Tam­ing a trail terror

To head off prob­lems on the trail, make sure your lead­er­ship and con­nec­tion with your horse are solid while you are still at home.

EQUUS - - Eq Conversati­ons - By Jonathan Field Photos by Robin Dun­can

Q:My mare is a plea­sure to ride in the arena, but when we hit the trails, she does not play well with oth­ers. She tries to kick and bite neigh­bors that in­vade her space, and she’ll even lunge at horses who come up along­side or back up to kick at a horse be­hind her. I’ve tried to dis­ci­pline her in the mo­ment, but noth­ing seems to get through. She also gets ag­gres­sive no mat­ter where she is in the line, whether we’re lead­ing, in the mid­dle or bring­ing up the rear. I hit the trails solo some­times, but my barn is full of friendly riders who like to or­ga­nize group rides. How can I get my mare to be­have around the oth­ers on the trail?

Thanks for your ques­tion. I’ll share some gen­eral ideas that may help and then of­fer tips for han­dling the sit­u­a­tion the next time you go out on the trail.

When I take riders and large groups of stu­dents out on the trail at our ranch, we of­ten have a mix of a lot of dif­fer­ent horses. The key for a suc­cess­ful ride is to set the group up at the home ranch ahead of time. This means mak­ing sure each rider’s lead­er­ship and con­nec­tion with her horse are

solid be­fore the group starts mix­ing to­gether on the trail.

On trail rides, many horses like to “herd up,” fo­cus­ing on one another rather than their riders. The mo­men­tum that de­vel­ops as a group of horses goes down the trail makes it easy for them to sync up with each other. When this hap­pens, they be­have as they nat­u­rally would in the herds: bit­ing, kick­ing and try­ing to es­tab­lish so­cial po­si­tion.

Keep in mind that when it comes to dom­i­nance, there are two sides of the coin. One is the de­sire to es­tab­lish rank in the hi­er­ar­chy; the other in­volves de­fend­ing space and po­si­tion. It is pos­si­ble that your mare feels over­whelmed and crowded out on the trail, so she is try­ing to “get” the other horses be­fore they “get” her. Ei­ther way, her at­ten­tion is fo­cused in the wrong di­rec­tion--to­ward the herd and not you.

To keep this from hap­pen­ing, you need to es­tab­lish a high level of lead­er­ship with your horse. I de­scribe this as “tak­ing your horse for a ride” rather than be­ing “taken for a ride.” In other words, don’t be pas­sive or ten­ta­tive with your horse. In­stead, ride with pur­pose and make it clear that you will be di­rect­ing move­ment and ac­tiv­ity.

That doesn’t mean that you have to be­come a drill sergeant but rather act as a fo­cused leader with things to do. When I was a work­ing cow­boy we al­ways had a place to go, and be­cause of that our horses fo­cused on us. It was a good les­son for me. I learned that a horse could tell where my fo­cus was. Is it with him or with the other riders and my so­cial agenda?

Depend­ing on your gen­eral re­la­tion­ship with your mare, it may take some time and ef­fort to make sure you main­tain your lead­er­ship when you leave your home ground and go out on the trails. But be sure you’ve pre­pared a strong con­nec­tion with her be­fore head­ing out. Plan to ride your mare for at least 20 min­utes be­fore a trail ride. Trot some cir­cles, do lots of up­ward and down­ward tran­si­tions, and di­rect your mare’s move­ment to get her ears and eyes fo­cused on you. Re­mem­ber, if your lead­er­ship is not re­ally strong at home, it sure won’t be on the trail.

Fi­nally, I would ad­vise you to pay at­ten­tion to some ex­ter­nal fac­tors. Be par­tic­u­lar when choos­ing your trail com­pan­ions. Pick riders who will look af­ter the weak­est rider or sup­port some­one need­ing to stop and train a trou­bled horse. We all go through it at some point, so be with riders who will do the same thing you would do for them if they needed ex­tra sup­port.

When I talk to stu­dents about go­ing out on the trails, I re­mind them that horses aren’t all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles you can ride any­where with­out wor­ry­ing about what you en­counter. If we don’t

On trail rides, many horses like to “herd up,” fo­cus­ing on one another rather than their riders. The mo­men­tum that de­vel­ops as a group of horses goes down the trail makes it easy for them to sync up with each other.

have a high level of aware­ness of what’s around our horses, they will. Even if we just want to go see the sights and visit with friends, we still need to be aware and ready to re­act. This sounds like a lot in the be­gin­ning … and it is. But even­tu­ally you will be able to be a good leader for your horse, take in the sights, and tell sto­ries about how tough she used to be.

Once you’re out on the trail

Here are some strate­gies for main­tain­ing your mare’s fo­cus and stay­ing safe on the trail:

• Make a point of chang­ing your mare’s po­si­tion among the other horses sev­eral times dur­ing the ride. Take the lead for a while, then move to a po­si­tion at the end of the line. Af­ter some time, go to the mid­dle of the queue. Ask­ing your mare to take dif­fer­ent po­si­tions will help keep her fo­cused on you rather than the other horses.

• When your mare mis­be­haves, re­di­rect her at­ten­tion, giv­ing her some­thing else to think about. This is a far bet­ter ap­proach than try­ing to dis­ci­pline (pun­ish) her for bad be­hav­ior, which may back­fire. In­stead, fo­cus on tak­ing her in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion. The more my horse fo­cuses on his sur­round­ings, the busier I get with him, mov­ing his feet and di­rect­ing his energy where I want it to go.

• Don’t al­low your mare to sim­ply go sin­gle file, right up be­hind the next horse in line. If you do, she will nat­u­rally take her cues from that horse in­stead of you. Make it clear that she must lis­ten to you rather than sim­ply fol­low­ing the other horses. Take her to the side and start mov­ing with her a few mo­ments af­ter ev­ery­one does or just be­fore they be­gin---this will re­in­force the fact that you, not they, are in charge.

• When it’s time to stop for a break, move your mare off to the edge of the group and be mind­ful of her per­sonal space sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

• Be aware of “bumper car” riders who have no un­der­stand­ing or aware­ness of a horse’s need for space. They may not re­al­ize what a horse will do if he feels con­fined. Don’t get kicked or let some­one put your horse in a po­si­tion to kick or be kicked.

About the au­thor: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clin­i­cian from Ab­bots­ford, Bri­tish Columbia. His pro­gram, Jonathan Field Horse­man­ship: Inspired by Horses, teaches the skills nec­es­sary to build a re­la­tion­ship with horses. Field grew up rid­ing both English and Western and worked as a cow­boy on one of the largest cat­tle ranches in Canada. Field regularly does pre­sen­ta­tions at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia.

Make a point of chang­ing your horse’s po­si­tion among the other horses sev­eral times dur­ing the ride. Ask­ing him to take dif­fer­ent po­si­tions will help keep him fo­cused on you rather than the other horses.

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