by Laura Crum
I want to begin this post by referencing a comment on my previous post “Good Trail Horses”. kippen64 wrote that her criteria for a good trail horse were almost completely different from mine, and the quiet proven trail horse could wait until she was older. I think she raised a good point. I’m writing about a specific concept, here. It won’t apply to everyone. There are many riders in the world who are bolder and less worried about safety than I am. Such riders would find our horses boring. Also, I chose my two trail horses because I wanted to give my son a safe, happy, relaxing experience on the trails, and we both needed bombproof trail horses to do this. However, since owning these horses, I have heard so many people (on the blogs and elsewhere) discuss their anxiety issues regarding trail riding, or, worse yet, their bad wrecks which have caused them to be afraid to trail ride at all, that I have realized that there are a lot of folks who would really benefit if they owned horses like Sunny and Henry.
So, to clarify, the sort of trail riding I am talking about (and doing) is very quiet, relaxing rambles through the countryside. It is not ambitious, from a devoted trail enthusiast’s point of view. Three hours is a long ride for us. Our horses are gentle and reliable and the territory we ride features dirt trails through forested, rolling hills. There are steep places. We also ride on the beach. Virtually all my rides these days are in the company of my ten year old son. So, if you are a fit, experienced, ambitious rider with no anxiety issues regarding the trail, my posts about trail riding are not likely to apply to you, and I do understand that. My “tips” are mostly aimed at those whose goals are more like mine.
OK—on to the point of this post. Not so long ago I read an interesting comment on another blog. I absolutely don’t remember who said this, so if somebody does, please remind me. It was in reference to whether one should lean forward when going uphill on the trail and lean back when going downhill. Or should one just sit up straight. This astute commenter said that one should stay at about the angle of the trees.
This interested me, so on my next trail ride, I paid attention. I have been riding so long that I don’t make any concious effort to do any particular thing, but on this ride I tried to see if I leaned or not and did I stay at the same angle as the trees. Well, this isn’t all that easy to determine around here because a lot of our trees are twisty things—liveoaks and madrones and the like. However, whenever I got next to some straight trees (pines, firs, redwoods) on a steep slope I found that yes, indeed, my body was at the same angle as the trees. So this advice seems accurate to me.
It isn’t that one leans exactly. One simply stays perpendicular, while the plane of the horse’s back tilts under one. I thought that was a pretty good tip. Because, as another commenter said (I think it was Funder, correct me if I’m wrong), it isn’t all that helpful to the horse if you lean too much, and many horses will point this out to the rider.
This got me wondering if I had any useful trail riding tips to pass on. I do a lot of trail riding, so certainly I should know something that might help someone else. You’d think. Anyway, here are some thoughts that occurred to me.
Spooking. People talk a lot about horses spooking at objects on the trail, and how to handle this. Most any horse will spook on the trail, at least occasionally. There are so many unexpected things: hikers half concealed by bushes, deer crashing away through the brush, funny looking stumps that could be crouching predators…etc. I don’t fault even a “bombproof” horse for making the occasional startled jump. I’m prepared for this, and I’ve taught my son to be prepared, too. My system is to ride with very light contact. If I think the horse might spook, I will increase the contact—barely. We are still talking very light contact. I am trying to be reassuring, not trying to force the horse. I make sure I have a hold on the horn (and to all you purists who don’t grab the horn, all I can say is spend a few years riding cutting horses and you’ll learn the value of this). I speak aloud. If there is a hiker, I talk to the hiker. If it’s a stump, I mention it’s a stump. If it’s a deer, I say so. Just in a relaxed conversational tone. I may speak to my riding companion, if I have one, warning that my horse may spook. I say this lightly, as if there is nothing wrong, just a trivial matter. I don’t say, “whoa there” and talk nervously to the horse or to others. I do not tighten up my legs. I don’t pull on the reins. If the horse spooks, I hang on by my grip on the horn. I don’t tighten my legs or the reins after he spooks, either. My body stays loose and as relaxed as I can make it. I may pick up on the reins if the horse seems to be going to make more than one jump, but its very gentle. In that case, I might say, “Whoa.”
