Trail Ride for Bet­ter Com­pe­ti­tion Results

Build trust and bust bore­dom on a non-arena path that con­trib­utes to show-ring suc­cess

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Lane Clarke Photos by Kim F. Miller

Grand prix jumper and trainer Lane Clarke ex­plains his var­ied training ap­proach, which in­cludes trail rid­ing for im­proved phys­i­cal fitness and con­fi­dence and a bet­ter part­ner­ship for suc­cess in the jumper ring.

At school there’s a rea­son they don’t teach math or so­cial stud­ies for the whole day. You can pack in only so much of the same thing at one time. I feel strongly that the same idea ap­plies to training horses. I’ve seen great ben­e­fits from vary­ing the ex­er­cises and en­vi­ron­ment in which I work with the horses in our jumper-ori­ented training pro­gram, whether they’re young and green or horses I’m rid­ing at the grand prix level. As a rider and trainer, I like to have a var­ied training ap­proach be­cause it gives me the ben­e­fit of look­ing at my horse from sev­eral an­gles and in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions and that helps me un­der­stand him bet­ter.

In ad­di­tion to typ­i­cal arena school­ing, I work horses in-hand, on the longe line, in long lines, loose in the round pen and out on the trail. Among those, trail rid­ing is a par­tic­u­lar fa­vorite and one I rec­om­mend to al­most all rid­ers, pro­vided they have the ba­sic level of compe-

tence and se­cu­rity in the sad­dle to do so safely.

Be­cause trail rides often in­clude a few scary sit­u­a­tions—at least from the horse’s per­spec­tive—teach­ing your horse that he needs to lis­ten to your aids and trust you as his leader, no mat­ter where you are, can help. Both of those be­hav­iors trans­late to more re­spon­sive­ness in the arena and a bet­ter bond with your horse. In ad­di­tion, the change of scenery that comes any­time you get out of the arena is a great men­tal break for both of you.

The many phys­i­cal ben­e­fits of rid­ing on the trail start with your horse learning to bal­ance him­self on dif­fer­ent types of ter­rain and go­ing up and down hills. Or I should say re­learn­ing to do these things. Horses are in­cred­i­bly ag­ile on their feet if we al­low them to be. They weren’t meant to go on only per­fectly man­i­cured foot­ing. Think of wild horses gal­lop­ing at full speed across the desert or over rocky plains. Of course, if they’re not used to rid­ing on dif­fer­ent ter­rain, it takes a while for them to gain that agility and their pro­pri­o­cep­tion—their sense of where their feet and the rest of their body parts are in re­la­tion to the ter­rain. When they im­prove their nat­u­ral agility, it re­ally helps their abil­ity to ad­just to any­thing that comes up on a tricky course or to re­cover from a mis­step.

Walk­ing and trot­ting up hills is great for build­ing hindquar­ter mus­cles that pro­pel a horse’s en­gaged work on the flat and his take­off over fences. And there’s no bet­ter way to un­der­stand an “up­hill” and “down­hill” frame of car­riage than ac­tu­ally rid­ing your horse up and down a hill. It doesn’t have to be a steep hill to give you a clear sense for how it feels when your horse is in that de­sired up­hill frame ver­sus the on-the-fore­hand sen­sa­tion of rid­ing down­hill.

When you go to places like Spruce Mead­ows in Cal­gary or any derby field where part of the course is set on a slight in­cline or de­cline, you’d be sur­prised how a lit­tle bit of up- or down­hill changes the bal­ance. Often it’s enough to throw the horse and/ or the rider off of their dis­tance to an up­com­ing fence or put the rider into a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion in the sad­dle.

I usu­ally mix up pe­ri­ods of loose work and col­lected work while out on the trail. The loose work en­ables the horse to stretch his head and neck, although my con­tact is never so loose that I’d lose con­trol if some­thing star­tled him. In col­lected work, I’ll have the horse a lit­tle bit framed up to work on en­gage­ment and mus­cle de­vel­op­ment. I usu­ally in­clude walk­ing and trot­ting and some­times the can­ter on a long, flat stretch.

