Trail riding can be a wonderful experience. It can also be horrible and we’ve all been there. In riding backcountry and front country areas across the US I’ve watched and noted what differentiates the successful from the not so successful riders. What I’ve found is that the riders having the best time and the most fun are those who have prepared themselves and their mounts prior to arriving at the trailhead.
I love Merriam-Webster’s definition of training; “the process by which an athlete prepares for competition by exercising, practicing, etc.” We, and our mounts, are athletes and trail riding is not an endeavor where we can expect success without preparation.
From what I’ve seen; the quickest way to shake a riders confidence is the inability to confidently ask our mule to perform a task without confusion or resistance. We as riders need to learn the cues to effectively communicate our requests without becoming unsure of ourselves. To help in the learning process I’ve found that a good riding instructor, who has experience with trail riding, as opposed to show training, is invaluable.
I chatted with Erin Richardson of Keystone Equestrian in Fall City, WA (www.keystone-equestrian.com) about what trail training issues she regularly deals with and why it’s important that trail riders know them.
Preparing for a successful trail ride goes beyond having a solid foundation in the basics of equine education. Before an animal and rider team arrive at the trailhead the equine should be comfortable with standing quietly, moving forward freely, and moving off the riders leg. The rider should be able to use all of the basic riding aids and the horse should be willing and able to respond appropriately. Once you’ve mastered these basics you’ll be ready for the advanced schooling that will become invaluable for trail riding. A few of the secondary skills that you and your horse should possess include:
Neck Reining; the ability to steer with one hand, is one of the most useful aids to master for trail riding. Having a free hand allows the rider to move low hanging branches out of the way, grab a snack, or lead a pack string. Erin says – I see neck-reining really as the ability to ride primarily with seat and leg cues; once your mule is light and willing to be guided off subtle aids, it’s very easy to free up a hand for other jobs.
Backing; it only takes one trip down a narrow trail to appreciate a mule that will back willingly and allow itself to be steered back to safety. The ability to back my horse out of a tight situation has been the escape path for my curiosity more than once. Erin says – Practice backing on varied terrain and through obstacles to practice responsiveness and trust. Your mount should also be able to stop and wait quietly.
Leg Yields and Sidepassing – If you value your knees you’ll quickly appreciate the ability to ask your mount to move away from that very large, very hard, tree. Sidepassing is only different in that the mule is standing still when you ask him to step to the side; perhaps for a hiker with a small child in tow. Erin says – Most riders can move their animal sideways but few can do it precisely. Think moving only one step, or a specific foot sideways.
Mounting from Both Sides is a very valuable skill to learn and practice. I’m not nearly tall enough to mount from the downhill side of the trail and in many areas turning around to mount from the “correct” side isn’t feasible. Erin says – Your mule should be able to stand quietly while you to mount and get settled in the saddle then wait for your cue to go.
De-Spooking – Exposing your mount to as many of the sights he’ll meet on the trail is important. I’d much rather have my animals encounter bicycles for the first time at home rather than on the trail. While you’ll never completely eliminate a spook you’ll be surprised at how much you can reduce it by constantly exposing your animals to new stimuli. I often ride my bike in the paddock with a backpack on. It looks silly but LT now takes most encounters in stride. Erin says – Be aware of potentially scary encounters; teach your mule to be curious, and to trust where you place his feet.
We live in an amazing place and exploring it on horseback can be phenomenal. A little bit of preparation will ensure that it is. As always for the largest source of information on where to ride in North America, as well as the largest directory of equine events please visit www.TrailMeister.com.