How to teach your horse to spook: training on the trail

I’ve heard people talk about training on the trail before. In the past I think it’s been more of a way of saying: we don’t need to do circles in an arena to have a well trained horse. The “training on the trail” I’ve seen has been pretty large scale need-based, like making sure a less experienced horse will cross streams, rivers or bridges, and go around or through a real-life obstacle down tree or the like. I’ve also worked with friends on the trail to address barn sour horses, or horses that cannot be separated from the “herd” they are out with. These are minimum requirements for being a trail horse and necessary for sure. The trail seems a good place to address them, but it wasn’t until this week I went deep into using the trail for some serious work.

I couldn’t have done this work unless riding alone. There is on-the-trail training that can be done in groups, but the things I addressed could only be done solo because my timing was key, and other people change the ability to focus so accurately on exact timing. This might explain why I haven’t seen this level of training on the trail before, because I wasn’t doing it, and riding in a group is not conducive to it.

The title of this post is borrowed from a Stacey Westfall podcast I really enjoyed “How to train your horse to spook” (Episode 68 from March 2020). I don’t have a spooky horse and I wouldn’t train her to, so I almost passed it by but I was curious… so I downloaded it.

It’s a great podcast, I highly recommend it. Stacey goes into a tongue and cheek explanation of how one WOULD train a horse to spook at things as a back door way to seeing how one might begin to reverse the “training”. This year I’ve spend some effort trying to see more clearly from the horse’s perspective and understand the part we play in their choices and behaviors- especially ones we would like to change.

I notice people with horses they’ve accepted do less than ideal things like toss their heads, run through the bit at races (race brain), barn sour, buddy sour, tripping, “laziness”… and I have a few others of my own I began to experiment with.

If we were to change perspective and consider what it would look like to train in the thing we don’t want, might we see things we are already doing that are creating the problem? If so, we are now empowered to help make positive changes.

Khaleesi is competent in the “elementary school” functioning of a basic horse. I am pleased to say finally this horse can start, stop, and steer and is pretty light to work with. We are getting a nice back up, and I daresay there isn’t a non-life-threatening trail problem we can’t get through together (I ride a lot of back country places and have been in challenging to sketchy situations and she and I are able to come together to move through them together for better or worse), and I am pleased to say we can even do some decent circles in an arena with some fancy footwork when the communication is working well.

I am digging into the deeper questions, like straightness, proper bend going around curves, less sticky in the back up, more lightness moving off my leg at all speeds (laterally, not forward) and as a bonus, I am fairly certain she has more to give me in the effort department but tends toward “conservation of energy” especially when we’re alone. Lazy? I have noticed out with a friend she easily picks up the pace and is strong for more miles at faster speeds than she offers when we ride alone. Apparently I have a motivational question.

These aren’t new for me. They are long term habitual things I am seeing I likely built in. She has ALWAYS tended toward borderline “laziness” on long trail rides alone, and I finally noticed over a year ago while working with friends in an arena that she sometimes will go around a full lap or two with the entirely wrong bend in her body— with very little I was able to do about it at the time!

Armed with these top layer questions, the need for some long miles to prepare for our first 50, and no arena to play in at the moment anyway… I hit the trail solo for a 20 mile ride.

I’ve had a lot going on this spring, it’s grant writing time, concert season, final juries are coming up at the college, transitions are in play that take extra energy, and spring- it always seems the most violent season to me as the entire world comes back from the death of winter. Birth (and rebirth) is violent, and the weather going through extremes of freezing rain to warm sunny days are draining. Some days just choosing clothing is stressful for me.

I arrived at the field and thought to myself “There’s no way I can do a hard 20 mile ride today. I just want to go back home and take a nap.” My long rides so far this year have been with a good buddy and down south where the footing is friendly and the climbs are reasonable. Today I was headed out for Beast of the East style rocks through most of the ride and we would go over two mountains and ride a hilly Ridgeline for about 4,500 feet of elevation. Solo. 

One thing I’ve learned: when feeling overwhelmed, try to simply ride the trail in front of you. Just do the one next thing. Looking at my horse, with her shedding messy muddy coat of hair I thought: ok. I just need to bring you into the barn. Let’s start by shedding some of that hair and mud. I can do that.

