If you are lucky enough to have trails with good footing right off you farm than I am jealous 🙂 I actually live right next to state-owned land with lots of trails but Delaware is so wet and swampy at this time of year that taking the greenies out there isn’t exactly easy. Not to mention that the fields are just big wide open fields which is what I try to avoid for my first few trail rides.
Instead we take a short 5 min trailer ride over to another state-owned trail system where there is actual sandy footing with nice wide trails that weave in and out of the forest. You are contained by trees on both sides which is in my opinion an excellent way to do a first trail ride. It keeps the outside stimuli to a minimum so the horse doesn’t have too much distraction. It also removes the omg the barn is back that way factor which can be damn near frightening on some horses 🙂
I tack up at home and just put the bridle on when I get there so that I don’t have to deal with a nervous dancing horse. In my opinion, what works the best is to just get on and go. The less you try to make them stand still the better (at least at first). We take a lead horse who is sensible. Never take two green horses together!
These trails are wide so you can ride side by side and there is enough room for passing or to get out of trouble if needed. Generally I will try to just walk at first to let them look around but if the horse isn’t keen on walking than I let them trot. I know.. this probably isn’t typical for most people on their first trail ride but remember if you try to contain a horse that is on fire than typically they want to go sideways, backwards or up and none of those are good in my book. Kurt rides with me and he absolutely knows the drill (this is VERY important!!!!!!!!!). The rules are that I am on the green horse. Whatever I say goes. You never pass me unless I say it is okay and you stay back away from me if the horse needs some space. If I need a lead than you quickly come up and give one so that I don’t get stuck.
I find that most of the horses on their first trail ride are going to want to break right to the trot because they are nervous. Sometimes you can feel that they are nervous but other times they just internalize the nerves. Most of the time they are very respectful about not going any faster than a trot so I just let them trot until they relax. This might be 5 min or it may be 20 min. Yes, we do 20 min trots 🙂 As I am trotting I will work on some changes within the trot just checking out how my brakes are working and how well the horse is listening but I let them keep going. I try not to touch them too much which can be hard but you don’t want to get into a fight. Put your hands down and just let it be at first. If they break into a nice canter than I will allow for a few strides and then bring it back. I generally don’t allow the canter b/c it can sometimes build into more and I don’t want to risk that. Some horses don’t have brakes on their first trail ride and that is a bit scary but generally gives me some insight into what I will need to do on the next ride. When I don’t have a lot of brakes than I don’t get out to far from the trailer. I might go out 10 min and come back because I don’t want to risk them building up on me and running into a problem. I also will use my lead horse as a brake if needed. If you are having to half halt just make sure you aren’t pulling. You have to give and take on the reins because horses are used to pushing into a hold so if you hold they often think that just means go. It can be hard to soften but you have to do it.
99% of the horses that we get immediately take right to trail riding and are quiet and relaxed. The 1% will need some more training in the ring on half halts and changes within the gaits and then I go back out but I may go out with a bit more of a plan. Sometimes this may be a bit with more whoa power and sometimes it could be draw reins (yes, a gadget but one that is very useful for certain situations like a horse that is just running through half halts with the head in the clouds). I find that a lot of times the horses just need to learn that being in the open still means they must listen to me. We will do 100 transitions until they are focused on me. Once in a blue moon we run into a horse that just doesn’t do well on trails and I think they can be hard to change.
Once we have them relaxed and happy in small group situations on confined trails then we expand to bigger groups and more open spaces. I have some horses that do great in small groups but don’t like big groups so that is always another test. I find that you generally get a good idea of whether that is going to be the case just from your initial trail rides. Junior (our conn/tb) is one of those horses that is awesome in small groups or even out alone but winds himself up in big groups. I foxhunted him the other day and was reminded of what a pain in the butt he can be. He isn’t bad but he just never settles when in big groups. He always wants to be in the front and is pissed by what he deems as horses challenging him. He also isn’t keen on slow rides either. He is a horse that prefers to keep moving and he spent most of the foxhunt 2.5 hrs or more cantering. If people were walking and trotting than I was cantering in place. He can’t help himself and years of patient training haven’t helped. You can’t change their true nature so instead I think it is important to know what you can handle and point them in the direction they prefer to go instead of forcing them into things they aren’t so good at.
We took Estrella Corredor aka Corey out for his first trail ride yesterday as he finally got his front shoes on (our trails are rocky). He was absolutely perfect as I had guessed he would be. Hopped right on the trailer and stood quietly. Quiet to get tacked up. Stood nice for me to get on. Lead the trail but was happy to follow. Didn’t even spook at all the logs sitting near the trail (um, Letterman has to spook at them every single ride :)) He was so relaxed and was even stretching into the contact. We just walked and trotted but he would have been perfect to canter as well. Just slow and easy for the first ride. He got right back up on the trailer and fell asleep waiting for the rest of the horses to get on.
I think he would do great on a foxhunt right now but I will do a few more trail rides with him just to build up his fitness and confidence before we head out to hunt.