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A different sort of ‘trail trial’ requires work

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - March 17th, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: My horse has no problem leaving home and his stable mate, and when he goes down the trail by himself, he’s fine. But when I trailer or take him anywhere (camping, poker ride, etc.) he “buddy’s up” with the horse we trailed with or just started riding with. He doesn’t have to know the horse prior, either, and he’ll throw a fit if he thinks his new buddy is getting away from him. He seems uncomfortable in a large group of horses, too. I have dealt with this for about five years, and I wonder if I need to just keep dealing it. He’s a 10-year-old Appy-Quarter.
— Karen Boersma, Norco, Calif.

HEY KAREN: I’m happy to hear this is something that you were able to handle for five years without getting hurt. Anytime I hear things like, “My horse is throwing a fit”, I think it’s dangerous. So, I’ll assume you are a competent rider and can handle yourself in this situation.
Actually, I have a couple of horses I’m currently working on with this exact same issue, and they are coming along great.

Before we get started, it’s important that we have a couple of fundamental exercises under our belt. The first is being able to have your horse flex his head to your leg and give to the bit through lateral flexion with the intention to stop. Do this in both directions until he doesn’t move. Secondly, we need to be able to flex his head laterally from side to side without any resistance from your horse, even when the single pull of the rein is sudden and assertive. The flexion in this exercise should put his nose only halfway to your leg. Practice this also at a standstill until your horse is flexing and giving in the direction of the pull before you grab a hold of his face. Take notice to anchor the rein to your leg when flexing as opposed to just pulling and hanging. The anchoring will help with the timing of the release.

Progress this exercise to the walk and trot, with transitions in both directions. Wait for the horse to give to the rein before changing directions. As the horse gets better, pull the rein to your leg sooner and have the horse deal with the added challenge. This exercise will help him go FROM the emotional and reactive side and TO his thinking side of his brain.

Now we are ready to hit the trails. Call your trail-rider friends who are willing to help with your horse’s mental therapy and who can take direction. First, try leading the group. If your horse becomes anxious or unruly, simply ask the other riders to stop behind you and flex your horse to a stop as practiced before. If your horse doesn’t have a problem leading the group, allow one of the helpers to move up next to you and evaluate and handle that situation the same as before. If all goes well, instruct the helper to move ahead.

This is where I believe most of your efforts will take place. At the first signs of trouble, ask the rider ahead to stop, and have your horse believe that his behavior will result in nothing more than the reward-able consequence of stopping through flexion once again. Continue this step until he stands quietly on a loose rein. Once he feels confident that he will not be left behind and stops showing the behaviors of insecurity, allow the rider ahead to turn around and resume the follower position. Slowly but consistently, have the helper advance next to you — and then in front of you a couple of horse lengths as before. If the horse acts up again, this time flex him from left to right until he walks quietly.

At that point, ask the helper to do his rounds again (to the back, middle and the front.) If the horse becomes too hard to handle or threatening in any way, spiral to a stop until he gives. Sometimes horses can get so bad in this kind of a situation where your safety might be at risk. Jumping off and backing your horse assertively as the reward-able exercise is always a welcomed option before starting up again. When he becomes tolerant of the rider ahead while flat-footing the walk, ask the helper to move up another horse length or two and reward your horse by having the helper repeat the cycle of going from follower to leader.

Always wait until your horse actually breaks out of the walk before correcting. Remember to allow him to go along on a loose rein, even if it results in breaking out of the walk right away. This will make it clear in your horse’s mind that he still has freedom of choice, and we are okay with whatever choice he makes.

The final exercise will be having your horse deal with being left behind. Here’s the plan: When you approach an intersection or crossroads, have the helper who is leading ahead turn out of sight. Instruct the helper to be out of sight but not out of hearing distance. You will then continue down the trail unless your horse becomes unsettled. If he acts up or breaks out of the walk, simply spiral to a stop until he stands there on a loose rein. If he does well, instruct the helper to ride back toward you and repeat the cycle of going from back, to middle, to front and back around the corner. If your horse holds his ground, call your helper back once again and repeat that process.
After a few tries of this, let your horse follow the leader around the corner until the next intersection. Once he gets good at this, the helper can attempt all these challenges from further away while in the trot or canter. Adding more riders to the challenge should be gradual, and handled the same way.

It is believed that practice makes perfect, but here is a perfect example where that is not the case. Practice the wrong thing for five years, and get really good at doing it wrong. “PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT”. The very first time you go out and apply this approach to your horse, it should turn out as I explained. Initially, it might be helpful to pick a short-distanced trail ride and have plenty of time to give to your horse so that he gets it. If you only have 15 minutes to get the job done, it might take you a lifetime, but if you have a lifetime it might only take 15 minutes. I commonly say when I go out on trail with a horse for the first time,”HONEY, CANCEL THE REST OF MY DAY” because I want to be back as soon as possible.

Karen, I’m confident you’ll feel proud of yourself as soon as you put some time aside to tackle this old challenge with a new approach.

As always, trust your instincts and think safe,


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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