I’m a trail addict. It’s something I can share with a good horse and good friends, enjoying the woods in all the seasons, but still get involved in competition while pushing my riding skills and horsemanship to higher levels.
My first competition was in 1976, riding a three-year old Pinto named Topey. We placed 7th in the Handy Horse Trail Trials at Al’s Tack Shop in Stouffville. Al has long since passed, and so has Topey, but I’m still doing trail and it’s still as fresh and fun as ever.
There are so many elements that go into a safe trail ride. It all starts with a well-broke horse, one that has three good gaits and some lateral work. If a horse won’t work obediently off your leg then you’re going to run into some trouble on the trail, like the time I rode Mickey, a 3 year-old appaloosa, and we fell off a cliff. That’s a campfire story I’ll tell some other time, but basically you’ll need steering and brakes that are dependable.
What about the obstacles? A basic trail course at a show will always have a bridge, gate, poles and a backup. There are usually six obstacles, which can include putting on a slicker, dragging or carrying a sack, turning your horse on the forehand or haunches in some sort of pattern, or getting mail out of a mailbox. Some horses have issues with certain obstacles and that’s something you’ll need to discuss with your horse. Some people are scared of spiders and there’s no reason for that either. Any obstacles that can roll, like PVC pipe, or can catch a horse’s foot, like tires or a hula-hoop, are not recommended for an inexperienced horse or handler.
If riding around the farm or woods is more where you think you’ll end up, then think about the obstacles you’ll encounter. Plastic bags are number one: feeding your horse out of a bag at home can change his mind about them. You’ll also see tarps, recycling boxes and garbage bags if you ride along the roads. There will be dirt bikes and bicycles, dogs and hikers. There will be turkeys too, the feathered kind. We have chickens and pigeons in the barn that have desensitized our horses to the fluttering.
The variety you’ll find on the trail or in the trail show ring is endless. There is no way you will be able to imagine everything you could possibly run into, like the time this one horse came blasting out of the woods when it got a tree branch caught in its tail.
Whatever you decide to set up, start with the basics and start on the ground at home in a secure area. Do the obstacle without your horse, then leading your horse, then riding him. By building on the basics you will create confidence and trust. It’s more than just ‘doing’ the obstacle - holding your breath while your horse slams through or over it - it’s about taking it all in stride, calmly, obediently.
Get a plan in place in your head for what to do if you encounter something new on the trail. Will you get a more experienced horse to go first? Will you get off and negotiate the obstacle in hand? Take whatever time you need and ride with others that respect your level of experience so that you don’t have to blunder through. What it comes down to is having some solid, basic training – walk, trot, canter, left right, backup and whoa - that can get you through whatever you encounter.