Trail Savvy

Back to Basics

Back to Basics
Mark Bolender

Reduce Injuries with Skills, Training, and Common Sense

by Mark Bolender


October 2017

Photo courtesy Mark Bolender

Mountain Trail has its hazards and there is potential for injury in many areas. We trainers and riders have an obligation to protect our horses to the best of our ability.

Over the years I’ve noticed some riders go for years without sustaining any serious injuries to their horses, while other riders seem to have horses that are constantly getting hurt. I’ve noticed a common reason why this one group of horsemen seems to have fewer problems. Now, all of us understand that a horse can be injured suddenly and accidentally and no one is to blame. I am talking about lowering the odds that your horse will sustain injuries while training or competing in Mountain Trail.

The horsemen with the lowest odds of sustaining injury to their horses are the ones that have “broke” horses. This sounds obvious, but a broke horse and a good rider have more tools to deal with in an adverse situation and the skills needed to navigate a new obstacle.

So how do riders get the skills to lower their risk of injury? What should be their priorities for safety? The following points are my checklist of what’s needed.

  • First go back to the basics of walking, trotting and canterloping (canter or lope) a straight line. Set up a line of eight sets of cones covering a distance of at least 80 feet. Navigating this sounds simple, but we find only one in ten can ride a straight line at our clinics. Everyone laughs when I bring out the cones, but it’s always the same. The way to ride a straight line is to focus forward and use your legs and seat. Most try to ride the face, and it will always be a crooked line.
  • The next exercise is to ride a 20-meter circle through cones that are set 36 inches apart. Again, the way to be successful is to look ahead and not down at the set of cones you are riding through. You always look ahead one set of cones and then you can ride a nice circle.
  • Work on your transitions until you can go from a trot to a walk at any given point. If you ask for a walk but it takes 20 feet to get it, you are not ready to move up to the canterlope. In level II of Mountain Trail you must trot between obstacles. Therefore, you must be able to transition to the walk at the obstacle. If you can’t manage this, you are risking injury to your horse (and yourself.) In level III you must be able to transition down to a walk from a canterlope at the obstacle. Obviously, this means you need to have the skill to transition down in an arena before you attempt this on the course.
  • Make sure you have a soft correct backup. It is surprising how many do not have this skill, and when they need it, the horse and rider become frustrated and often put themselves and their horses in danger. If you do not have this skill find a professional to help—it’s critical.
  • Be able to move the haunches and shoulders easily; this gives you a nice leg yield.
  • Protect your horse with leg wraps.
  • Have the wisdom to avoid what appear to be unsafe or poorly constructed obstacles. With the growth of trail obstacle training and competitions there are many obstacles that are very unsafe. Some people see obstacles on the internet and attempt to copy designs without understanding the engineering that is hidden within the obstacle. The refinement of the sport has brought many improvements in the obstacles. The structural qualities have been increased with safety always the priority. The dream of a ribbon is not worth taking the risk of navigating an obstacle that may fail and cause injury.
  • Make sure your horse can stand still! Train this and you will end up with a quiet horse who is a joy to be around. It is easy to teach but often not done because few people take time to just sit and enjoy the horse.

I am sure there are many other skills that good horsemen possess, but these are the highest priority to me. Well-trained horses are the most fun and have fewer injuries.

Happy Trails and Bolender Blessings.


Originally Published October 2017 Issue

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Trail Savvy
Mark Bolender

Mark Bolender’s name has become synonymous with the new and exciting international equine discipline Mountain Trail. Mark earned national titles in this sport in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and has been supporting Mountain Trail for the past nine years by teaching clinics, judging shows, and building courses worldwide.
Prior to his involvement in Mountain Trail, Mark developed a solid foundation of experience by breeding Quarter Horses and showing in open, Quarter Horse, and Reining competitions. He writes for a number of magazines and is the author of the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. He has produced four DVD’s about training for Mountain Trail and one DVD entitled The Road to Bridle-less. He has been featured twice in the American Quarter Horse magazine America’s Horse for mastering the Trail Challenge. Mark operates a judging school which certifies judges in the USA, Canada and Europe for Mountain Trail and Trail Challenge. He and his wife, Lee, are the founders of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) which was formed to promote the sport of Mountain Trail. Mark and Lee own and operate Bolender Horse Park in Washington State, which houses the finest Mountain Trail course in the world. Mark and Lee travel the world to give Mountain Trail clinics in almost every corner of the globe.
Mountain Trail made its television debut on RFDTV in November of 2016, further promoting the sport to audiences everywhere.
Using Bolender Horse Park as the model, Mark and Lee have designed and built Mountain Trail courses for private and public use in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe – with many more in development. These courses are premier sites used by beginners and highly advanced riders alike; they are designed for clinics, shows, and training.
Mark and Lee actively promote the Bolender training philosophy, which centers on using the natural instincts of the horse in the training process. Mark says that activating key instincts in the horse combined with good horsemanship results in real equine magic. They continue to set goals to build more and more courses, promote the IMTCA, and write books and articles for eager enthusiasts. The next goal is to bring Mountain Trail to the Olympics.

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