So anyone who is facing something big to take on. Just pick up the next thing and DO THAT. Eventually you’ll have the whole 20 (or 50 or 100) miles and a beautiful sunset on the mountain photo to remember it by.

Unfortunately I look at arena work and “training” differently from the need for miles and “conditioning” which is usually what the trail is for us. I would say from observation that Khaleesi LOVES arena work because she loves to LEARN and she also is a great conversationalist. I would also say from observation Khaleesi doesn’t love working hard doing long miles “mindlessly” out on the trail. Honestly, mindless hours on the trail for “fitness” are boring for me too. Especially solo. This definitely affects me and how I see the work we take on. I took on this tough day with the challenge to see if I could change my mind and find a way to change all that.

This would take some creativity. 

The first thing I noticed about this ride is there were no straight paths. Twists and turns were everywhere and lots of switchbacks. What an opportunity to address straightness and bend questions. With a decent downhill grade to start the ride we headed off with a forward walk and I noticed something fascinating. Every time we hit a decent curve in the trail or a switchback my horse ALWAYS pointed her nose away from the turn to set herself up for the turn with an opposite bend.

I can’t imagine the odds could be so strong on her just doing this today and I was fascinated to realize it was too predictable for it to be chance. This is something I had trained in. Inadvertently.

I began to work it by anticipating the potential opposite bend/look to the outside and found myself struggling to make the change in my own body. I desperately wanted to look the wrong way as well! It felt like I was coming to an intersection in a car and not looking both ways before proceeding- yet there was no other trail there and no one in the woods off trail to T-bone us. Every instinct in me said to glance the “other way” before making the turn and I had to fight it in order to look where I wanted the horse to also look and go. 

Now I was certain I had trained my horse without realizing it and that set her up- prepared her badly to position – for that turn in the trail. It happened over and over again. With a new consistency in play, first the left turn improved then with more difficulty the right. I have some thoughts on why the right took longer but I won’t bore you with those layers today.

I have not spent much effort actually steering or supporting my horse around turns in the trail. She is a solid trail horse that can follow a path. She turns on her own. This isn’t a bad thing, but considering I would like to take mindless hours of trail riding and add quality, balance, and strength, supporting or asking for quality in our turns is only going to benefit us and my awareness on every curve and switchback on this ride. Indeed, by the end of the 20 miles my horse had begun to prepare for the turns with better form and carry herself with more balance. This corresponded with my ability to curb the need to look for oncoming traffic that didn’t exist in the woods. The horse learns the fastest when a release is given and peace is found. Small releases and peace come when we stop “asking” but the big changes are best made with a full on stop and process moment.

For miles I worked on noticing an upcoming bend in the trail and preparing to position my horse to move in that shape with balance. It wasn’t until almost 9 miles in that she took a turn without trying to counter bend herself and look to the outside. Without me having to block or shape her she seemed to finally realize this is what I’m doing now. After how many YEARS I had been riding her looking to the outside on turns I’m shocked the change can come so quickly when new information is presented clearly. She just did it correctly with very little direction or blocking from me. As soon as we rounded that turn I put on the brakes and we stood a moment quietly and I rubbed her telling her what a great job she was doing. This would be tricky to time with friends who have no reason to stop at that moment to reward their own horses and if they don’t have the same timing now it isn’t a reward and peace, it’s stressful because the herd is leaving.

The idea that I have been training in things I had no intention of went next to her “conservation of energy” (laziness?).

Any readers for the long haul know I have had some intermittent really mild lameness issues over time. Some of it has been physical and legitimate, but over time I’ve begun to wonder if I had also “trained in” some of it.

Yes. A horse CAN learn to move in a certain way that would seem like unevenness or lameness because of how a rider responds.

With some mild lameness in the past, I definitely became hyper-vigilant. If I felt the tiniest of uneven gait I’d begin to wonder, “is this the start of a new problem? what’s wrong?” I would be inclined to slow down, maybe walk instead of trot, I’d worry it. The horse feels this and if creating a slightly uneven gait seemed to be rewarded by getting to walk and find less work and more peace, the horse will recognize the pattern. I am not saying she is “trying to outsmart me” or “faking an injury”. I am saying horses are excellent observers of patterns and sometimes things we have trained in begin on accident, a couple steps of uneven gait that wasn’t lameness but a funny rock on the trail or some other fluke she begins to notice I back off and give her a rest (REWARD). Looking back I’ve considered this in the past and I’ve begun to experiment with asking her to work through the uneven feel (especially if I had reason to believe she WAS sound and healthy). I have found the uneven gait will usually go away after a bit now.

