Friday, March 4, 2011

Trail Horse - Ha!

Trail Horses Gone Wild

By Janet Huntington

I have to extend an apology to every nervous trail rider I have used my, ”Just get out there and ride, you’ll be fine,” tone with. Please understand I get it now. I didn’t mean to make you feel like you were being a sissy.

It was, however, because I was resting on the laurels of the trails I covered as a much younger rider. At 14, 20, even 30-years-old I had no problem taking off at a gallop across Garden of the Gods Park without a thought, a saddle or a riding buddy. I had complete confidence in myself and my horse.

By the time I hit my 40’s I was solidly entrenched in riding in the arena. My job was to give lessons and train performance horses. I no longer had time for trail rides. I completely believed a well trained horse could be expected to head out on the trail and behave himself, even if he had never been on one.

Every once in a while I would be asked to take a clients horse out, which I did, but it wasn’t much more than a stroll out in the fields.
Since my retirement I have the opportunity to trail ride again. I’ve jumped on it and found I like getting out as much as I ever did as a kid. I also realized out what’s broke in the arena ain’t necessarily broke on the trail. The term “arena baby” has taken on a whole new meaning for me.

The first horse I rode out on the trail was a sharp little bay gelding I had trained for reined cowhorse. He had a nice little handle on him and a pleasant temperament.

Our first ride out ended up with us falling off the trail and sliding down a gully. Turned out he didn’t know to follow the trail, he was just holding his line like we were doing a run-down. My hand was quiet, so he went straight. Even if it meant we did an endo over the side of the trail. He had learned to stay straight as long as my hand stayed in the middle, so he did exactly that.

I can just imagine him thinking, “OK now, why don’t you tell me to turn here, this isn’t going to be pretty, AHHHH!”

By the end of the summer he was going out in groups and alone and handling himself well.

This year I’ve been taking out my favorite horse, a yellow mare who has shoved all of her common sense out of her head, in order to make room for her cow sense. At least that’s my theory.

She is really cool on a cow. She is focused and serious when she’s coming out of the herd or heading down the fence. She seems to like the show ring. I hate to anthropomorphize my girl, but she really lights up when she has people tell her she’s pretty. She’s kind of a show off.

Her trail training has been going in fits and starts. She takes the “arena baby” name to new heights when she’s out on the trail. So far she has learned to deal with water, mud, horse-eating rocks and wild turkeys.

At first she would take big wild leaps in response to startling things on the trail. We sailed over many a creek and jumped sideways at more than one piece of heavy equipment.

Now she keeps her spooks limited to a little jump and a bug-eyed stare. For the most part she’s been a pretty good horse.

So I decided we needed to start riding out alone. I want to be able to head for the trail whenever I have a spare minute and not have to worry about whether my riding buddies cancel on me or not.

I started out by taking her for a short 15 minute walk after we had a good workout in the arena. She was a little boogery, for the most part she handled it.

This past week the lure of the trail was just too much for me. So I took my little yellow mare and headed out.

As soon as she realized we were hitting the trail she started to holler. She started to jig and shake her head. She stopped and tried to do her twirly, I –think-I might-buck-you-off, thing. She flipped her tail over her back like a husky and froze solid.

It’s good we were alone, I was really embarrassed.

Since my little horse is still ridden in a ½ inch hackamore (bosel) I have to stay light and feely, even if she’s not doing the same. I needed to think of something to do to get her mind on me, rather than all the spooks and haunts. I started to half-pass.

This is a pretty regular thing I’ll do to a jigging or distracted horse. They usually figure out pretty quick it’s much easier to be quiet than to crab walk .
My mare tried to have an opinion about it, but when I got after her and explained I needed her feet just so and her ribs around my leg like this, she finally started to work.

My plan was to keep her working, first one way and then the other, until she decided to walk. Guess what?

We half-passed for about 3 or 4 miles.

I came home with a foamy horse. She did come in at the walk though. Then we worked in the arena for awhile.

I wasn’t feeling particularly sympathetic.

We’re going to be doing this a lot more. I’m tempted to head out early one morning and head down the Santa Fe Trail until she acts like a grownup. Then we’ll walk back. I’m a little afraid we’ll end up at the Air Force Academy.

To my mind, if she’s broke enough to calmly hit the trail, even if it’s just the two of us, then she should be cool as a cucumber when we finally get back to the show ring.

If we live through the breaking process. It never fails, every time I think I know something it turns out I know nothing at all.


Barbara said...