On a weekly ba­sis, most of our horses get at least one trail ride; two is good and three times is great. Fitness trail rides that em­pha­size strong hill and col­lec­tion work are never done on back-to-back days be­cause the horse’s mus­cles need time to re­cover. I wouldn’t do more than three fitness trail rides in a week, but I might get in more trail work by us­ing a short trail ride as a warm-up to what­ever we’re go­ing to work on in the arena—say 10 or 15 min­utes of light work on the trail in place of flat­work in the ring.

Fig­ure out His Bub­ble

In our pro­gram, a be­gin­ner rider never goes out on the trail un­til she’s es­tab­lished a solid seat at all gaits. Her first of many rides out­side the arena are on a horse who’s very com­fort­able on a trail. When an ex­pe­ri­enced rider comes to us with her own horse, I take the horse on a trail ride first be­fore I en­cour­age them to go out.

If you or your horse are not ex­pe­ri­enced with trail rides or you are con­cerned about cop­ing with un­fa­mil­iar sce­nar­ios out­side the ring, you’ll want to start slowly by in­tro­duc­ing him to un­fa­mil­iar ob­jects in the arena and pro­gres­sively work your way out­side of it.

As you ride, think about what con­cerns your horse. Fear is an in­ter­est­ing thing. I have one horse who is afraid of sprin­klers and noth­ing else. An­other horse won’t jump over a liver­pool with a blue liner but has no prob­lem go­ing over one with a red liner. Pretty soon, you’ll start be­ing able to guess what your horse is afraid of. Just as if you had a friend who didn’t like the chair lifts at a ski re­sort, you can prob­a­bly guess she won’t like an el­e­va­tor. With enough ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­po­sure, you can start to de­ter­mine what is go­ing to be a prob­lem for your horse.

Un­fa­mil­iar ob­jects in the arena in­clude any­thing that’s new to your horse. Be cre­ative. Throw a tarp over a fence rail, put a ban­ner on the arena wall, pile some or­ange traf­fic cones in the mid­dle of the ring or stack jump poles in the cor­ner.

Strate­gies that are able to help your horse over­come his fear of some­thing for­eign in­clude:

School him in part of the ring that’s away from the scary ob­ject or area, then let him rest near it so it be­comes a place of sanc­tu­ary.

As you’re work­ing him a safe dis­tance from what­ever he’s afraid of, ig­nore that spooky thing and en­cour­age him to lis­ten to your leg. If he speeds up, slows down or shies away in re­sponse to the scary ob­ject, your pri­mary fo­cus needs to be about him re­spond­ing to

your aids in an ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner, not about the ob­ject. When your horse stays on the aids, you can grad­u­ally move him closer to the fear­ful thing. Walk be­side or around the ob­ject rather than over it. Have an­other horse—pro­vided they are bud­dies—ap­proach the ob­ject just ahead of your horse.

Through­out this part of your ride, work on un­der­stand­ing your horse. This in­cludes know­ing what I call his “bub­ble” of how much fear he can tol­er­ate in a sit­u­a­tion that scares him. I call it a “bub­ble” be­cause that perime­ter has a lit­tle bit of flex­i­bil­ity and if you push it too quickly or too far, it will pop.

Ev­ery horse’s bub­ble is dif­fer­ent, and you have to al­low your horse to show you where his bub­ble is by get­ting him to the edge of his comfort zone. Tense mus­cles and a raised head are often the early signs of your horse form­ing his bub­ble. The next sign may be an un­will­ing­ness to move for­ward. You’re still OK at that point, but when you sense that he’s go­ing from be­ing alert and tuned in to you to want­ing to turn and run away, he’s show­ing you his edge. That’s when you need to let your horse move away from the scary thing. Go to an­other part of the ring and do a lit­tle bit of com­pli­cated school­ing work to fo­cus his mind on you and away from the ob­ject un­til he soft­ens his de­meanor, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. He’ll show this to you by low­er­ing his head, re­lax­ing his mus­cles and be­ing will­ing to go for­ward. Then ad­dress the spooky item again.

Take It to the Trail

When your horse is com­fort­able ap­proach­ing un­fa­mil­iar or spooky ob­jects in the arena, you can start to do the same thing out­side the arena. In­tro­duce him to the idea of trail rid­ing by rid­ing him any­where safe around the sta­ble grounds. At my barn,

we have stalls that face the out­doors, so I will walk a young or green horse up and down the row next to the stalls. You can also walk around the prop­erty perime­ter and as close as you can get to the out­build­ings, the manure pile, the trac­tor shed, the dump­ster, etc.

