracted by the environment it won't go forward and wants to stop at everything? These are two of the biggest problems I see. People don't have a good forward cue and everybody wants to stop and let the horse look at everything. These are not good things. You must teach your horse physically with a cue to go forward. For example, I ask by a cue with my leg and the horse goes forward and goes right now, not later. The horse can be concerned, but don't stop and look at the distraction, just get on by it. This tells the horse that you are not concerned about it. Get the horse thinking forward. Then, if you want the horse to get comfortable with the object, turn around and go past it again for 15 or 20 feet. I recommend that you do this several times until the horse walks on by and doesn't care. Do not stop and look at everything. It is good that your horse is curious but if you stop, you are setting yourself up to fail. By stopping, you lose the physical and mental forwardness.

Finally, are you mentally and emotionally ready to go out on the trail? You may do very well in the arena, have your cues down, and have control of your horse if it gets a little out of hand. But, if the horse gets out of hand and instead of moving the hips around you grab the reins which causes the horse to stiffen up his neck, throw his head up in the air and push on the bit, you have lost your composure and you are not ready to go out on the trail. Grabbing the reins is the last thing you want to do when your horse becomes upset. Restraining the horse creates more fuel for the horse's concern and the anxiety level of the horse will rise. You need to know that you can handle a situation both mentally and emotionally.

Even some of the nicest horses I have had here at the ranch, horses that are good on the trail, very predictable and controllable, can have something happen that sets them off. Out of the blue a deer can jump onto the trail right in front of you and startle your horse. Are mentally and emotionally able to control that situation? If the answer is no, you need to work on that issue at home. We want to set ourselves and ours horses up to succeed and be safe.

I hope these tips help you prepare for a successful season of trail riding. These are things to think about before you ride out. Trail riding is great but there are a lot of obstacles that you need to be able to deal with. There are things you can do at home as well as a number of good trail clinics that can help you and your horse prepare for a summer of safe, successful, and fun rides.

Charles Wilhelm