Once the horse is standing still, I pretty much ignore the spook. If the horse is still scared, I might wait a minute until he sorts it out. If he dances around a little, I’ll maintain light contact and encourage him to walk forward. Once he seems calm, I ask him to walk by. If he remains frightened and I have a companion, I’ll let the companion give me a lead, if his/her horse is calm. Once in my life, faced with a very high, scary bridge and four horses that had never been over it (I was the leader), I got off and led my horse. In every other case, I have stayed aboard and walked on by (or danced on by) the scary object. In short, I simply try to minimize the whole thing. This works well for me. It builds my horse’s confidence and he grows progressively less worried and spooky.
The way I handle spooking has a lot to do with my background riding cutting horses. A good cutting horse’s move with a cow can be a lot like a sudden, powerful spook. Cutters hang on with their grip on the saddle horn and try to keep their body loose and relaxed. They sit deep in the saddle, virtually slumping their shoulders forward. The legs are loose, not gripping to hold on. This enables the rider to cue the horse but also helps the horse to stay centered and calm, helps him not to “work out” toward the cow, a big no-no. The reins stay loose, again helping the horse to remain calm. When I say I pick up on the reins after a spook, it’s the exact same motion a cutter makes when he gently asks his horse to “quit” a cow. Calm, reassuring, light contact. I have to say that having a saddle horn to hang onto is pretty essential when it comes to riding a spook this way, and I have been known to encourage English riders who are nervous about trail riding to use a western saddle for this purpose and see how they like it. I do know a few dressage riders who ride “western” on the trail.
In any case, the way I handle spooking has a tendency to make most horses less spooky, and keeps everybody calm. I do not think that I, personally, could ride this way in an English saddle. Perhaps some who are better riders than I am could do this. But maybe not. Years ago I was riding a paint horse named Simon on a solo trail ride and met another rider on a blind corner. Neither horse had heard the other horse coming and both spooked quite violently. I hung on, riding the spook as described above. The other rider, in an English saddle, came off and landed flat on the ground, still holding her reins, I might add. I got off and made sure she was OK. She was. In the course of remounting and chatting, I discovered that she was a very experienced dressage rider and had done tons more with horses than I had ever thought of doing. The difference between us when it came to that spook was the saddle horn.
When it comes to the kind of horse that is chronically spooky, and inclined to panic and bolt, I would not ride such a horse on the trails—period. Way too dangerous. Get another trail horse would be my tip there. (See my previous post “Good Trail Horses”.) It is my inclination to think that unless you are fit and fearless and want a training project there is no need to ride a horse on the trail that wants to bolt. Again, it is very dangerous, and there are so many horses that won’t do this.
Jigging. In my experience, almost every horse can have a jiggy day, or at least a jiggy moment. Horses that are chronically jiggy (herdbound, barn sour) are virtually impossible to cure. Horses that are willing to bolt towards home…etc, see the above advice. But even my Sunny horse, who is a calm, reliable trail horse, will have an occasional minute of getting just a little “strong” on the way home. Maybe one ride in a dozen. No big deal. He doesn’t even break out of the walk. Just pushes on me a little. My solution is to sit deep in the saddle, take the weight out of my stirrups, relax, focus on cooperation. I will remind the horse with one rein, gently, to pay attention. I will talk to him a bit, asking him to pay attention to me. (This works on Sunny—doesn’t work on a lot of them.). I may stop and stand still for awhile (again, this helps Sunny—doesn’t help a lot of them). I resist the urge to pull on the horse or give him an annoyed jerk. And this behavior does annoy me. However, I have found that reprimanding the horse for jigging in a forceful way does not help. Hanging on his face will not help. If I am on a solo ride and there is no time pressure on me, I will turn back out and go home a different way. I may go home by a steep downhill trail, where Sunny must pick his way carefully (do not try this on a chronic jigger—it could be dangerous—I have had such a horse get sideways on very steep ground). If my horse had more of a problem with this than Sunny does, I might stop in a little meadow, get off, take off the bridle (my trail horses wear a halter under their bridles), and let my horse graze awhile until he was calm and relaxed. And no, Sunny has never been jiggy enough to warrant this, nor have I ever done it on any other horse, but its been mentioned on other blogs and it makes sense to me.
