The Trail Horse's Mind
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
We all have expectations for our horses. With trail horses those expectations are based on the way we use them, which is very different from the way we use performance horses or pet horses. Trails have many variables which place numerous demands on riders and horses. On the trail, we are constantly asking our horses to do different things and often it seems as if danger lurks, literally, around every corner: road traffic, water crossings, soft ground, brush-choked trails, leading in tight spots, getting along with other horses, and who knows what else. Once I wrote a list of more than 20 ways one can get into trouble on the trail.
During my grade nine year I did a long stint in hospital due to a car accident. The hospital became home for a time. One day a distraught mother asked me if I would help her with her son who was in a nearby isolation room. The unfortunate lad had been run over, literally, by the wheels of a semi truck after a horse he was trail riding along the road reared and tossed him. He had spent the summer working at his uncle’s ranch and the horse was given as payment. He was not expected to survive the night. His condition was, for me, beyond description. Everything was pinned together and, as I remember, the only thing he could move was an arm, which he would use to try to turn off his life support. It was my job to see that he did not do so. He could speak and tried countless times to tell me to end it all for him (although I suppose the hospital would have been quick to act had the systems been tinkered with). This experience imprinted me for life. I remember wondering, even at that early age, what circumstances conspired to allow a young boy to be thrown under the wheels of a semi, and thinking that the horse was not the right one for a kid to be riding.
We can talk all day long about conformation, breeding, and training methods, but the bottom line is that the trail horse’s mind is often the most significant factor in what makes or breaks our pleasure, our adventure, and our well-being. We can blame a horse’s disposition and behaviour on countless things — past experiences, training, breeding, and rider ability — but these things all tell us to consider the horse’s mind.
While I do not know your abilities and nature or those of your horse, no matter how many books or trainers tell you that loving your horse is important in successful horsemanship, it should never become more important than your willingness to be honest with yourself when you assess your own abilities and your horse’s mind. You have personal baggage and so does your horse. Your job as a trail rider is to find the horse with a mind suitable for pleasurable and safe trail riding, just as you would consider compatible qualities in your spouse.
Calm, friendly, and soft is what you should ask for and expect in a trail horse’s mind. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
The first quality I look for in a trail horse is calmness. The potential for getting into tight situations on the trail is endless, and a calm mind will see you through when a nervous disposition will exaggerate or even create difficult and dangerous moments.
Calmness is often hereditary. Although no particular breed has cornered the market, it is safe to say that many of the cold blooded working breeds are often calm minded and that is why many trail horses are crossbred with them.
You spend so much time with your trail horse, simply because it takes time to ride trails, so you want a mind that is friendly towards people and other horses. These qualities do not necessarily go together. You need your trail horse to be a friendly companion because you will be saddling your horse, getting off and on, catching, feeding, and doing a host of other activities that can be enjoyable when a horse has an affinity toward humans, and taxing and frustrating when he does not. It may seem a simple thing to go out and catch your horse for a morning trail ride, but many horse campers have walked many frustrating miles to catch a horse that did not like the company of people — or they did not find the horse at all. We generally avoid adding horses to our string if they look sour, pin their ears back, or edge over to the far side of the corral when we approach. Keep in mind that “Hard-to-Catch Syndrome” and “Unfriendly-to-Human Disease” can be contagious.
A trail horse and rider need a relationship of trust. Things do not go well when there is fear in either the horse or the rider. A horse can sense fear in a rider by the way the rider’s body tenses and in how cues are given, and this triggers fear and confusion in the horse, or signals him to want to make his own decisions, and on the trail the rider must absolutely be the one making the decisions. A good, well trained horse likes it when he knows the rider is in control and is the dominant being, so the rider-horse combination must work to this end. That is why it makes sense to match an inexperienced rider lacking confidence with an experienced horse that has confidence from his ears down to his hooves.
Working with trail horses requires space. Only a horse with respect for the rider will provide that space. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Do not confuse building trust with being nice and loving your horse. Building trust does involve time together, a hands-on attitude, and affection, but it has a strong element of respect. The trail horse’s mind needs to know that you are the dominant being and must give you the respect and the space you need to perform your functions as a trail rider. When you saddle, lead, and work around trail horses, you need space. Issues often arise with disrespectful horses, such as the rider getting his feet stepped on, or being squeezed into a tree or another horse, or the horse choosing to ignore cues.
You must be able to go into your horse’s space at will, but your horse should not enter your space unless invited. This may not sit well with someone who allows their horse to snoop in their pockets for treats, or put his face into their space for a rub; a horse that constantly puts his face into a rider’s space does not have the respect needed to be good trail horse. Would a submissive horse put the most vulnerable part of his body, his face, into the space of the dominant mare? Not a chance! Trail riders need to develop the same level of respect in their horses. If you are trail riding with one or two horses you might tolerate a lack of respect, but with a string of horses it means trouble.
