Tune Up a Trail- Balker

Turn your trail-balker back into a will­ing trail com­pan­ion with these tech­niques.


A wild storm blows in but clears up quickly. You de­cide to sad­dle up for a re­lax­ing trail ride with your bud­dies. You all ride will­ing, well-trained trail horses. You fall into a lively con­ver­sa­tion as you lead your friends down the trail. You hardly no­tice when your horse de­cides to walk around a pud­dle, rather than go through it. The other horses fol­low suit.

You con­tinue along the trail, still talk­ing with your trail bud­dies. You ap­proach a small fallen log blown across the trail by the storm. Your horse knows this trail but the fallen log is new to him. You gather the reins and ask him to step across it. In­stead, he turns away, tosses his head, and fights your rein pres­sure. You fight to keep him mov­ing for­ward, pointed to­ward the log. Your ride has gone from re­lax­ing to stress­ful for the whole group. What hap­pened to your usu­ally will­ing trail part­ner?

Here, I’ll first help you un­der­stand how “holes” (such as this seem­ingly sud­den dis­obe­di­ence) can de­velop in your horse’s train­ing. Then I’ll ex­plain how to avoid cre­at­ing these holes by be­ing con­sis­tent, be­ing aware, and giv­ing clear cues. Fi­nally, I’ll give you an easy shoul­der-con­trol ex­er­cise to get your horse back on track, lis­ten­ing to your ev­ery cue. →

Cre­at­ing ‘Holes’

I of­ten hear this com­plaint: “My once-per­fect trail horse was do­ing great on our weekly rides, but ‘sud­denly’ won’t go where I want.” The horse’s dis­obe­di­ent be­hav­ior most likely es­ca­lated over time, but was al­lowed or un­no­ticed— un­til the prob­lem grew out of con­trol.

Even the best-trained horse can be­come “un­trained” if he’s al­lowed to choose his own path too of­ten. In the early stages of the prob­lem, you might’ve pointed your reins to cue your horse to walk straight through a pud­dle. In­stead of tak­ing your cues, he chose to walk around. You thought he made an un­der­stand­able de­ci­sion to stay out of the mud, and you didn’t cor­rect him. You re­lin­quished your author­ity, and he claimed a bit of in­de­pen­dence. The hole in his train­ing be­gins with this seem­ingly benign snag. Over time, he’ll gain more and more con­trol.

When your horse no longer thinks he needs to check in with you for di­rec­tion about where to place his feet, it cre­ates a “hole” in his train­ing. Even if he was once trained to step where di­rected, you’re teach­ing him that you’ll al­low him to take charge. With­out con­sis­tent re­in­force­ment and cor­rec­tions, he can learn that he doesn’t have to re­spond to your cues.

In fact, your horse will even­tu­ally start to re­sent your cues, which can quickly lead to balk­ing. By balk­ing, I mean that he’ll turn in the di­rec­tion he wants to go—not nec­es­sar­ily bolt­ing, but mak­ing his choice of di­rec­tion known. He’ll toss his head in de­fi­ance and turn away, be­cause he doesn’t agree with your choice and thinks he should choose the path.

To avoid cre­at­ing such holes in your horse’s train­ing, be aware of your horse­man­ship, give clear cues, and con­sis­tently re­in­force ev­ery cue you give to him—or give him an ex­plicit cue to let him know that you’re giv­ing him per­mis­sion to use his own judg­ment.

Be Aware

Trail rid­ing with friends can be dis­tract­ing. It’s easy to re­lax and talk while on the trail—and al­low your horse to fol­low the path or horse in front of him with­out of­fer­ing your in­put about di­rec­tion and speed. Rid­ing in a re­laxed fash­ion isn’t all bad. But you should stay fo­cused on his train­ing. Be aware of any sign of dis­obe­di­ence when you give him a cue.

Pay at­ten­tion to how of­ten you give in to your horse’s will. Would you al­low your child to ma­nip­u­late you the same way? Imag­ine telling your child that you won’t buy candy as you en­ter a store, but she puts a choco­late bar in your bas­ket any­way. When you say no, she pro­ceeds to cry and roll on the floor. If you give in, you know you’ll teach her she can get her own way any time she throws a fit.

There are times you can treat your child to candy, but you must be care­ful not to re­ward un­ac­cept­able be­hav­ior. The same con­cept is true for you and your horse. There are times you want him to pick the path, but not af­ter you’ve given a clear di­rec­tive.

