This started off in response to a friend of mine's question about a big ride that's coming up and her horse that gets antsy in these big groups. As I wrote the response, I got to thinking I know lots of people who feel this way about their horses, and maybe this could be of some help to them too. My thoughts and answers are not the only ones out there, by any means but here is some stuff that works for me.
I always have a game plan in mind when I head out on the trail rides. Sometimes I have to adapt as the horse that shows up isn't always the one I wrote the plan in my head for, LOL! But here's the basics, I like a strong foundation in response on a horse that gets excited in groups. What I really notice more and more though, is that the horse that rides quietly in a smaller group but not in the larger is usually following owner anxiety. They might be a little high, upon arrival and feeling the activity and amplified excitement, but then, inside the owner says "oh no, here we go again." Stomach tightens, nerves tense and the horse really reacts to that and escalates, things rarely improve from this place for either one!
I am human and when my horse's head reaches for the stars, eyes are bright and dilated, snorts start rolling like thunder, I say OH NO, here we go again, and then I have to really work on finding some calm because no way can I lead my horse to peace of mind if I don't have it. That's the first part of my game plan, calm myself. I might need to do some deep breathing, send my horse around in circles from the ground, do some simple stuff that he's done a million times at home, his response to that calms both of us. Once the horse feels good to get on, head will lower, have some licking and chewing, eyes on me, I get on and again do the simple stuff, hip over, shoulder through, lateral flexion in motion (this is easier on an anxious horse than asking them to stand and flex.) Might do a one rein stop or two, just to practice and get us right. I make sure the hip steps over, and if the horse bends, and comes to a stop, but that hip is still out there, I will step it over before I release. It's really best to have my preflight check a habit for me and my horse before taking on the big ride. Then, it doesn't have to take 20 minutes to settle my horse, he knows the routine and so do I. Pat P says "proper preparation prevents piss poor performance" and I could not agree with him more on this one.
Building good habits at home is going to be the recipe for success out in the world If you haven't done so, and you find yourself at a ride with a horse that doesn't look safe and doesn't want to mentally join up with you, this might not be the day to tackle the big ride. Hoping for the best works out for some of the people some of the time, but when it doesn't, that hit to the confidence can take a long time to heal. Stay at the trailer, work with your horse, maybe ask a couple of friends to stay and take a smaller ride with you, once both you and your horse are emotionally in a place to be able to do that.
Usually by now, we are okay and ready to ride. Once in awhile, we still have jiggy feet here and there. When I feel the energy come up in the horse, I make sure I have room around and behind me, and I'll serpentine a little, step the hip over, then the shoulder, but always continuing forward. I pick up a rein and ask for a little give, get a step and release. If I have to hold it for a few steps, okay. I just want to see my horse's eyeball a little, I am not cranking that rein around to cause him to change direction or head off into a circle. Then, I'll pick up the other one, put my foot back on the offside and ask the hip to come over. Just a step is all I am asking for, and while it may take more steps to get there, it gives us something to do and something for me reward the tries rather than get mad at my "damn stupid horse that doesn't like big trail rides." :-)) again. If I really had a horse trying to get out of control, I'd probably get off, rather than try a one rein stop on a narrow trail with people around to crash into if he really resisted. More groundwork, back on, and we try again. There are some cool exercises to step the hip over, bring the shoulder through, that uses the horse's energy and they learn it's a lot easier to just walk down the trail than to have to work that hard.
I like to practice all this stuff first, in smaller groups, plus I like to have friends "leap frog" with me, which is my horse goes ahead, then theirs, then mine, until all the horses are comfortable in any position in the ride and gets them comfortable both passing and being passed by other horses. We also play follow the leader, winding around trees, going over small logs, whatever, this gives both me and my horse a bigger job to do than following the tail in front of us, which bores and frustrates a lot of horses (and riders!). If no one wants to play with me :-) I play these games on my own. Sometimes I will rate my horse's walk, ask for a faster walk without breaking gait, then a slooower one. All of this stuff keeps my horse's brain engaged, and helps him stay more in tune with me than if I am daydreaming or lollygagging along down the trail. There are some rides, I like to do THAT too, but I better pick a horse that's good with my wandering attention instead of one who will find something else to occupy his attention if I am not doing it.
The biggest thing is to catch things when they are small. Feel the energy rise in your horse and put him to work then. Don't wait til the head is in the sky, he's whinnying and yelling for his new best friend that he may have never even met before, but doggone it they are up ahead and I WANNA GO THERE! I see riders wait all the time til their horses are nearly frantic before they start trying to do anything about it, and then they usually whip the head to the side, which really pisses a horse off, when he wants to move his feet. I say, you want to move, well, cool, let's do that, but we are going to do it my way. And then you balance the release and the reward with your directions so the horse doesn't need to be angry or afraid of you.
Lots of work? Can be, but it smooths out, and the difficult trail ride this day turns into lots of easy ones as you stay consistent, your horse learns he can trust you to lead and make sense in ALL situations, and we get the benefit of learning to handle our own emotional responses a little better. THAT comes in handy, all over the place :-)
I am riding in a true snaffle at this point. Rather than go into all the reasons a tom thumb or long shanked snaffle is not going to be a good bet as a training bit, here is a link to a Mark Rashid article on the subject. Hope that helps.
Posting some photographs from our trail ride at Southwoods Park, Smithland, IA with the Shady Brady Saddle Club. Estimated ride count was 21, it was Moonshine's second trail ride in life. We started out slow (had a regressive hard to bridle moment at the beginning that really had my attention), and other than some big eyes here and there, lots of stuff she's never seen before, we had a great ride. I took time to ride her the night before, warm her up in the round pen that morning, and we never needed most of the steps I listed above. She's a really level natured mare and is going to be a ton of fun. The horse I am riding on the Friday Before Mother's Day Ride, Oak Creek Trail this Friday (www.horsetrailriders.com for more info) is a little different story, but hoping for equally nice results.
Thanks for reading, SOOO glad the good weather is here!!! If you love to trail ride and want some friends to go with, check out the Platte River Riders group that rides out every Wednesday evening from points North, Omaha, Lincoln and Central Nebraska. A lot of us ride on weekends too!
Happy trails, all!
5 months ago