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December 27, 2022 11 Comments
Recently, while discussing next steps with a friend, all about her and her horse, we discovered a simple and exciting model that helps us understand our goals related to trail riding. I never claim to make this stuff up, it often comes with inspiration from my amazing coaching students. Thank you Tina!
In this progressive model, there are four goals related to trail riding. Start with identifying which goal you're working on. Where are you at? Be realistic. Then, take a hard look at the next goal up the list and get to work on making it a reality for you and your horse.
Many, many riders are stuck at the "just hanging on" stage of trail riding. They are completely dependent on other riders to make sure the ride goes well. If another horse gets upset, it's "all over red rover" for them. They need a strong lead horse that always keeps things in hand. If you're stuck at this stage, don't worry, there is hope for you yet.
The next stage in trail riding development is what I call the "tagalong" rider. Tagalong riders are still dependent on having a good rider and horse leading the trail but in general they are more competent. If something goes wrong, they manage to get through it. Their horse doesn't get too upset by the others, and they, themselves, also don't get too upset. They aren't leading anything yet, they don't have the confidence or control for taking over, but they aren't upset and they're easy going for the other riders because their horse is calm and collected enough not to buy into everything else.
The next step after "tagalong" is "choose the track" riders. These riders are confident their horses will respond to new tracks, unknown situations, and confidently lead into the fray, so to speak. Oh sure..., their horse might question it a bit, but they know their horse's limits and work to expand them regularly. Getting to this stage is a big leap in your confidence as a rider. As an instructor, I love it when my riders reach this level. Trail riding becomes waaaaaaaaay more fun. We get to explore for the first time, trusting each other and testing new terrain.
The last step is what I call the "helpful rider." Becoming a helpful rider means your horse is not only competent and confident, they are also useful in sticky situations. It means you can now manage a group of "tagalongs" or even "just hanging in there's." It means you can step in and hold another horse, side pass to open a gait. Step in front of another horse to arrest his forward movement. Slow down the pace, or speed it up, all based on any single person's, or even multiple person's needs on that ride. The helpful rider is the most skilled, they are the most capable. He or she can wander off in any direction at any time, and even get left behind, and their horse doesn't get upset or herd bound. He or she can lead another horse or string of horses and mules. He or she can forge a river, climb up and down steep embankments, or... just stand calmly at your side while you fiddle with your saddle and tack or work to calm another's horse. There are no limits to the helpful rider.
So first... Identify where you are on the map. Are you at the beginning, just hanging on? Or somewhere in the middle? Or do you truly feel you can be a helpful rider on the trail? Then, take a look at what it takes to move up the list.
Here's a few suggestions:
More exposure! Don't wait till your horse grows up, get out there every chance you get. Walk the trails on foot, you don't have to be in the saddle to educate your horse. Take the 100 mile challenge and hand-walk your horse for a month or two on trails, then notice how much easier it is to ride.
Then slowly, start to develop your independence as a rider. Ride out to treats to develop your ability to ride alone. What I mean, is take a bag of apples out into the forest, place an apple in ten different places, each one stretching you further away from the barn or comfort zone. Stop to treat your horse at each station. Do that for a month and watch how your horse transforms into the explorer instead of the meek, herd bound, prey animal we all know. Trust me, it works. I've taken scared horses and turned them into war horses using this technique alone.
At a certain point you'll feel so confident you're ready to advance again. Learn to ride with a flag to develop your horse's confidence under pressure. Horses naturally suck at handling stimulus. Well... guess which horses suck less? The ones that are trained to ride with a flag. There is so much value in riding with a flag I'm not sure why it's not promoted more. Any flag will do to start. Try tying a bag to the end of the stick, order a new horsemanship flag online, bring out your country flag, you name it. Add stimulus that truly builds your horses confidence over time.
Finally, to ensure you reach that last level of competent trail riders, 10X your lateral work and speed control (meaning practice times ten) to gain finer, micromovements necessary to help another rider, for instance, sidling up to another rider to grab their horse's attention, or slowing the pace, or opening and closing a gait. There are dozens of scenarios where having the ability to slow or speed up or hold, or side pass into or away from, would make you and your horse unbelievably useful.
And for you... build your own body control by practicing small jumps on your horses. Jumping riders are the most competent riders. So regularly practicing small jumps will enhance your confidence immensely. (More on that in another article.)
So here it is again:
Assign yourself a realistic current position relative to the four goals.
Define your next practical items to work on to take yourself to the next level.
And have some fun while you're doing it, because horses are meant to give us a life we dream of. Lets help that work in our favor by giving them our best too.
Here's to the journey!
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