Have you ever been out on a trail ride and felt that things were going pretty good until your horse suddenly became distracted? Maybe he stopped listening to you, wanted to be with another horse or started jigging once you turned for home. These examples are common, and, all too often, aren’t addressed, leading to unsafe situations for both horse and rider.

There are many variables involved in these episodes, but I will show you how, with just a little preparation, you will be able to get a distracted horse dialed back in to you.

The Solution

The Trail Loop exercise is simple to assemble, but might take some time to complete, so make sure you have the time to devote to it before you get started and be prepared to do the exercise several times over the course of a few days or more, before you set out on a full-length ride.

First, you need to establish where your horse would like to be. If the choice is between out on the trail (away from home) or in the arena (close to home), most horses will choose the arena. In this case, you will make the trail a comfortable place, and the arena a busy place. Your horse can choose to stay out on the trail and walk calmly on a loose rein, or come home and “work.”

Next, you need to establish a basic pattern in the arena. It can be anything you and your horse are comfortable doing, it just needs to involve more work than being out on the trail. You could trot or do canter circles, rollbacks or clover leaf patterns, for example. The goal is not to stress or exhaust your horse, just keep his mind active.

Spend about five to 10 minutes keeping your horse busy, then head out on the trail at a walk. Start petting him and let him enjoy some undemanding time on a loose rein. After a little while, you may notice that your horse would like to head back to the barn, especially if you aren’t micromanaging him by using rein and voice cues to keep him moving forward away from home. When this happens, just turn your horse around and walk or trot back to the arena, and go straight back to your established pattern, for five to 10 more minutes. Then head back out on the trail. This entire pattern will be repeated until you feel your horse has made a change, which will be the decision to stay out on the trail, by not jigging home, and to stay focused on you.

For some horses, this decision will happen after just a few repetitions. For others, you may have to spend an hour or so the first day, then repeat over a few more sessions, in order to get the full benefit. The change will be based on the past experiences of the horse. If he has ever been allowed to learn and make decisions it may be a quick change. If being allowed to make decisions is a new concept to him, then it will take longer.

The reason this is such a widespread problem is because a normal pattern for a horse is to head out on the trail once to work, and then head back home once to rest. Unfortunately, without any maintenance, going out and back only once, can create big problems for both horse and rider. Heading out on the trail should simply be another exercise for your horse, like a rollback or a session on obstacles.

With this pattern, you might only go out on the trail 100 yards, before heading back. If your normal trail ride is two hours long, that would mean you could do this loop approximately 10 to 24 times in that same period of time, while still being able to enjoy being out on the trail. Just imagine what would happen if you left the barn and then arrived back at the barn 24 times in one day! Your horse would not know if you were coming or going, and this is when the change would occur. You are looking for the moment your horse starts to ask ‘What are we doing next?’ instead of trying to decide for you. That’s when you will become partners, rather than just being a passenger.

Changes to look for:

  • traveling at the same speed to and from the barn
  • walking on a loose rein
  • stopping and waiting on the trail when asked
  • no whinnying to horse buddies
  • relaxed body language

Adjusting the Pattern

Depending on your horse, you may have to make some adjustments:

  • If the problem is more of a herd bound issue than a barn sour issue, have the horse buddy, with his rider, near the arena (aka the work zone).
  • In very rare cases, you may have to do more work on the trail and then rest in the arena. Your horse will usually let you know where he wants to be if you ride him on a loose rein without steering. This place is normally the underlying thought/destination that shows up when your horse goes into survival mode.
  • In some cases, if the trail allows, you can find a place to do a loop or repeat a section, eliminating the arena, to achieve a similar result.

The goal of this exercise is to cause your idea to become the horse’s idea. After two decades of helping horse and rider teams, I have found this drill to be one of the most successful at overcoming problems on the trail. Taking your horse out on a trail ride when he would probably rather be at home with his buddies, without any prior preparation, can often end in disaster. Once “fuel” is added to the “fire,” for example, when the hiker comes around the corner or one of the buddy horses acts out, your horse’s instinct will naturally kick in and if he chooses “survival mode,” which to him may be running back to the barn or catching up with the other horses, you may wonder what to do. The good news is, with a little preparation ahead of time, you and your horse can stay in a “thinking,” rather than reacting, frame of mind, when problems out on the trail occur