In our journey to become better horsemen we must understand the movement of the horse and the mechanics that he uses to propel himself forward, backward and turn. Once we know how nature intended the horse to move, we can then use it to our advantage, or change it to suit our needs. The horse pulls from the front, turns in the middle and pushes from the rear. He naturally carries more of his weight on his front-end, not the hind-end. It is this basic understanding that we need to help us position the horse to do the task at hand whether in the arena or out on the trail.
All too often I hear a student tell me,”I just trail ride.” But, creating a willing horse does not just matter in the show arena, it but needs to be established in all aspects of your relationship with your horse. The three components that are required to create an alpha role for the rider, is to establish forward movement, redirect movement and inhibit movement. In trail riding it is the loss of forward movement that the problem lies in. There is no possible way to desensitize the horse to all that he may see on the trail, so we need to have a relationship were we, as alpha, direct the horse at or over an obstacle and they go willingly. If the forward movement has been established and practiced the horse begins to understand that nothing will happen and a trust starts to build. The more we practice, the more trust builds, and so on.
Setting up for success is the single most important step of training, whether for fast spins or a wooden bridge out on trail. Start small and build from there. A single ground pole in the round pen and free lounging the horse is a good starting point. Be careful not to crowd the horse or to push too fast and usually, in a few minutes, the horse will start to go over the ground pole. This simple exercise helps establish trust that you were not going to hurt or force him which helps set him up for success for that log crossing out on the trail. Once the horse can do this without the rider, go ahead and saddle the horse and repeat the exercise mounted.
The ground pole can be exchanged with any obstacles such as tarps, barrels, sheets of plywood, anything you can think of. The key in this whole exercise is the forward movement and what to do when you lose it. On the ground or in the saddle the one thing that remains the same is never force the horse to do anything. Be firm, but not forceful. Learn the difference. I like to think of it like this; the relief is the obstacle, and as long as the horse’s feet are moving forward and he is trying, I’m happy. If the movement stops or changes direction I re-direct and encourage him forward with gentle bumps with my legs or my hands. I like to think of myself for the first time on a high dive – would I want someone pushing or rushing me? A few extra minutes in the beginning will save a lot of time down the trail. Remember, we are building trust, and it is the trust that will later get you over that log or water crossing with no visible bottom. The forward movement makes it possible to direct and guide our horses but it is the trust and the faith that we have established that holds it all together.
Steve Lantvit is a professional trainer/clinician whose goal is to contribute to the betterment of the relationships between man/woman and horse. Steve’s focus on training is that of all around Horsemanship and the creation of the versatile horse. He is an active competitor with the American Ranch Horse Association where he has earned World Champion and Multiple Reserve Champion Titles. Steve takes his skills to the equine world through his appearances at equine expos, clinics, and his television series, “Sure in the Saddle” airing on Rural TV/FamilyNet on Saturdays at 3:30 cdt.