Trail Talk: Fall in Line
We all know that there is an established
pecking order in the pastures, but does this
hierarchy exist on the trails as well?
Ask any horse owner that rides a horse that insists on always being first and they will confirm that yes, the order of things is still very important to some horses, whether they are grazing in a field of clover or cantering down a forest path. Let’s read about what trainer Wendy Warner has to say about the fight to be first becoming the agreeable willingness to be last, or any other position in the riding order.
First and Foremost
During the thirty years that Wendy Warner has been training horses, she has determined that there are more horses that aren’t good in a trail setting, than the few that are. Any horse within the common guidelines for athleticism, conformation, and personality should willingly fall into any place in line when asked to do so by the rider. But she has found that this isn’t always the case. Wendy stresses that “more horses will want to stay in front of the herd. It is a rare horse that will be okay to lag behind while others take the lead.” The inclination for some horses to be first in line can become an unpleasant battle between horse and rider, and even cause unsafe riding conditions when more than one horse insists on being first in a group. One of Ms. Warner’s theories is that “Horses need to trail ride…it’s the most important part of their life.” If this is the case, then how should riders go about solving this problem? First, let’s look at why it happens.
Out of Order
For some alpha horses, leading a group is a confirmation of their stance in the pecking order, but it can also be a means of survival. It is a horse’s natural instinct to stay in front of the line, leading the herd, or at least with the herd, for reasons that date back to when they lived in the wild. At that time, when one horse spooked and bolted, it was a matter of preservation that led the other horses in the herd to flee from whatever the threat was. The herd mentality is alive and well today, and riders must work on modifying that instinct.
Both breed and career can influence a horse’s preference in position. There are some breeds that are more inclined to be content in any riding position, but there are exceptions. Former racing careers may be another factor in the drive to be first, but again, there are ex-racehorses that are only too happy to leave their racing careers in the past and sheepishly follow the group. Horses that have had training and experience in parades or in drill teams are usually eager to conform to any riding position in any setting, as these jobs require that they constantly change order and direction while maintaining the same pace. But more than breed or past careers, it boils down to each individual horse’s temperament when it comes to riding order.
Training should always start from the ground. This can be less than appealing to riders who prefer to be in the saddle, but the effort will eventually make for a more enjoyable ride. Any and all groundwork will make a horse more supple which, in turn, relaxes the brain and makes a horse more willing to do anything a rider asks, including changing line position.
Not all four letter words are bad. Bend, for example, is one of the most positive words when it comes to horse training. It will be harder to ask for a neck bend and make a correction on the trail if you don’t practice at home. Prepare for a trail ride by teaching the horse to become more supple by bending the neck, disengaging his hind end, moving the hind quarters, and backing up. All of these exercises can be done from the ground, and then later while mounted.
Back to School
Effective schooling can be done even in a trail setting. When working on riding order, bring along at least one other horse so positions can be swapped. Most of the work should be done at the walk, keeping the element of speed out of the equation. Walk twenty steps, stop, bend the neck, and then reward with a pat. Pass the other horse and repeat. Continue rotating positions until the horse feels confident about riding in any order.
Wendy Warner insists that there is an “art to trail riding well. The majority of riders tend to ride with more hand contact than they should.” Riders should be conscious of pressure on the mouth and maintain minimal contact to avoid desensitizing horses’ mouths. Encourage the horse to walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein. Otherwise, “the horse may slow down at first then hold on to the rein pressure. This promotes a vicious cycle—a pulling match—that leads the horse to counter balance by leaning on the rider’s hands. From that point on, they can’t independently walk or trot without contact,” explains Wendy. When asking the horse to stop, provide an immediate release of pressure followed by a verbal or tactile reward.
Yield to the Leg
One way to keep a horse in a position that he is fighting against is to practice leg yields. This gives the horse more of an idea of speed control and placement without unnecessary pressure on the mouth. Wendy suggests “positioning their entire body on a sideways angle on the trail, and leg yield them along, forcing them to cross over both front and hind legs. Once they slow down and walk, allow their bodies to straighten out. Repeat throughout the ride until they decide, on their own, that it is far too much work to travel sideways.” This technique will keep the horse in the position you choose without inadvertently creating a hard mouth.
Wendy feels that going on a trail ride with a large group of riders is asking for trouble—especially when it comes to dictating riding order. She prefers to keep a riding group to no more than five horses to avoid the struggle over line placement and racing. For groups larger than that, she recommends a walk-only outing.
If all the horses want to be first, position the horses with the bigger strides towards the front of the line to naturally control the herd’s speed.
There are a couple of ways to address the issue of horses who wish to race ahead. One way is to let them go as fast as they want, until they become tired and slow down on their own—they can only canter for so long. Sometimes they suddenly become much less bold once they are the first in line. By giving them the freedom to choose their pace, they may just end up at the speed you had in mind, without the fight.
A second method of controlling speed is by asking the horse to turn in a small circle during a ride. This makes it harder for the horse to be quick and slows their pace. Once they have reached the halfway point of the circle, the rider should stop asking for a circle maneuver so they have to cross over their front legs to get back in line with the herd. This action stretches and releases the shoulder, softening the body and slowing the pace.
Another way to discourage racing to get ahead of another horse is to choose footing that restricts speed. Horses that are jiggy about being behind will have a much harder time speeding up and passing on rocky, hilly, rugged trails. Let the horse choose which is more important, safely negotiating tough terrain or being first, and they will choose to hang back. Warner warns that “if riders micromanage every single thing that horses do, the horses won’t learn to think on their own.” Let the horse manage natural obstacles; this may end up resolving the position problem.
Change it Up
“Ideally, riders should teach horses to ride in any position but the reality is that it is quite a difficult task,” stresses Wendy Warner. She continues that “the majority of horses care where they fall in riding position.” If taking the steps to curb this natural inclination fails, adopt the ideas that will help to manage the problem so trail rides don’t turn into battles. After all, it’s not always about winning.
Thanks to Wendy Warner, BHSAI Certified and Advanced Teaching License Instructor and Trainer at Seven Springs Farm in Royalston, Mass.
Beth, along with her husband and son, lives on a farm in Southern New Hampshire. She is a Bay State Trail Riders member, Barre Riding and Driving Club member and former Director of the Waters Farm Trail Ride Weekend event. Trail riding in the great outdoors serves to renew her spirit and nourish her soul. If you would like to suggest a trail related subject or pose a question, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with Trail Talk noted in the memo line. We look forward to hearing from you!