I am retraining an OTTB who has been mishandled for a very long time. She has also had at least 6 homes (other than the track and me). She knew NOTHING when I got her and she had been sold over and over again as a trail horse. Let's see, spooky exracehorse with no steering and no brakes. Yep, trail horse. I can't even tell anyone about this without laughing. I still won't take her out on a trail, although we are getting closer.

jay said...

love your blog! I know many of the places you ride as my sister lives out there.

Jill said...

She sidepassed the ENTIRE time?? OMG - I bet that was fun. lol

Becky said...

Is it sad that I laughed out loud at the mental image of your poor, obedient gelding taking your directions so literally?

I once led one of the dude ranch horses to the mounting block. I didn't line him up properly and expected that he would adjust his hindquarters (either to line up or to sidle away from it.) Nope. He obediently followed exactly where I was walking and completely tripped over and broke the mounting block-- all this at a snail's pace walk. It was pretty embarrassing.

Hey, how's that riding bareback thing going that you blogged about awhile ago?

jenj said...

Oh my, I had to laugh... this sounds like my now-retired gelding. FABULOUS in the show ring, a crazy good jumper, but trails? He would canter at the rate the other horses were walking. Or jig. For MILES. Sidepassing? Yep, we could jig and do that too, FOR MILES. He didn't spook at anything, would go through water all day (he was an eventer), but he never found trails relaxing.

I finally got him to where I could take him out alone for short walks, and years later I could go for longer rides with one or two other horses, but only if he was in front and only if all we did was walk. Otherwise, it was back to jigging for the duration of the ride. I never did figure out why he was like that, but boy, I don't take a nice trail-savvy horse for granted anymore!

Gail said...

ah...I see I should have taken my jumper/trail less for granted. Trail=sleep...the arena wide eyed buggery "where's the next jump"!? Loved him so much...he's buryed about 25 feet from my back door.
More and more horses seem to know less and less except for their speciality *in the arena*.
Sad...there is less room to ride outside an arena.

Half Dozen Farm said...

Damn Blogger...ate my comment!

I wanted to say how I think that mares seem to be better in balancing the intense arena training with the self-preservation responsibility we want from them on the trail. They are more opinionated in the arena, but that opinion becomes very valuable on a trail ride, so I don't want to squash their opinion in the arena (if that makes sense).

I've often wondered how best to balance the "I have control of your feet" in the arena, with "you have responsibility for your feet" on the trail. It's difficult for a lot of horses, but once they get it, those are the ones who are DEAD BROKE. :)

Half Dozen Farm said...

Oh, I also wonder how many "arena babies" are also accident prone in the pasture, etc. because they don't know how to take care of themselves...

Leah Fry said...

I always found myself using the term "JUST a trail horse" in an offhanded way. Yeah, it takes a special head to be a decent trail horse. Jaz does it, but he's not intrepid, by any means/

Jessica said...

i actually lol'ed when i read about your gelding... only because that's happened to me too! i was turned all the way around in my saddle, talking to my friend and expected my guy to follow the trail. nope; we ended up bogged down in mud up over his knees. it was awful, and i felt so bad! i could practically hear him calling me ten kinds of idiot while we tried to get out. my friend laughed the entire time... so embarassing. but it does feel really good the first time you go out and everything goes as planned...

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Working on my ottb's trail skills these days.

He came to me very calm on trails and the I messed him up - well, me + inconsiderate fellow riders + gun blasting hunters in the woods... disastrous combo :)

We're up to twenty minutes outside the arena again. Still working on steering but we do have brakes. He'll do hours on the beach but through the woods is slow going.

Have to remember the lateral strategy ;)

KB said...

I love this post! We trail ride in the mountains of Tennessee, and it's funny how many people think that any horse can do what our horses do. Well, our last ride, we saw deer, turkey, and an operating oil well. We climbed 3' limestone "stairs", crossed deep water, puddles filled with frogs, and heard many a gunshot from the squirrel hunters. A good trail horse is as skilled as a mount as any other discipline, I think. I love having a thinking partner of a horse, versus a ride.

mommyrides said...

Loved your post Janet! It's amazing how many people think, me included past tense :] that most horses can handle trails, after all they are horses and have hundreds of years of evolution traveling "trails". Hah! I will never again take for granted horses that do well outside of an arena setting!! Mostly because I'm still working on the ones I have now to be comfortable off the property!!! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!! Lynn

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Janet, what worked with me and Starlette - the same trails, over and over again. Then when she relaxed, I reversed direction. Then added on more after that. And more and more.

I also rode almost every day, evenings for an hour or so, and weekends ended up with 4 or 5 hour rides.

When hunting season came, and we had to stay in the county park that didn't allow hunting, Starlette would ask to go out on the farthest trails and didn't understand why we were staying on the trails she knew so well.