Another point. I don’t trail ride with my reins hanging in great loose swags. I see others doing this and I disagree with this practice. I ride my horse with minimal contact, but the “feel” is there. I let my horse know where I want him to step on tricky trail. I don’t let him choose the route, riding with totally loose reins. Why? Because I have known several horses that, ridden like this (not by me), stepped in the wrong place and slid off the trail. One to his death. It is a mistake to assume that your horse will not make a mistake. They do. Be alert, aware, and forge a relationship with the horse whereby he accepts your input easily and willingly (and you do this by riding this way all the time). Thus, even on flat ground, approaching a small ditch, I will let my horse know where I want to cross. He may indicate another preference, and I may go with his choice, but I decide. Every time. For me, this is a safety issue.
Another safety issue has to do with footing. I have done a lot of trail riding on rock (see my book, “Slickrock”), though there is no rock on my local trails. In the winter there is mud, however, which can be very slippery. I would caution everyone new to trail riding to be very thoughtful about mud or rock when its combined with steep slopes. Or level trails with “exposure”—a steep drop on one side. This can be very, very dangerous. I have seen experienced trail horses slip and go down under these circumstances. Just because another horse gets through the slippery piece with no problem does not mean your horse will also have no problem. All it takes is for one hoof to slip and for the horse to get worried and start scrambling. I saw a very experienced trail horse end up rolling down the hill this way (he had some scrapes and lost some shoes but was OK—the rider bailed off and was OK, too). I don’t ride in the hills when I don’t feel the footing is good. In my case, I also don’t wish to tear up the trails and make them unpleasant for hikers and other horsemen. I wish all other riders would show this sort of consideration, but they don’t. At least around here.
Then there is traffic. Horses and cars are a bad mix, as many have pointed out. The nearest I came to a terrible wreck involved riding a gentle mare along a city street. We had parked there because the rodeo parking lot was full and we were riding to the roping at the Salinas Rodeo. We only had about a block to go. The street was jammed with trucks and horse trailers which forced me off the sidewalk and onto the shoulder of the road. The mare was not afraid of cars, but she spooked a little at a giant storm drain in the gutter—just as a city bus zoomed by. My left stirrup came about three inches from the side of that moving bus, as did the mare’s foreleg. It was a very near thing and it sticks in my mind. I have never ridden a horse along the shoulder of a busy road since.
I do cross a busy road to get to the trails near my house, and though I don’t enjoy it, I feel it is reasonably safe. I wait by the side of the road in a big field until there are no visible cars and then trot briskly across. My horses are not the least afraid of traffic and wait by the side of the road like statues, knowing the drill. But I still wouldn’t ride them down the shoulder. That one lesson sticks with me.
Perhaps my biggest piece of advice is more or less contained in my previous post, “Good Trail Horses”. If you want to trail ride in a relaxing way for fun and are not into doing a lot of training, choose a horse that is suited to this activity. I have owned some chronically jiggy and/or spooky horses in my life, and though they were stars at their events, they would not, I think, have made satisfying trail horses for most people. Nor do I think that even a much better trainer than I ever was could have changed them much in this respect. They were flighty, energetic horses, inclined to be nervous and/or anxious, or just liked to go, and walking quietly down the trail wasn’t in their nature. They weren’t the type of horse to make endurance horses, nor was I interested in this, but I do understand that for those of you who want to cover lots of miles at a brisk pace, the requirements are different. You may need an energetic, lively horse. I am talking here of the sort of relaxed trail riding that I do, which others have expressed an interest in.
Any tips you can contribute? Many of you have done lots more ambitious trail riding than I do these days, and could probably offer some good advice. And happy holidays to all of you—from soggy central California. We’ve passed the winter solstice—from now on the days get longer!