Question: My gelding fights for the lead every time I ride with a group. He’s hard to handle, and either jigs or goes sideways when I put him behind another horse. It’s annoying, and we get into a battle of wills.
Answer: You describe a common trail scenario — and a frustrating ride if you’re on a horse like this. Your friend in front is singing a carefree song, while you’re forced to dance a jig. Not all horses are natural leaders, and not all are followers-but there is hope! With some honest analysis and schooling rides, you and your horse should be happier following another’s lead.
You don’t specify, but I’m going to assume your horse is trained to respond to your basic aids-in other words, he’ll change gaits and halt on command. This is essential before you head out on the trail. I’ll also suppose that when you’re riding alone, or in the lead, he’s quiet, calm, and respects your requests.
Take a moment to review your mount’s mental perspective when following another horse. Is he herdbound to his pasture buddy in front, worrying that he’ll be separated or left behind? If so, spend more time out on the trail alone to build up your horse’s confidence. Or, while you’re working through this challenge, find someone else to ride with, whose horse he’s not bonded to.
Is he riding up on the horse ahead because he wants to move them out, like a tailgater on the highway? Is he fit and ready for a faster pace? Then increase your pace. If you’d rather not, try a workout on a longer trail, or double your distance on a shorter one. Put more miles on your horse. He’s ready for it.
Or, are you wedged between the lead horse and another horse behind that’s running up on you? In this situation, keep your horse from being crowded from behind by keeping one or two horse lengths between yourself and your trail partners. At this distance, you’ll avoid being kicked, yet will be within speaking distance of other riders.
If none of these suggestions solves your problem, here’s an idea for a schooling ride that should help. (Keep in mind this will be a schooling ride, and even a little improvement is a step closer to your goal.)
1. Choose a riding partner whose horse is experienced and calm on the trail.
2. Start the ride with your horse in front. If he’s calm, comfortable, and responds to your requests, continue in the lead a while, and get settled.
3. After 15 minutes or so-on a level, straight stretch of the trail- quietly trade places with your trail partner, so you’re following him or her.
4. If your horse tries to crowd the lead horse, ask your trail partner to move into a trot, then ask your horse to do the same. This will help get your horse focused on his movement and where his feet are going, instead of on the horse in front. Keep up the trot until you feel his attention come back to you and the job at hand.
5. At this point, move into the lead again-but make sure your horse knows it’s your idea, by guiding him there yourself.
6. Continue the ride, alternating the lead. Change gaits frequently, asking your horse for the walk, the jog, the extended trot, and the lope. Think of it as a dance-one that you can make more interesting to him than the horse in front.
7. If, while following, your horse loses his concentration and starts to charge up behind the leader, do not participate in that conversation-it’s an argument without a winner. Instead, change your pace, thereby refocusing his attention on you.
8. Keep your ride short, and try to end on a positive note. Over time, as your schooling rides become more successful, lengthen them-the more miles you and your horse cover, the more comfortable and confident you’ll be with each other. See you on the trail!
Raised on an Arabian horse farm, Wendy Rude has been trail riding and showing since childhood. She’s a certified riding instructor and avid endurance competitor. She served as chef d’equipe for the Silver Medal Pacific North Team at the 1999 Pan American Games, and assisted Team U.S.A. at the 1998 World Endurance Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. An Eatonville, Wash., resident, Wendy also trains horses and runs the therapeutic horseback riding program she founded there in 1991.
This article first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.