Help your horse stay calm and spook-free on the trail with these tips from Clinton Anderson.
#1 Warm Up With Groundwork
Before hitting the trail, be sure your horse is in the right frame of mind, meaning he’s calm, using the thinking side of his brain and focused on you. Most of the time, horses spook because they’re fresh and using the reactive side of their brain. Don’t just pull your horse out of the pasture, throw the saddle on him and head out on the trail. Set yourself up for success by practicing groundwork and reminding your horse that you are the leader and he needs to respect you and let you call the shots.
If you’re at home, practice groundwork exercises in the arena. If you’ve trailered your horse somewhere for a ride, find an open area where you can get his feet moving and changing directions. Remember, in order to get a horse to respect you and use the thinking side of his brain, you have to move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right. The more you ask the horse to change directions, the quicker you’ll get his attention. The entire time that you’re working with the horse on the ground, he should be hustling his feet. Don’t just let him lazily jig-jog around. You want to get rid of any freshness he might have before taking him out on the trail.
#2 Be a Leader for Your Horse
When on the trail, a lot of people put their horse on a big, loose rein and let their mind wander or gab with friends. They put their horse on what I call “autopilot” – he’s left on his own, which for a lot of horses means they go down the trail constantly looking for something to spook at. Horses have a very quick reaction time, and if you let your horse wander down the trail without paying attention to him, if he spooks, you’re going to be in a wreck before you have time to react and regain control of the situation. I’m not telling you to be paranoid and go down the trail thinking that any little thing is going to set your horse off, but you need to constantly be reminding your horse to check back in with you. When I take my horses out on the trail, I bend them around trees, sidepass them over logs, two-track down the trail, practice bending transitions – anything I can think of to remind them to focus on me and stay soft and supple at the same time. Remember, if you don’t give your horse something positive to think about, he will naturally drift toward something you don’t want him to think about.
#3 Redirect Nervous Energy
If your horse does spook at something, put his energy to good use. If it’s an object you can ride around, circle your horse as close as you can to it, and every one and half circles, turn him into the object and head off in the new direction. Horses can only think about one thing at a time. Your horse will either be focused on the scary object or on moving his feet and listening to you. Each time you stop the horse and turn into the object, he’ll get closer to it, until eventually, he’s so focused on you and moving his feet, he’s right next to the object. When you can feel that he’s got his attention on you and isn’t worried about the spooky object, then you can let him rest next to it on a loose rein. If he wants to investigate it (smell it, paw at it, etc.) let him.
If you can’t ride around the object, circle in front of it at the trot or canter using the same concept. When you come up to the object, stop your horse, roll back and ride off in the new direction. Each time you stop and roll your horse back, he’ll get closer to the object until eventually he’s right next to it.
If your horse spooks and you can’t tell exactly what it is he’s spooking at, put his feet to work. Using one rein bend him in a series of serpentines. It’s impossible for a horse to use the reactive side of his brain when he’s constantly stopping and redirecting his feet. When he’s focused on you, put him on a loose rein and head back down the trail. Anytime he gets jumpy, put his feet to work. Soon he’ll be so focused on you he won’t have time to find potential objects to spook at.
#4 Chose Your Trail Wisely
Be smart about the trails you take your horse on, being sure to take his experience, your experience and the type of trail into account. For example, if you’re taking your horse out on the trail for the first time, I recommend riding in an open area where you have plenty of room to move his feet and keep his attention on you. The more comfortable he gets about being ridden outside the arena, the more experience he gains and the more confident you become, you can increase the challenge by choosing more difficult trails. Before taking a horse on a narrow trail where you won’t be able to easily redirect his feet if he spooks or gets nervous, make certain he’s confident being ridden outside the confines of an arena. While no horse is completely “spook-proof,” an experienced trail horse has learned to think before reacting, keeping both you and him out of danger.