Why Your Trail Horse Needs this Skill
by Mark Bolender
The exciting sports of Mountain Trail and Trail Challenges have their basis in real-life situations found on the trail or working on the ranch. Certain obstacles simulate these situations and can be used to train for these sports. One of these is the balance beam. It simulates some of the difficult log and bridge crossings and is a fantastic tool to teach horses to focus – not only on the actual crossing, but on almost any task. The following is a method I use to begin training with a balance beam.
First, wrap your horse’s legs to prevent injuries. It’s also ideal to have two balance beams to work with; one that’s low to the ground and another that’s more elevated for use once you have mastered the first. Also, before starting any training, you must have your horse’s respect. If you don’t your horse will try to push into your personal space, something I call “invading your Bolender Bubble.” If this happens you must correct the behavior before proceeding.
Once you’ve determined your space is respected, drive the horse from the ground to the low balance beam and have it inspect the obstacle. Do not force the horse, but give it all the time it needs to inspect, smell, chew or even paw the beam if it desires. Being curious creatures, most horses will place one foot on the balance beam and then take it off, then repeat the process. You should apply gentle pressure to the horse until it moves forward and puts its foot back on the balance beam. Then immediately stop all movement to take the pressure off, and allow the horse “think it through.” This method will seem slow at first, but will pay big dividends in the end because it builds more boldness and confidence than pushing the horse and forcing compliance.
As the horse steps up with both feet, make sure your lead rope is loose. This is crucial because if the horse doesn’t stand on the balance beam on a loose lead rope, then (in its mind) the effort never happened. So you must resist hanging onto the lead rope. Depending on the horse, placing both feet on the beam and then removing them is normal, and this may go on a number of times. But once the horse has both feet on the beam and appears quiet, it’s time to apply pressure and ask it to step up with its hind feet. Once again, when the horse steps up with all four feet, stop all pressure. Allow it to stand on a loose lead rope before moving on. At this point you will be facing the horse.
Remember that in the horse’s mind, the less you move your feet, the more authority you’re signaling. Stay quiet, calm, and show no emotions. The horse will reward you by taking several baby steps. It may take a day of two before the horse walks completely over the balance beam in a relaxed manner while “hunting the trail.”After the horse has mastered the low balance beam, then you can move to the elevated balance beam. The steps are the same as before, allowing the horse time to think it through.
When the horse is comfortable with walking across the elevated beam then it’s time to ride. Start with the low beam. Some horses act as if they’ve never seen it once you’re mounted up. However, the steps are the same as presenting the balance beam from the ground. Have the horse face it straight on and allow it time to think. The horse will probably put one foot up at first, and then back off. Allow this to occur, but be persistent in asking the horse to go forward. Once it steps up on the balance beam, allow it the privilege of inspecting the beam by smelling, chewing or pawing it.
Most horses will simply step off at this time. Do not turn the hose around. Instead, back up the horse and have it step up on the beam again. Show no emotion or impatience and do not become aggressive as that will defeat the purpose of building boldness and confidence in the horse. Once the horse is willing to step up quietly and walk on the beam, simply look forward and walk as your job is done.
Happy Trails and Bolender Blessings!
Published in June 2012 Issue
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.