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 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.