For in­stance, if you cue him for­ward over a log, and it ap­pears he can do so safely, he should move for­ward will­ingly. Don’t al­low him to step to the side or cir­cle back to find a way around. If you do, you’re cre­at­ing a hole in his train­ing that’ll get big­ger over time.

Give Clear Cues

Train­ing a horse for the trail dif­fers from rid­ing only in an arena on good foot­ing. On chal­leng­ing ter­rain, you some­times want your horse to use his own judg­ment to pick the best path. And on steep,

down­hill trails, you some­times need to give him his head for bal­ance and so he can pick his way down the hill on the surest foot­ing. You can and should al­low your horse to help choose his foot­ing over loose rocks that will put him at risk for a slip and in other dicey cir­cum­stances. He’ll ap­pre­ci­ate your trust in him to choose the safest way through.

Stay at­tuned to your trail horse. Keep an eye on his ears and body lan­guage, and tune in to his ten­sion level even as you talk to your friends or grab a snack from the sad­dle­bag. Pay at­ten­tion if he tenses up or re­acts to a trail ob­sta­cle with sus­pi­cion. He might see or sense a dan­ger you do not, such as a rat­tlesnake in the rocks or wa­ter that’s deeper than it ap­pears.

You may oc­ca­sion­ally al­low your horse to choose a dif­fer­ent path if you agree that there’s a safety con­cern, but be mind­ful of how of­ten you al­low this to hap­pen. Know that there’s still a big dif­fer­ence be­tween pur­pose­fully giv­ing your horse per­mis­sion to choose the path and al­low­ing him to make a move that goes against your re­quest. If there’s no safety rea­son that he should step dif­fer­ently, make sure he fol­lows through with your com­mand.

When you do de­cide to give your horse per­mis­sion to use his own judg­ment, you still need to re­main in charge. To make this dis­tinc­tion, de­velop a clear cue to com­mu­ni­cate to him that you’re ex­plic­itly giv­ing him per­mis­sion to choose the path. One good cue is to de­lib­er­ately put your rein hand (or hands) on his neck while giv­ing him his head on a loose rein.

Gain Shoul­der Con­trol

When your horse balks at an ob­sta­cle, your first re­ac­tion might be to steer his head back to­ward it. But with this move, he still has con­trol. You’ve turned his head to the left, but he wants to go to the right. He pulls his shoul­ders to the right and can move to the right—no mat­ter where you point his nose. You con­tinue to pull on the reins and feel as though you’re in a tug-of-war.

To get out of the fight and cor­rectly con­trol a balk, you must have con­trol of your horse’s en­tire body. You need to be able to con­trol his for­ward mo­tion and his shoul­ders. When he knows that you can con­trol his shoul­ders—and you re­mind him of this fact with fre­quent prac­tice—he’ll be less likely to strug­gle with you and more will­ing to pay at­ten­tion to your on-trail cues.

Here, I’ll give you a spi­ral-in, spi­ral-out ex­er­cise to gain shoul­der con­trol. You’ll de­velop rein aids that’ll help you di­rect your horse’s nose and shoul­ders, so he won’t be able to eas­ily balk at a trail ob­sta­cle.

You’ll first mas­ter this ex­er­cise in an arena; the con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment of­fers good foot­ing and fewer dis­trac­tions. Then you’ll head out on the trail.

Be­fore you be­gin: Out­fit your horse in his usual trail tack. This ex­er­cise works well when rid­ing in a snaf­fle bit and is pos­si­ble in a shank (curb) bit if your horse un­der­stands lever­age cues. Place a cone in the mid­dle of the arena as a vis­ual cue. Lead your horse to the arena, close the gate, mount up, and warm up your horse on the rail.

Step 1. Cir­cle to the left. Ask your horse to walk. Rid­ing with two hands, cue your horse to cir­cle left around the cone. Keep the cir­cle small—about 6 feet from the cone for an av­er­age-size horse. Make sure he can bend con­sis­tently with­out los­ing for­ward mo­tion.

Step 2. Spi­ral in. To ask your horse to walk around the cone, hover your in­side (left) hand above your left knee. Your

in­side rein tells him which di­rec­tion to bend. When you ap­ply this rein aid alone, he’ll spi­ral in, fol­low his nose, and move closer to the cone.

Step 3. Co­or­di­nate leg and rein. Keep even leg pres­sure on your horse to en­cour­age con­stant for­ward mo­tion; don’t ap­ply in­side-leg cues to turn his body. Teach him to re­spond to your rein aids. If you use your in­side leg to push out his shoul­der in­stead of draw­ing it out with the right rein, you’ll cue him for a move sim­i­lar to a side­pass.

