How To Keep Riding Challenging and Still Have Fun
by Mark Bolender
“Am I doing this right?” is a phrase I hear often from students. It’s very natural (and important) to learn proper riding technique, but many people get bogged down by details and they forget the reason they started riding in the first place: to have fun!
For me, this key component of riding is best expressed in the new sport of Mountain Trail. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Olympic equestrian champion or a weekend rider, you’ll find this sport challenging and fun. I hear it all the time; once somebody tries it, they say, “I’m hooked!”
When you see a great trail horse on a practice course it looks so easy to do. Yet, if you try to replicate what you see, you’ll be amazed how difficult it really is. Whether you want to put in the training to become a master, or just play on weekends, Mountain Trail can be fun for any skill level.
The best way to enjoy the sport is to learn how to work with the horse and let it be a horse. This will ensure a fun time for both horse and rider. If the horse has fun, the rider has fun. Here’s how you achieve that:
Start with groundwork. Allow the horse to build its confidence on the difficult obstacles such as rocks and logs. Learn how to drive the horse because that will build boldness and confidence much faster than leading a horse. The reason for this is that a horse is a natural born follower, and its instinct will be to blindly follow you. Yet when the horse is asked to address its own fears, you’ll find it quickly develops confidence and boldness. If you lead a horse, the horse will always need to be led when you come across a new obstacle. However, if you teach a horse to think it through, it will learn how to assess each new obstacle on its own. That’s when the magic happens.
Driving your horse requires leadership. You need to get your horse thinking how to please its leader (you), which is a primary instinct. The horse will not try to think on its own if it does not see you as its leader. Just because you love your horse doesn’t mean that you’re the leader. To be the leader you must enter its world and lead by its rules. Once leadership is established, maintaining the role is easy.
Make sure to adjust your leadership style— sometimes, ever so slightly— depending on the horse. A very sensitive Arabian needs different treatment than a pushy draft breed, for example. The general instincts are the same but, much like people, some need a leader with a soft voice while others require a soft voice and a big stick. Establishing your leadership in a quiet, definite manner, will make riding more fun for you and your horse.
Thus, our job is to inspire the horse to attempt the difficult obstacles and believe in itself by being the leader who tells it, “You can do it”. This then develops into trust, and then the crucial partnership between horse and rider is established. When that happens, you’ll experience a new level in the joy of riding, taking you both to new, blissful places.
Published in June 2011 Issue
Mark Bolender is the nation’s leading expert in Mountain Trail, Extreme Mountain Trail, and Competitive Trail. He’s a three-time National Champion and one of the most popular trainers in the country. Today, Mark’s unique style of horsemanship has made the Bolender brand synonymous with these disciplines.
Mark has written for numerous national magazines and authored the popular book, Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding. Mark and his horse Checkers hold the sport’s all-time highest honors. Checkers was distinguished by becoming the 2020 Breyer Horse.
Mark and Lee Bolender founded the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) to promote these sports. Today, the IMTCA trains judges, coordinates activities, and maintains certifications around the world.
Mark owns and operates Bolender Horse Park in Washington State. Mark has also designed and built Mountain Trail courses around the world.