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Trail Training Part 1: Going Away From Home

The reason that many horses bolt, buck, rear, or balk on the trail is because they want to go back to the barn, other horses, their pasture, etc and you aren’t letting him. If the horse misbehaves by doing any one of these behaviors he learns that he can escape the pressure, go back to where he wants to be, or you may even end the ride, get off and take him home. You must start at the cause of the problem and figure out the source of your horse’s need to be at a certain place.

Just like any other discipline, you have to train your horse to be a good trail horse.  Too many riders expect their horses to behave on the trail just as they do at home. However, most horses will not act the same when in a new environment. This is why it is necessary to train the horse at home first for things that he will see out on the trail. Before training for the trail  the horse should have enough training that he can do basic ground work, go forward from your leg, stop from your seat, bend and disengage in response to one rein, ride on a loose rein at all three gaits, steer and bend each way, and yield the hindquarters.

Signs Your Horse Wants to Be Somewhere Else

Horses will give you subtle information as to where they want to be. Some almost invisible cues your horse is giving you include: slowing his speed or cadence slightly in one spot, stopping, turning around, increasing his pace back to the barn or pasture, being more reactive to your leg when he is away, also being insensitive to your leg when he doesn’t want to leave a place. When you don’t pay attention to or misread the signs your horse is giving you his behavior may increase to bucking, bolting, or rearing when he is trying to get to a certain place and you are not letting him.


When you take horses on trail rides they are attracted to the barn for a couple of reasons. One, the horse goes out on a trail ride. He is probably kept on contact and has to work, if only at a walk or trot, for a few hours. The rider comes back to the barn releases the pressure on the reins near or at the barn, because the horse is much easier to control there, untacks the horse, lets him rest, and then feeds him and puts him up. Two, the horse doesn’t trust or feel safe with the rider or away from his stall or friends. He will only go out on the trail a little ways before getting worried and trying to come back to his buddies or place of comfort. The behavior gets worse until the horse scares the rider by bolting, bucking, rearing, etc. Whenever the horse acts up he is taken back to the barn and put away, or he is punished for the behavior on the trail, which is where he doesn’t want to be, therefore reinforcing that thought in his mind. Three, the horse works well on the trail he rarely spooks or misbehaves. The rider enjoys the horse on the trail and makes him work a little bit. Once finished, the rider takes the horse home unsaddles, feeds, and puts the horse up. The horse soon realizes that being out on the trail is hard work and being at the barn is easy as he gets rewarded each time he is there. He starts not wanting to leave the barn or starts rushing back to the barn because he knows what’s coming next.

The rider doesn’t understand what is causing her horse to act like this, and starts kicking the horse to get him to go away from the barn. She will also start pulling on the reins to slow him down on the way home. Reacting to the horse’s behavior like this puts more pressure on him while away from the barn which only makes the horse want to go back even more. Soon the horse’s problems escalate and since the horse was behaving well when the rider got the horse she blames the previous owner for lying or the trainer for not doing a good enough job. She then sells the horse or never uses him because he is now “dangerous.” Truly, these scenarios are only a miscommunication between horse and rider which can be fixed once you listen to what the horse is telling you.

How to Fix It

Get rid of a horse’s magnets by allowing him to go to the place he wants to be, say the barn, and making him work.  Give the horse a reason to leave the barn. Horses are lazy by nature and want to do the smallest amount of work possible. Decide where you want to go and start your trail ride on a loose rein. Whenever the horse wants to turn back to his magnet let him. Trot him toward the place he wants to be. Once he gets all the way back to the barn start trotting circles and other figures. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you keep your horse working at the trot or canter for five to ten minutes. You will know when to go back on the trail when the horse starts to move away from the magnet even slightly. Then turn him away from the barn and walk away on a loose rein.

Establish a starting point, you may only get 50 feet away from the barn at first and build up from there. If the horse isn’t quite getting it at first increase the amount of pressure you are putting on him at the barn by cantering or trotting tight circles while you tap him with the whip behind your leg. Once the horse is away from the barn, let him rest for a few minutes before returning to work. Doing this will help the horse understand the lesson better as he can only rest and get his air back when away from his magnet.  This exercise will not work if you allow the horse to walk around, he must be working. This lesson works best at a working trot on small circles. Use the time working by the horse’s magnet to train on some exercises such as riding on contact, trotting figure eights, making perfect circles, etc.

When you are out on the trail, remember not to wear out your aids. By this I mean don’t pull on the reins unless you want your horse to stop or back and don’t squeeze him unless you want to go forward. Too many times you see riders hanging on their horses’ mouth the entire time they are on a ride, which never allows the horse to relax or get rewarded for doing what you want. You may need to do this exercise every day for a few weeks before the horse starts to catch on. Don’t give up, the progress may be slow but it will be progress. The horse will start leaving the barn and turning back ten feet away, then next time twenty feet and so on, but he will make huge improvements in a short amount of time. Once the horse knows the lesson you only have to maintain it in your daily rides. Check the horse for these spots every day. Soon you won’t have to check anymore; it’s just like the groundwork, do it until you don’t have to any more. Then if you start having a problem go back and fix it, which will take a lot less time, then continue with your ride.