Also, if you use your leg, you’ll be tempted to use less right rein. A flop­ping right rein will al­low him to move his head, and you won’t fix your horse’s balk-re­lated head-toss­ing. Pres­sure on both reins not only com­mu­ni­cates your re­quest for shoul­der move­ment, but also sig­nals for a steady head po­si­tion.

Step 4. Spi­ral out. In­crease your dis­tance from the cone by mov­ing your horse’s shoul­der to the right. To move

just his shoul­der out (in­stead of just his nose), use your right rein to cue him. Imag­ine the sad­dle horn is the cen­ter of a clock and your horse’s neck crest points to­ward 12:00. Reach your right hand for­ward and point it to­ward 2:00. Look in the di­rec­tion you want your horse’s shoul­der to go. That may feel awk­ward be­cause you’re used to look­ing at his head.

Step 5. Re­lease. When you feel your horse move his shoul­der out, lower your right hand slightly, but keep it in po­si­tion. This gives him a re­lease and lets him know he did the right thing. You’ll know he un­der­stands the ex­er­cise when you pick up your right hand and he doesn’t try to move his head. In­stead, he moves his shoul­der will­ingly and in­de­pen­dently.

Step 6. Re­peat. Cir­cle your horse to the left un­til he bends well and moves his shoul­der on com­mand.

Step 7. Cir­cle to the right. Walk or trot a few laps around the arena, then re­peat this cir­cling ex­er­cise to the right.

Step 8. Prac­tice. Prac­tice this ex­er­cise for a few min­utes each time you ride un­til you feel that your horse fully un­der­stands your cues. Hit the Trail Now you have the con­trol needed to mas­ter al­most any trail sit­u­a­tion. When you ap­ply your shoul­der-con­trol ex­er­cise, your horse will know how to re­spond. If your horse will­ingly goes where you ask on your home trails, you can trust that he’ll step over chal­leng­ing ob­sta­cles on un­known trails. But don’t wait for the un­ex­pected! Prac­tice your abil­ity to cue your horse on ev­ery ride, over any ob­sta­cle be­fore he balks. Let

oth­ers in your rid­ing group know your train­ing plan. Af­ter some arena guid­ance, sug­gest that they par­tic­i­pate, too.

Find open, grassy ar­eas or wide ar­eas of level trail to work your horse. Cir­cle him and re­mind him of his shoul­der move­ments. Ask him to cross logs, go around trees, and walk through mud pud­dles us­ing your shoul­der-con­trol skills to guide him. Walk to the left of a rock when your rid­ing bud­dies walk to the right.

There are hun­dreds of chances to choose a more chal­leng­ing path. Look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove your com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and make sure your horse is tun­ing in to your cues.

With con­sis­tent rep­e­ti­tion, you’ll re­mind your horse that you have con­trol of al­most any sit­u­a­tion. When you’re proac­tive, you’ll pre­vent an on­trail fight and avoid adding any holes to his train­ing.

Even the best-trained horse can be­come a balker if he’s al­lowed to choose his own path too of­ten. Here’s how to get your horse back on track, lis­ten­ing to your ev­ery cue.

If you al­low your horse to make his own de­ci­sions on the trail with­out a clear cue from you, you’ll cre­ate “holes” in his train­ing that can lead to balks, dis­rupt­ing the ride for every­one in the group.

You may al­low your horse to help choose his foot­ing over loose rocks and other tricky foot­ing, but you need to de­velop a clear cue to let him know it’s okay to choose the path to avoid a fu­ture bat­tle for con­trol, as shown here.

TOP: Start rid­ing with two hands as you cir­cle to the left around a cone. Ask your horse to bend his nose in to the left while mov­ing his shoul­der out with your right hand. BOT­TOM: Note my ex­ag­ger­ated hand po­si­tions. My horse’s right shoul­der and right front leg move to the po­si­tion my right hand di­rects.

TOP: Hit the trail. On ev­ery ride, ask your horse to cross logs, go around trees, and walk through mud pud­dles us­ing your shoul­der-con­trol skills to guide him. MID­DLE: This horse is bend­ing will­ingly to his left while re­spond­ing to the right-rein cue, which helps him move his shoul­der out. BOT­TOM: This horse is re­lax­ing into the rein pres­sure as he moves his nose and shoul­der, as re­quested.

Stacy Westfall west­fall­horse­man­ship.com, Loudonville, Ohio, trains horses and rid­ers for the arena and the trail. In 2006, Stacy was the first woman to win the Road to the Horse colt-start­ing chal­lenge; in 2012, she was in­ducted into the Cow­girl Hall of Fame.

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