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Trail riding solo-not so simple for the horse

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on June 1, 2013 at 6:25 AM

I was talking to a mother of a child who had recently come off in a bad fall while riding their new pony out on a solo trail.  The pony, normally very quiet and dependable, with years of pony club experience had shied and spun, causing its rider to come off, breaking her arm in the process.  The pony had come home without its rider and the alarm was raised.  Thankfully the accident occurred not too far from home and child was taken to hospital soon afterwards and she is now back in the saddle.  The mother was expressing her surprise at the apparent change in the pony's behaviour, from extremely unflappable to nervous and aroused.   This surprise is completely understandable, after all, as we get to know our horses in a variety of situations, we can get a good feel for how they are likely to respond to those situations.  

On the surface, solo trail riding can seem like a fairly innocuous activity, especially compared to taking a horse to a show or even pony club with its mounted games and other exciting goings on.  However, these, and most of the things we do with our horses differ from solo trail riding in one very key aspect- the solo bit!

In free ranging or wild situations, the only time horses are on their own are when they are sick or giving birth and immediately after foaling.  Otherwise they always live in a group situation, even stallions who have lost their mare band will join batchelor groups of colts and older stallions.

When undertaking activities such as moving from a grazing patch to a water source, or from one feeding ground to another, even when one horse initiates the activity and can even be said to be "leading" the group, there are always other horses close beside and behind to provide backup eyes and ears for danger surveillance.

So being alone, especially far from home is a very unnatural situation for a horse and one which, if it was in a wild context could be very danagerous for it.  With no herd mates to provide the back-up eyes and ears, its up to the single horse to be extra vigilent in checking for danger.  And often its rider wants it to enter areas or trails which it has never seen before and therefore has no experience of whether or not there really is danger lurking behind the next bend in the road.

 But hang on, the horse isn't alone, hasn't it got a rider on its back?  True, but the rider is positioned behind its sensory organs (ears, eyes, nostrils), so as far as the horse is concerned, its still on its own as far as having to be on the lookout for trouble.  The fact that horses will remain anxious and vigilent when ridden on their own, even if they are normally quiet to handle on the ground suggests that they don't take comfort from or really rely on their rider to share in the surveillance duties.  Again this isn't surprising- there is no analogy for being ridden in horse to horse interactions and thus it highly likely that horses don't even equate the human on their back with the human who gives them food and handles them on the ground.

How many times have we  been unable to ride a horse past something that is scaring them, only to dismount and find they will walk past it quite calmly once we are either beside or in front of them.  I once conducted a non-scientific experiment with a nervous mare I was solo trail riding with some friends who were on foot.  When I rode the mare out in front of the two friends, she was very vigilent, high head carriage, snorting, shying and so on.  When one or both of the friends walked ahead of us she relaxed, I could drop the reins and she pottered along with her head low.  When they dropped back she was immediately vigilent again.  When the friends were in front she was happy to follow directly behind them, stopping when they did, changing direction when they did and breaking into trot when they jogged.  It was clear that my presence on her back gave her no reassurance compared to the direct companionship of the people on the ground.

Many horses settle after a few solo rides as they learn that they aren't going to be exposed to life threatening experiences, but likewise many horses remain vigilent and anxious when taken out on their own, even when ridden on familiar tracks.  Rather than getting annoyed when the idyllic ride we've planned turns into something much less relaxing we should remember that just like us, horses don't enjoy or desire being in a state of anxiety or fearfullness.  If they are behaving anxiously it means that they are anxious. The situation may seem perfectly safe to us, but if they are snorting, shying, calling out, trying to turn back for home, its clear that the situation doesn't seem safe as far as they are concerned.

While the actual riding activities we undertake when trail riding are usually simple and seemingly undemanding, we shouldn't underestimate the challenge going solo presents to our horses.  Ensuring that the brakes work very well, that our horses respond calmly and immediately for go, stop and turn before solo trail riding is a must for your and the horse's safety.  Starting out with shorter rides with minimal additional challenges such as creek crossings, passing obviously scary things such as pigs, industrial sites and choosing routes which minimise exposure to traffic, barking dogs and even rubbish bins can reduce the chance of your horse getting a big fright on the first few rides. 

Calling out is completely normal and to be expected as is jogging on the way home to get there all the quicker.  I ignore the former and practice faster and slower walk, with transitions to halt if that doesn't slow the speed.  I offer a loose rein as much as possible but always delete the unwanted faster steps.  Always release the rein pressure the second the slower step is offered.  Its often the case that once the horse has habituated to going out on its own that the jogging reduces or ceases because the horse knows from experience that it will be reunited with its mates. 

Like many, I love going on solo trail rides on a quiet horse that's happy to plod along without a care in the world, and I am always grateful to find a horse that copes with the strangeness of being on its own, in an unfamiliar place without getting anxious because I know its almost as unnatural as doing it with a rider on its back.

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