It’s that time of year. The bugs have gone into hiding, the heat of the sun isn’t causing your horse to sweat, and there is a wonderful aroma to the woods and trails. Many horses enjoy the scenery change from getting out of the ring and going for a trail ride. This can be the perfect time of year to introduce a horse to trail riding, as long as you have already prepared them well enough that they understand and respond to your aids.
When I ride in the woods, I focus on the exercises and goals that I have for my horse in the arena. We go through a similar routine of exercises wherever we are riding because it gives her consistency for confidence and structure for her physical well-being. I just happen to be asking her to execute shoulder-in towards the moss covered rock instead of towards the letter “A.”
A few simple exercises that suit your horse:
Horses that are not very forward moving:
Check that your horse is not acting “lazy” due to soreness or pain. Given that he is in good health, this horse needs some variety in life. Work with regular transitions between gaits that you are comfortable with, changing the tempo on a regular basis. Once he realizes that he does not have to exert too much energy for long, he will be more compliant to pick up the pace when asked. You can also ride this kind of horse “off roading” if you have fairly safe bush. Winding around trees and over logs is much more interesting than following a path.
Horses that get excitable and hurried:
Again, check that your horse is physically comfortable. Poor saddle fit or a sore back can cause some horses to rush and hurry to get the ride over with. Concentrate on a lot of breathing exercises while riding. Our slow, deep breathing can really relax ourselves and influence our horses. Use trees and other visuals to ride around, rather than just going straight down the trail. Changing direction gently and regularly will break the pattern of rushing straight down a path. Bending around trees also loosens up the tense horse’s body, helping him in additionally turning loose stress.
Horses that are stiff through their back and hips:
These horses need a lot of stretching forward and down onto the bridle to free up their topline. The more relaxed and stretched their back can be; the longer their stride will get, which also loosens up their hips. Any exercises that you work on in the arena to achieve openness through their back can be worked with in the trail as well. Look for small logs and branches for your horse to step over. As he crosses the log he will stretch down and focus on his footing. A similar stretch can happen when you ride up small hills.
Horses that are stiff through their neck and ribs:
It is important that we have good influence while riding these horses. The amount of pressure that we use with the rein and our seat/leg aids can cause a horse to relax and stretch, or stiffen into a brace. Try lifting your inside rein up rather than pulling in a backward action when you want to ask your horse to bend and turn. Lifting the rein creates a much softer feeling, allowing your horse’s neck to bend instead of brace. Ride down the path and use every turn in the trail as an opportunity to ask your horse’s ribs to match. For example; if you see a turn coming up to the right, use your seat to soften your horse’s ribs through the bend. The same exercise can be used around trees. One trail ride can improve your horse’s flexibility if you ride with focus.
Trail riding is often a social experience for riders. Remember to stay alert to your horse and his needs. Focussing on your horse will guarantee both of you a more rewarding experience. It is also important to wear bright apparel, to prevent hunting related accidents.
Enjoy the season, and happy trails !