Jonathan Field: Taming a trail terror

To head off problems on the trail, make sure your leadership and connection with your horse are solid while you are still at home.

Q: My mare is a pleasure to ride in the arena, but when we hit the trails, she does not play well with others. She tries to kick and bite neighbors that invade her space, and she’ll even lunge at horses who come up alongside or back up to kick at a horse behind her. I’ve tried to discipline her in the moment, but nothing seems to get through. She also gets aggressive no matter where she is in the line, whether we’re leading, in the middle or bringing up the rear. I hit the trails solo sometimes, but my barn is full of friendly riders who like to organize group rides. How can I get my mare to behave around the others on the trail?

A: Thanks for your question. I’ll share some general ideas that may help and then offer tips for handling the situation the next time you go out on the trail.

When I take riders and large groups of students out on the trail at our ranch, we often have a mix of a lot of different horses. The key for a successful ride is to set the group up at the home ranch ahead of time. This means making sure each rider’s leadership and connection with her horse are solid before the group starts mixing together on the trail.

On trail rides, many horses like to “herd up,” focusing on one another rather than their riders. The momentum that develops as a group of horses goes down the trail makes it easy for them to sync up with each other. When this happens, they behave as they naturally would in the herds: biting, kicking and trying to establish social position.

Keep in mind that when it comes to dominance, there are two sides of the coin. One is the desire to establish rank in the hierarchy; the other involves defending space and position. It is possible that your mare feels overwhelmed and crowded out on the trail, so she is trying to “get” the other horses before they “get” her. Either way, her attention is focused in the wrong direction—toward the herd and not you.

To keep this from happening, you need to establish a high level of leadership with your horse. I describe this as “taking your horse for a ride” rather than being “taken for a ride.” In other words, don’t be passive or tentative with your horse. Instead, ride with purpose and make it clear that you will be directing movement and activity.

That doesn’t mean that you have to become a drill sergeant but rather act as a focused leader with things to do. When I was a working cowboy we always had a place to go, and because of that our horses focused on us. It was a good lesson for me. I learned that a horse could tell where my focus was. Is it with him or with the other riders and my social agenda?

Depending on your general relationship with your mare, it may take some time and effort to make sure you maintain your leadership when you leave your home ground and go out on the trails. But be sure you’ve prepared a strong connection with her before heading out. Plan to ride your mare for at least 20 minutes before a trail ride. Trot some circles, do lots of upward and downward transitions, and direct your mare’s movement to get her ears and eyes focused on you. Remember, if your leadership is not really strong at home, it sure won’t be on the trail.

Finally, I would advise you to pay attention to some external factors. Be particular when choosing your trail companions. Pick riders who will look after the weakest rider or support someone needing to stop and train a troubled horse. We all go through it at some point, so be with riders who will do the same thing you would do for them if they needed extra support.

When I talk to students about going out on the trails, I remind them that horses aren’t all-terrain vehicles you can ride anywhere without worrying about what you encounter. If we don’t have a high level of awareness of what’s around our horses, they will. Even if we just want to go see the sights and visit with friends, we still need to be aware and ready to react. This sounds like a lot in the beginning … and it is. But eventually you will be able to be a good leader for your horse, take in the sights, and tell stories about how tough she used to be.

Once you’re out on the trail

Here are some strategies for maintaining your mare’s focus and staying safe on the trail:

Make a point of changing your mare’s position among the other horses several times during the ride. Take the lead for a while, then move to a position at the end of the line. After some time, go to the middle of the queue. Asking your mare to take different positions will help keep her focused on you rather than the other horses.

When your mare misbehaves, redirect her attention, giving her something else to think about. This is a far better approach than trying to discipline (punish) her for bad behavior, which may backfire. Instead, focus on taking her in a positive direction. The more my horse focuses on his surroundings, the busier I get with him, moving his feet and directing his energy where I want it to go.

Don’t allow your mare to simply go single file, right up behind the next horse in line. If you do, she will naturally take her cues from that horse instead of you. Make it clear that she must listen to you rather than simply following the other horses. Take her to the side and start moving with her a few moments after everyone does or just before they begin—this will reinforce the fact that you, not they, are in charge.

When it’s time to stop for a break, move your mare off to the edge of the group and be mindful of her personal space sensitivities.

Be aware of “bumper car” riders who have no understanding or awareness of a horse’s need for space. They may not realize what a horse will do if he feels confined. Don’t get kicked or let someone put your horse in a position to kick or be kicked.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #455, August 2015. 

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