So in light of some of these revelations recently the question became clear:

how might I have trained this mare to not give me her full effort?

As we ambled along the rocky ridge line I paid close attention to when (still on the way ‘out’ in the ride) she would offer me extra effort and pick up speed with barely a suggestion from me and I did the very opposite I was naturally be inclined to do- I would take those few steps of impulsion and I asked for a stop and rubbed her telling her that was exactly what I liked

What I would have done in the past with my goal of getting through miles was accepted the offer of picking up speed by taking all she gave me and maybe asking for more. Imagine you offer some extra effort at work and your boss says: great, now I know you should be doing more and I expect it, what else do you have for me?

That isn’t likely to make me want to perform over and above. In fact I’ll be careful not to do that again!

My new response to her offer of extra effort (stopping and resting a moment) was more like saying: I love how you put in extra effort on that- take off early today and have dinner on me too. 

Here we were again on a long trail ride standing quietly for minutes at a time not moving down the trail. It is even hard for me not to feel this as time wasted, but what became clear as I bought into my own plan, was Khaleesi began offering extra energy into a walk or trot with increasing regularity. This mare is not built with the need to be in motion (I do know horses who come this way and they have different issues to work on, which is also why this type of on the trail training is not so easy to do with a friend if the horses have different motivation factors) but encouraging her by rewarding her effort toward harder work was paying off even in the first half of the day.

K isn’t particularly barn or herd sour but there is more incentive on the return ends of the ride even if it’s slight so I didn’t do as much with stopping to reward effort on the return trip because leaving her alone to keep moving was more rewarding than me stopping her so much with the exception of climbing tough hills where some extra effort brought her a momentary break to catch her breath.

The last piece I’d been working with has to do with straightness. I have been considering this for a long time but now if we do get a straight section of trail I ride expecting she will basically stay in a line with her body. We are in the woods and I allow for some looking around, but she does have. a job, I am trustworthy and she doesn’t need to be super focused on the environment. There have been times in our life together when she was super focused on everything BUT me. These were the periods she was more likely to startle or spook not less. I want to be working together with her enough that she doesn’t have the boredom to be too focused on everything else. Yet I won’t punish her for taking a look once in a while.

I’ve begun to simply ask her to return her head to straight after she looks. Sometimes I need to widen my reins more than her education level seems to need but it helps to point her more clearly into the tip of my triangle from hands to nose. Once in a while I will stop her lightly and ask for a few steps of back up, also keeping straight then after she feels light there (for us it still takes a few steps to accomplish the light back up) I feel her hind truly engage and then ONLY when her head is straight we push forward from the hind back into forward. I will decide in advance if I want engaged walk, a trot, or even a canter.

I was surprised how much attention it took for me to not go forward until I had a straight horse. How often had I mindlessly on the trail (especially with others) moved off while my horse was NOT prepared in position to walk forward in balance and strength? Yes, many people might roll their eyes at the level of attention to detail this takes, and maybe others will wonder how it took me so long to begin to take on this level, but though my horse CAN walk with her body in a snakey curved like and she can take on switchbacks in a counterbend, it shouldn’t be due to my mindless riding, and worse mindless inadvertent training.

For me, this is how I want my horse to move toward the 100 miles. I want her doing it in balance, strength and with a rider who is working each small ride, each 20 mile ride for excellence. 100 miles is a long way to focus on excellence, but I have to start with the trail in front of me if I will be able to do it at all. Maybe this is the gift in the journey taking me so long.

I had a dream once where I was in a hurry to get going and a wise one said to me:

Great journeys take great preparation.

I found at the end of the ride we were both tired, but something bigger was accomplished than physical miles. The conversations continued through the day and that made for a nice finish together. I had developed a trend of having more conversations with her arena spaces and tuning out her questions asking her for the most part only “to go” on trail days. This change where I engaged her mind more on a long ride was more fun for both of us and created more connection which we both enjoy.

Whatever your “training on the trail” program looks like, my guess is it could step up. Send me a note on what you use trail work to accomplish, have you stagnated (as I had) with a solid horse, or are you still finding new layers to delve into together as you ride? 

Published by BolarGirl

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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