In most horse groups there is a dominant horse. The horse that has become dominant has done so with behaviour that you would not want to see in your children. The dominant horse will fight to maintain his position in the herd. This may or may not include the desire to dominate the rider on his back. Some horses that are dominant in the herd completely submit to the rider, but some fuss and battle every command as if it were the greatest insult in their life. We generally avoid horses that display dominance over other horses and fight the rider.
We put our trail horses in free spaces then place countless expectations on them. Once you ride a good trail horse under these circumstances, you will never be happy with a poor trail horse again. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
A trail is a place of contradiction. It is a place of freedom, to let go and move freely; horses sense this as well. A horse whose mind is well focused in a controlled setting, say a round pen or barn, may act quite differently on the trail. Behaviours such as being barn sour, pushy, fussing with other horses, or inattentive to cues are some of the manifestations of newfound freedom. More riding time and lunging on the trail are two ways to deal with an errant mind. However, the calm mind that you started out with goes a long way toward creating an honest trail horse. The trail horse needs to have a soft mind in any circumstance, in any tight place, or in any surrounding. Softness is born from trust, respect, a forgiving nature, and good, repetitive training methods.
Trail riders are out there to enjoy nature and the unknowns of the trail, and to enjoy riding as a low key, low effort affair. If a trail rider hits the trails looking forward to a fight they are really missing the point. Of course, we are always training as we ride, but it needs to be a natural, enjoyable experience. When we train trail horses we must constantly remind ourselves that preschool and grade one is what it’s about: standing calmly, respecting our space, and responding softly to applied pressures (cues). Cues in the form of pulses and bumps, rather than pulls, and rewarding the horse with a release of pressure when the proper response is received are critical for training trail horses. Insensitive hands and poor training can set up pulling battles on the trail, and if this develops on your ride then both horse and rider need to go back to ground work.
As we develop a relationship with our trail horse, it is a true joy when we get an immediate response with the slightest cue. Horse and rider will be on a telepathic journey like twins reincarnate. I truly enjoy riding along when the slightest pressure moves my horse from one trail to another, or when I can stand and enjoy the scenery then subtly touch my horse’s mane with my pinky and he steps out.
Trail riders often talk about the horse’s age and how this affects their mind and ability on the trail. Opinions run rampant here: some old-timers won’t train horses until they approach five years old and others say a horse is not worth its salt until seven.
A trail ride is supposed to be fun and relaxing. Make sure your horse’s mind is the type that will make him a confident companion who will help you enjoy your time on the trail safely.
Most of our best horses were best horses at three, five, seven, and 17. It is true that the younger the horse, the shorter the attention span, and I agree with trainers who say that a two-year-old should only have short, enjoyable sessions in the round pen, but I would rather have a young three-year-old on the trail under light load, say packing a couple of sleeping bags, or a two-year-old ponied along for the experience, than a seven-year-old who is nervous, spooky, or disrespectful with 100 hours of dubious training. In short, do not underestimate a mind that is calm and forgiving by nature, or overestimate your ability to transform into a solid trail companion the horse with a disposition poorly suited for the trail. Remember those stories of riders injured along roads, in backyards, or on trail rides? Much of it can be credited to riders who overestimated their ability or made excuses for the horses when, for one reason or another, the horses were simply not reliable.
Be the honest judge of your own level of experience or confidence by your reaction when your horse does not respond to your cues on the trail. For example, if your horse does not comply when you ask him to walk a straight line or to trot, the way you deal with it tells you a lot about yourself. If you accept the behaviour and just ride along because you lack confidence or experience, you have lost respect and are setting yourself up for future battles. If this happens, make a decision to do the proper ground work, get help, or, if the challenges are too great, get a more appropriate trail horse.
Remember, the point of a trail ride is to enjoy your time. Do not expect to do too much in the way of training while on a ride — do most of that at home. Small requests and small successes are the key. If the horse shies at a white rock, then ride back past the rock, even at a distance, and closer a third time until the horse is comfortable with the small success. Battling the horse up to the rock in an effort to remove its fear only encourages more fear, introduces the possibility of failure, and reduces the effectiveness of soft, responsive cues.
When you have ridden trails with a good horse no other will do. Only then can you truly enjoy the trail, the wilderness, peace of mind, and what it is all about. Good luck with your adventures into the trail horse’s mind and happy trails!
Main photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr. - Injuries or problems on the trail are often the result of a horse creating or exaggerating a difficult situation. A horse needs to have the right mind in order to calmly get through tough situations.