Handle On-Trail Encounters

When you go for a trail ride, you’ll likely encounter a number of things your horse will perceive as a threat to his safety. As a prey animal, his flight instinct tells him to flee such threats. Your challenge is to keep him under control calmly and confidently. As he begins to trust you as his leader, he’ll learn to stay calm when encountering new object.

Can your horse handle on-trail encounters?

Here are a few guidelines:

Perform ground work.First, make sure you can move your horse’s feet in all four directions. Outfit your horse in a halter and lead rope. From the ground, use light cues from a dressage whip or training wand to move his front and hind ends to the left and to the right.

Tack up. Note that I’m riding in a halter, because that’s part of our training program. However, you should use the tack with which you’ve had the most success in the arena. And always wear a certified riding helmet for safety.

Perform the basics.Under saddle, again ask your horse to move to the right and left, and make sure he’ll give to your hand and leg.

Be confident. If you’re scared, your horse is will be scared, too. Confidence will make you a good leader.

Keep his attention. On the trail, keep asking for little movements with your hands and legs to make sure your horse is engaged.

Face the object. When you approach a potentially scary object, ask your horse to face it. Let him move laterally, but don’t let him turn and run, or back up. Apply appropriate leg pressure to counter these movements.

Reward curiosity. Your horse might be fearful of an object, but also curious. That’s a good sign. Give him time to study the object.

Manage a spook. If your horse spooks, keep him facing the object, but don’t confine him; confinement will only increase his fear. Keep your body relaxed, and be sure to breathe. You want to be the leader. After a spook, it’s okay to let him stop and think about it. You can reassure him, but don’t reward unacceptable behavior.

Be safe. Above all, be safe. It’s okay to dismount and lead your horse if you need to.

Robyn Spector trains out of Lone Willow Ranch in Petaluma, California. She specializes in starting young horses and finding solutions for troubled horses. She enjoys helping horses and riders refine their communication for an improved relationship based on trust and understanding. She focuses on a sound foundation to prepare a light, balanced, happy horse. She has experience in many disciplines, from dressage and jumping to reining, working cow horse, and endurance.


The Bay Area Equestrian Network is an online community where California equine businesses, organizations, and consumers meet and exchange information. It was created in 1997 to help promote the equine industry in Northern California, and to help horse enthusiasts find equine products and services in their area.

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