With summer at its peak, there is no time like the present to hit the trails and see just how far you and your green horse have progressed in your training. Of course, that might be easier said than done. Does the idea conjure images of galloping through lush green fields, jumping logs and effortlessly crossing shallow rivers? Or does the mere mention of the trail fill you with twinges of terror?

In this issue, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol encourages you to challenge your horse while providing a systematic approach designed to help both of you prepare for your first trail ride.

 The Foundation

“One of the biggest reasons horses struggle on the trail is that they are simply ill prepared,” said Nichol. “Often, amateur riders juggle many responsibilities, and their horses do not get ridden consistently enough. It is never fair to ask much of your horse when you’ve put in little.”

A rider definitely needs to put miles on her horse in order to build trust and confidence. You may be familiar with the old adage: “Wet saddle blankets make good horses.” Nichol noted, “Although there is value to that saying, those miles also need to be filled with positive experiences in order to pay off. Otherwise, all you are doing is spending several hours building resistance into your horse.

“This is especially true with the young horse, because early training becomes the launching pad for his future. While you should be exposing your youngster to as many new situations as possible, you also need to consistently ask him to look to you for leadership.”

When it comes to anxiety, every horse has one of three predominant areas of concern: space, mind and pressure. If you can help boost your horse’s confidence in whatever area is most challenging for him, your time on the trail should be no more eventful than any other progression in your training.

Gaining Control of the Space

For some horses, the greatest preoccupation is “who controls the space?” Since a herd’s pecking order is established by who spatially leads whom, it is paramount that you not be the one yielding to your horse if you expect him to trust you with his life. “Every time you yield to your horse, you are effectively saying that he’s leading,” reiterated Nichol. “Learning to engage your horse’s space from the saddle is just as important as it was from the ground.” The only difference is that your horse is underneath you rather than out in front.

By now, your horse should have learned to remain soft while yielding his head, shoulder and hindquarters to you during groundwork. (See the May/June 2010 issue of Horse-Canada) This concept remains the same whenever you pick up one rein or gently bump with your legs.

“Since your horse understands to soften when he feels pressure in the lead rope, the rein should now do the same,” explained Nichol. “At the walk, pick up one rein and connect with a soft nudge until your horse begins to soften. Release the moment you sense a positive change.  Practice this on both sides and then at the trot and canter.”

If your horse braces, survey your own body. Are you relaxed from your head to your heels, or are you absorbing your horse’s tension as you pick up the reins? “Once you’re certain that your horse isn’t simply mirroring tightness from your own body, bump your legs and ask your horse to soften to your you rein,” said Nichol. “As soon as you feel a yield in your horse, quiet your legs and allow your horse to continue forward. The more specifically you release your aids, the more rapidly your horse will respond. This is how you spend positive moments in the saddle.”

If your horse continues to challenge your leadership of his space, reverse psychology is Nichol’s recommendation. “The saying: “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult,” is one that I entirely subscribe to,” he said.

“In the case of a spatial horse that evades his rider’s leadership, I recommend simply creating the realization that the path your horse chose was needlessly difficult.

“Let’s take the horse that charges off in another direction, for example.  Rather than struggle against him, disengage your horse’s thought by picking up your opposite rein and asking him to step in the direction you originally intended.

“If this fails, bump your legs, change gaits, slap your reins from side to side or try anything else that might motivate your horse to have a change of mind. Once he heads back in the direction you had initially intended, praise him for his great decision. It comes down to reinforcing that choosing the wrong direction is always going to be difficult. You will create far better training experiences by creatively allowing things to be your horse’s idea.”

Achieving Focus

Does your horse struggle to stay mentally focused? Does being separated from the herd cause him a great deal of anxiety? “A horse that struggles with a fleeting mind is usually predisposed to suffering from separation anxiety of all sorts,” explained Nichol. “The key is to teach him that time away from familiar surroundings and his herd will be enjoyable.”

Nichol recommends warming up in your usual riding area, leaving the gate open if possible. Once your horse is relaxed, ride a step or two out of the gate. Pick up one rein to ask your horse’s mind to soften and immediately turn back into the arena if he remains relaxed. Repeat and progressively increase the distance away from the arena

If your horse struggles, and he likely will at some point, make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. “If your horse becomes anxious, it is okay to return to the arena, but make this more work,” said Nichol. “Bump your legs and ask him to back up, move his hindquarters over, ride a circle…whatever your instincts tell you might work out most favourably.

“Dismounting and having him trot and canter circles just as you do during groundwork is also an option. The moment your horse settles and tunes back into you, stop whatever extra work you are asking of him and offer praise. Only then should you return to the comfort of your familiar riding area.

“If, on the other hand, your horse is clever enough to anticipate the anxiety he’ll feel when leaving his familiar grounds and balks at the idea, make staying in the arena the more difficult option. For example, you might canter a few circles in the arena until your horse begins to settle and then transition to walk and head out.”

Handling Pressure

Some horses yield their space readily, appear to be quite attentive and yet when obstacles or unexpected pressures such as fluttering plastic bags appear out of nowhere, they would much prefer to flee. This type of horse requires preparation on the ground and large doses of encouragement, understanding and praise.

One of the most beneficial exercises is to simulate trail hurdles by preparing a course of tarps, logs, solid sheets of wood, balls and whatever else you can create. Begin by asking your horse to approach these items. Have him engage each obstacle by stepping over or somehow touching it. The key is to allow your horse to choose to interact with the obstacle as opposed to forcing him to. “Think of what it would feel like if you were a non-swimmer standing at the edge of a deep body of water,” offered Nichol. “If someone unexpectedly pushed you in, you would panic and perhaps drown. The same holds true for a horse who is sensitive to external pressures and is over-faced by the challenge before him.

“The only thing I expect of my horses is that they always try. As long as they are putting in positive efforts, I will grant the necessary time to work it out.”

Once you’ve practiced approaching different objects on the ground, try it from the saddle. Stay relaxed and only use your rein if your horse needs your help to soften and think through each pressure. “Once this becomes easy in the arena, you’ll be ready to test your training in the field or trail now that your horse has gained greater confidence and trust in you.”

Heading Out on Trail

As a rider, your job is to keep your own anxiety under wraps as you head out into unfamiliar surroundings. Visualize a relaxing ride and you are more likely to enjoy yourself. “Horses typically offer us the same feel as we offer them,” stressed Nichol. “It is key to you remain relaxed. If your horse becomes unsettled, keep yourself in check and do not allow yourself to absorb his anxiety. You lead, he follows. With that in mind, only travel as far as you can competently lead.

“I recommend not venturing out too far during the first few rides. Just as you would with any other progression in your training, build on small successes and strive to make every ride a positive one.

“If you can work consistently at this, the training will be deeply beneficial and will become a way of life for you and your horse. Continue to increase your distance with every ride and look for new ways to challenge your horse out on the trail just as you would in the arena. This is how good partnerships are built.”