She was having fun!

I think your gentle "rinse and repeat" process might work better than exhausting Madonna until she behaved...she'd not enjoy the trails, and I don't know that you would, either. I think you'd enjoy little successes over one big one after a drawn out battle.

Just my humble opinion from my experiences turning Starlette (who seems to be much like your Madonna) from an spirited arena baby to a trail horse.


AareneX said...

HA! She sidepassed for 3-4 miles? No sympathy!!!

I learned (the hard way) that a fit endurance horse on a wide-straight trail (converted railroad) can do laterals for FIFTY (count them) miles. If I wasn't cuing something more interesting than "go forward", that damn attention-deficit horse would cue up something interesting for himself...which nearly ended me in the sand a few times. So we practiced laterals for the entire distance. I figure we travelled at least 5 extra miles...sideways.

At the finish line, he earned an "A" from the vet (because he'd essentially been practicing yoga for the entire ride) and I earned an extra beer. Whew! After that, I would only take that horse on skinny, technical trails with lots of difficult terrain.

cdncowgirl said...

My OTTB mare was a jigger when we headed home. After quite a few rides where I turned her and long trotted AWAY every time she jigged she learned to walk home flat and calm.

I have used the side pass down the trail routine with my Appy gelding when he gets a bit too cranked up. Works pretty good, although there has been a time or two that we went sideways down the trail for a looong way! Thank goodness its not the norm, he usually behaves like a gentleman.

And your poor arena baby gelding... I literally lol'd when I read "his" comments on your steering :)

Fantastyk Voyager said...

How true your blog post is! A great arena horse does NOT always make a great trail horse. There are different issues. However, it's good that you are going out on the trails. I loved your geldings "thoughts", so true!

mugwump said...

The bareback riding? Going better. It oints out I have become crooked in my old age...

Don't worry, I'm not really going to take her out and ride her til she's broke. I also threaten to throw her and tarp heron a regular basis, but I haven't done it yet.

We'll just keep going until she gets it.

I got to go to a good quality cutting practice this week. She came out strong and made me very, very happy. She hasn't had a "real" go like this for 2 1/2 years and didn't let me down.

I got so excited I burst out laughing (something so uncool to do in a group of cutters). So it's easier to keep my patience. Sometimes I need a little reminder of what she's meant to do.

Anonymous said...

I learned they dont always wear down and become more quiet on a long trail. I have twice been on a 10 day trail with about 100 horses. Take a dead quiet one because by the end it will be less quiet. I think the horses get into a herd mindset in a big group, and are more in sync with the herd around them than the people on their backs. Take a jig jogging horse and it is torture, you will totally lose it and the horse will end up with sore legs.

For horses that have not learned to switch their brains on and watch where they are going - nothing like a paddock with a lot of saffron thistle. Makes them think more carefully about rushing forward too.

Reading the trail vs arena stories makes me worry a bit because I have a mare I need to use as a ranch horse, but dont ride because she has separation anxiety and i have to go alone. She is a TWH and I swear she would put up with being a padded show horse in exchange for lots and lots and lots of attention.

HorseOfCourse said...

LOL, wonderful post, Mugs!
So happy for you with your mare and the cows, I guess this will be exciting.

Muddy K said...

Shivers! This post put me right up there on that mare. I could not have kept my cool, but you did. Admirable.

Anonymous said...

Mugs, you have mentioned half-passes fairly often in your blog, I was wondering:

1. Your defintion of a halfpass
2. Your cues for a halfpass
3. What you expect from the horse before you release that cue.

autumnblaze said...

You've totally told me just to get out and ride... and it's worked. Some lessons with a better trainer also made me realize I was a locked in clothes pin on his back and in the arena, he didn't like it - but he tolerated it. In the big open world... it meant spook, big, spook hard - cuz I'm terrified. Now - he's cool as a cucumber 90% of the time and other 10% I talk to him and laugh and we give a it a look maybe walk a little sideways but we get through. But, that took me continuing to do it and fixing issues I had.

Getting on and riding sometimes really is the best medicine. :)

LuvMyTBs said...

My show horse/arena baby did not hit the trails till age 10. He had no idea what to do and literally placed one foot at a time and looked down to make sure he was OK LOL.

His 1/2 brother is my husbands horse who has always been a trail/ cross country/hunting horse. Nothing phases him in the big world out there. The first time he ever went inside a big indoor arena we thought he was going to have a STROKE! He stood and shivered,shook, broke out in a sweat and was totally freaked out by the horses going nowhere and the sounds of the building(big sliding door, wind blowing across the roof). He couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.

