Some of the prettiest pictures and coolest maneuvers in mountain trail are done on the swinging bridge. It’s impressive to see a horse do a 360 as it sways or turn and back up the other side. An image of a horse with its head down, eye soft and ears forward as it marches across makes for a photo worthy of framing. But getting to that point takes time.
First and foremost, we stress starting in-hand and making sure you have that all-important “Bolender Bubble” I’ve mentioned in my past articles. This is a safety thing! You do not want your horse coming on top of you should they panic. Your horse should know to not enter your space to avoid serious injury to you and possibly them. Once you have that, you are ready to work on obstacles.
Problem: Horse Won’t Step on Bridge
We like to start horses in the middle, crossing perpendicular at the lowest point of the swinging bridge. It’s a shorter distance for them, and it moves a bit less. Some will still not go across right away. That’s fine. You need to develop a “foundation of being okay” in your horse. They are naturally hard-wired to flee from anything they perceive as dangerous or a threat—that’s their survival instinct! We are changing their ballgame completely and need to give them time to learn that unusual or new things in their life are not threats.
I can’t stress this enough: patience, patience, patience. Be relaxed yourself and just wait. Let your horse look and sniff and think about it. Allowing a horse time can solve a lot of training problems. Look for that head to go down and a relaxed eye before asking them to move forward again.
If they still won’t move forward, you can encourage, but don’t get greedy. Stop, praise, and allow them to rest if they just move one step with their head down (relaxed). It won’t take them long to move another, and then a couple more. But if you try to rush them, they will panic.
Do this until they are going across calmly with their head down, and then try going the long length of the bridge. Only when they are walking calmly and confidently across in-hand should you try from the saddle.
Problem: Horse Stumbles, Steps Off Bridge
A lot of horses start to get on the bridge and then either stumble or step off. This is a sign they don’t have enough hoof awareness and/or are not looking where they are going. You can work on hoof awareness using some other obstacles before returning to the swinging bridge.
An obstacle I like for hoof awareness is a rock garden; the rocks should be round and smooth to avoid injury. Give your horse plenty of rope and let them pick their way through the rocks. Praise them when they navigate through without hitting a rock.
Large log obstacles are also good, as are crossbucks (rows of logs set on two parallel logs with alternating sides down). Work on any of these obstacles until your horse is being more careful about where she places her feet. Then try the swinging bridge again.
Problem: Horse Tries to Bolt Off Bridge
You cannot contain a horse. If you try to contain them, they will explode. You are trying to control their energy, not contain. So, if your horse panics, give her the rope to panic away from you (this is where that Bolender Bubble comes into play). If they need to “escape” by going off the other side of the bridge from you, that’s fine. It means they weren’t ready for how far they got pushed and you need to slow it down so they can learn to relax and be okay with what you are asking of them.
Now if they do a true panic and bolt, I will shut them down, for their own safety as well as mine. But again, this tells you that you need to give your horse more time to think things through. Humans are impatient; we like to rush or skip steps – this sets the horses up for failure. If your horse is bolting, it’s time to stop, relax yourself, and let your horse relax. Look for that dropped head; it’s a sign they are relaxed and thinking. Then you can ask them to step forward calmly again.
Just remember to stop, relax, wait, and let your horse think. Do this, and you’ll get that perfect picture in no time.
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.