Several decades ago, I rode many hundreds of miles across the Colorado wilderness on a two-month horse-packing trip. My mount was a young, green-broke horse that had to learn the ropes as we went. We came upon an amazing number of difficult situations that posed obstacles to moving forward along the trail. In many cases there was no turning back, so we just had to figure out a way to deal with what we encountered.
While you may develop your horse to be a really trail-savvy mount for wilderness exploration, such true-life trail situations are not for everyone. This idea of obstacle negotiation has found a competitive platform for riders in various venues–competitive trail riding and in trail obstacle challenge competitions. The main point of these exercises is to demonstrate that your horse is obedient, respectful of your commands and tends to work through a situation rather than spook and bolt. Such horses are not only a pleasure to ride, but are safe.
What are some obstacle tasks that you should train your horse to accept? Besides obedience to basic commands such as leading in hand or mounted walk, trot, whoa, backup, and move to the side, let’s look at some particularly important skill sets that enable your horse to have confidence when negotiating trail obstacles. He should:
- Be willing to get his feet wet and move calmly through water crossings
- Walk carefully over downed timber per your commands
- Be able to respond to your aids for turning on the haunches and forehand in order to get out of a tight spot
- Be able to move between light and dark patches of ground
- Be able to side pass as well as move in small steps in any direction to open and close gate
- Be able to back up straight and around corners
- Allow you to mount from either side and stand quietly while you mount or dismount
- Allow you to remove or put on clothing without reacting
- Walk across a bridge
- Be able to calmly pass backpackers, bicyclists, dogs, livestock, other horses and even llamas
As the rider in command, you have an obligation to your horse to know when he might be over-faced with something that exceeds his experience or ability. In those situations, you need to figure out an alternative approach or just know when to stop pushing him. The objective is to build your horse’s confidence in both himself and in you.