My show horse now loves the trails/cross country except for crossing water. He prefers to jump it and not ever get his pretty feet wet. Husbands horse still does not like arena /indoor work but has learned to suck it up and deal with it.

mugwump said...

Anon- sounds like a test more than a question. hope I can pass, or half-pass.

Anonymous said...

Haha sorry, it wasn't meant to sound like that.
I'm a little like the Big K, "communication skills of a goat."

Helen said...

I was so lucky as a child. We kept our horses on pasture at a friend's farm, (what we refer to as "agistment" - I'm in Australia) not at a barn as you do in the US. We would just jump on and ride and ride and ride, pretty much as you did in the Mort stories! Saddle sometimes, bareback sometimes.
Sadly, the last time I went trail riding at a riding place, I could barely finish the ride due to joint damage (not riding related) and a rheumatic condition which causes pain. I'm only 54 but I think it might be time to stop. :-(

I LOL'd, too, at your description of the likely thought processes of your overly obedient gelding.

Has anyone ever had their life saved by their horse on the trail? My last horse, a grey TB/pony cross, stepped in a roll of wire someone had discarded and which long grass had grown over. She was normally a princess snowflake who loved playing the fool, but on that occasion she froze and let me get off and slowly lift her front feet and get her disentangled. My first riding instructor was killed by having the very same thing happen.

Jen said...

Another excellent post; relateable too *grin*. We don't have too many horse-eating rocks around here. Nope, what we have are carnivorous mail boxes (and some of those lay in wait with their mouths hanging open - some pretty scary stuff ;o)

Nancy C said...

I had a major break-thru a couple of weeks ago. I had been having a huge anxiety issue. It got to the point I just wasn't riding anymore. I would get 'freaked out' just walking around the pen with my been there done that trained her myself mare. I would get one her and end up scared out of my mind within 5 min. Then I let someone else ride her a few times. Each time Wraper acted out a little more... until she managed to dump the rider.

I was in total shock! This mare does NOT know how to buck! I have had experienced trainers laugh and ask me what she was doing when she bucked... I told them not to let her know she was doing it wrong!

I kept thinking about it. 2 days later I got 'pissed'. Saddled Wraper up and went to the pen. We walked fine but as soon as I asked for a trot she tried to buck. Spin and kick... off she trotted. Asked again... half-hearted attempt to buck. Spin and kick and off we went. Third time she was a doll.

The biggest thing is I was spending so much time being 'pissed' and determined to make her 'do it right' that I forgot to be scared and anxious. Fast forward 2 weeks and we loped. I had not had the nerve to lope a horse for 8 YEARS!

I guess her being bad for someone that I had promised an easy ride was just what I needed!

I have even started riding her 11 yr old son. He had 30 days with a trainer 6 years ago... then he sat in the pasture. I trotted him a few days ago. :)

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Yeah for you, Nancy C. I had similar with Starlette...she bucked me off hard, took two years of pasture riding to get my confidence back - we now gallop on the trails alone and are a mind-reading-each-other team. She worked through her issues, I worked through mine.

My new gelding has not been forced to do anything hard...he was a trail horse. No whoa because his brain was not "switched on" to listen to me, just follow the group. So after 4 rides and him not getting "it" I would ask for a whoa at a walk, when he didn't stop, I'd do circles. The first time I thought he was going to buck...ducked his head, humped his back, aka Parellis' infamous dump..and instead of getting afraid like I used to with Starlette, I got annoyed and said to him in a growl-y voice "You really don't want to go there, do you?". He stopped, and we went on from there (several more whoa-circles, no threats). I didn't even worry about bucking or being dumped, I just wanted him to figure it out and I was not going to back down.

My point is that once you start getting your confidence back, run with only gets better!

dazey said...

More and more arena riders are learning that "just a trail horse" is an insult to a discipline that requires a horse to do some thinking for itself and at the same time work with its rider as a team and not in a pattern of habit.

Basic Training for a Safe Trail Horse offers innovative and logical information about how to teach a horse to be as safe as a horse can be out on the trails. It's a small paperback available at Amazon for less than $10

feeling-brave-again said...

Nancy C and Horses and Turbos -
Thanks for sharing your strategies! I am also getting over anxiety issues and appreciate the advice and your success stories!

Mugwump - I know you had said your mare was pastured in a HUGE pasture - I would have thought she would therefore be ok out on trail due to everyday exposure to non-arena things like water, rocks, trees , wildlife. If you go back to older posts to read comments do you have any ideas as to what horse psychology is happening to make her so spooky?

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