Horse Training

Mastering Extreme Trail

Mastering Extreme Trail
Mark Bolender

Unity and Leadership Are The Keys


by Mark Bolender

Mark Bolender

Mark working with Secret on a log obstacle section. Credit: Lindsay Smith.

Watching a great trail horse pick its way through difficult obstacles is wondrous and beautiful. It looks so natural and graceful that it seems anyone can do it. This, anyway, is the image a great rider and horse try to paint for the judges examining every movement in an Extreme Trail competition.

In reality, achieving this look is exceedingly difficult and requires true unity of horse and rider. The sport of Extreme Trail highlights this unity of horse and rider brilliantly.

Training a horse properly takes time, patience and understanding. The result is a rider in-balance with his horse.

The first step to getting horse and rider in balance is to understand the horse and to enter its world. When you watch horses interact in the herd it’s very clear that they have simple rules, all of which are driven by instinct. This instinct motivates them to select a leader who they follow and become eager to please. As trainers we can learn from this and use it to our advantage.

Thus, my simple rules of training are based upon the horses’ world and their way of life.

Horses have no equals in their world; all are part of a hierarchy.

Horses are natural born followers, but only if one leader is clear and consistent.

A horse will try to please those higher in ranking in the “pecking order.”

Instinct drives the first three rules.

A horse’s instinct allows him to read the slightest change in a leader’s face and body language. As a trainer, what you do in the slightest way can cause your horse to reject or accept you as a leader. I’ve found that the less I do, the more I get because the communication is clearer.


Mark ground training a 2-year-old through an obstacle. Credit: Lindsay Smith.

I like to start training the horse from the ground, not from the saddle. First I establish my “Bolender Bubble” by taking the place of the alpha mare. This is not a physical game but a mind game, and it’s the most important step. It’s done subtly but has profound effects.

I will make sure that I can move the horse’s shoulders and haunches with little more than a thought. The “alpha” (leading) mare does not move her feet for other horses and walks a straight line from point A to B. For instance, if horses are between her and where she is going she does not walk around but right through the herd. The underlings will move out of the way. Thus, if you move without clear, pointed direction then the horse will perceive you as an underling, not the leader.

In teaching obstacles, I will begin to drive the horse in front of me over poles and through cones to build confidence and boldness. This is different than leading the horse, as I am compelling the horse to move her feet through my own direction.

When the horse is moving in a willing manner over poles and through cones, I then raise the bar and begin to drive him over more difficult obstacles such as logs, rocks, water and the teeter totter. The reason I do this in training is to teach the horse to concentrate on the obstacle and not on the rider.

I always make sure to not put too much pressure on the horse. Patience is everything. You can do great harm and take away the horse’s joy if you try to master the Extreme Trail obstacles too fast. Short sessions, about 30 minutes each, will give better results than long stressful ones. As the horse navigates an obstacle a little better than the day before, then you can stop; he will meet you at the stall door with a willing attitude.

Once the horse is moving through the obstacles enthusiastically then it’s time to start training from the saddle.


Published in December 2010 Issue

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Horse Training
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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