Progress from the least to the most-spooky ar­eas grad­u­ally as you did in the arena. Don’t march right out there and try to fix your prob­lem. Al­ways make sure he is tuned in to your aids and mov­ing for­ward.

Once you are con­fi­dent of keep­ing your horse’s re­spon­sive­ness to your aids even when he’s fear­ful of some­thing, you’re ready to take that skill out on a trail. The un­pre­dictabil­ity of things you’ll en- counter on a trail adds to the chal­lenge, but if you have es­tab­lished re­spon­sive­ness and trust, you should be pre­pared for it.

Bark­ing dogs are a com­mon en­counter. The trails that we have access to weave through a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood where dogs often ap­pear at their prop­erty’s fence line with what can seem like lit­tle warn­ing. It’s very rare, how­ever, that a horse is un­aware of what’s com­ing. Usu­ally you can feel your horse’s en­ergy and ner­vous at­ti­tude be­fore the bark­ing be­gins and the dogs ap­pear.

When you feel that ner­vous en­ergy, stop, take a breath and fig­ure out why your horse is ner­vous. It’s re­ally im­por­tant that you ex­ude con­fi­dence in what­ever com­mand you give at this point. Typ­i­cally, you would want to put the horse on your leg

and hand aids as you walk back and forth along the fence line sep­a­rat­ing you from the bark­ing dog, maybe adding a re­as­sur­ing pat to the neck. Peo­ple some­times don’t re­al­ize that putting a horse on the aids and pat­ting him ac­tu­ally in­creases his con­fi­dence. It’s like a par­ent tak­ing her child’s hand to cross the road. You are say­ing, I un­der­stand you are afraid, but this is where we are go­ing.

It’s amaz­ing how fast a horse can go from be­ing very afraid of some­thing to

be­ing OK with it. Often, fear of the un­known stays if we don’t al­low enough time for the horse to as­sim­i­late what is ac­tu­ally go­ing on. (This is all as­sum­ing the dog is con­tained in a fenced prop­erty. Deal­ing with an ag­gres­sive dog that’s loose is a whole dif­fer­ent story!)

If you are hav­ing trou­ble with the dogs or any­thing else that’s mov­ing, re­turn to an area he con­sid­ers safer and find some­thing that’s spooky to your horse but is sta­tion­ary. A wa­ter trough, for ex­am­ple, might be frightening, but it’s not go­ing to move. In any kind of training, there’s al­ways a way to break things down. If you can’t jog, you walk. If you can’t walk, you crawl. Take things one step at a time and you’ll get where you want to go.

For jumper rid­ers es­pe­cially, try to find lit­tle logs to jump over or narrow spa­ces to go through. Horses tend not to like claus­tro­pho­bic spa­ces, so uti­liz­ing one is an­other chance to es­tab­lish the idea that re­spond­ing to your aids is more im­por­tant than what he doesn’t like. Our trails in­clude two short tun­nels that go un­der the roads of the sta­ble’s Nel­lie Gail Ranch neigh­bor­hood, an eques­trian com­mu­nity.

Un­usual sit­u­a­tions like these often trig­ger re­sis­tance from the horse and they are an op­por­tu­nity to re­in­force the idea that he can­not deny your leg aid. You re­ally miss a training op­por­tu­nity if your horse balks at some­thing and you de­cide it doesn’t mat­ter be­cause he’s not do­ing that in front of a jump on course. In­stead, I see these chal­lenges on a trail as em­u­lat­ing prob­lems that arise on course when a horse is fear­ful of a spe­cific jump. I think other dis­ci­plines have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing that ex­pos­ing our horses to a va­ri­ety of sit­u­a­tions and en­vi­ron­ments is a great way to en­hance their training for their own sport.

In ad­di­tion to in­clud­ing va­ri­ety in your horse’s rou­tine while con­tin­u­ing his training and con­di­tion­ing, trail rid­ing is a great way to sim­ply en­joy time with your horse, which I be­lieve is an im­por­tant part of good horse­man­ship.

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