There are horses that are great in the arena and well mannered out on the trail. They seem to go pleasantly and quietly anywhere they are directed. And they are the envy of many a horse owner.
You may be the owner of what I call an "arena horse" which is a horse that is perfect in the arena, but wigs out on the trail. I was once one of those owners myself. These horses can be rockstars at shows, but have zero confidence on the trail.
I love arena work. It's easier for the horse to focus in a confined area and it's nice having a large space with some good footing. But, I also love hitting the trails. There's something wonderful about getting out there and going somewhere with a horse.
And the additional bonus is trail riding can be beneficial to your horse's training. It's a great way to break things up and keep your horse interested and engaged. Nobody likes a sour horse from too many hours spent in the riding ring.
If you want your arena horse to double as your trail horse, here's how to begin:
1. Practice groundwork on the trail.
Introduce your horse to the outside world by lunging him or practicing other exercises on the ground. Find a large pasture or wide trail and start working your horse from the ground. It's a great way to expose your horse to new places while teaching him to stay focused on your instruction. If you have another horse who is reliable on the trail you could also try ponying your horse to help him get used to different surroundings while also providing a calming influence. The biggest problem arena horses have with trail riding is the limited exposure they have had to it. The more good experiences your horse has on the trail the better he will get.
2. Ride in the arena first.
If your horse has a tendency to be spooky and nervous outside the arena, start by riding in the arena first. Put him through a good work out and get his mind engaged before you venture out of the arena. Once you feel like he is in a good place, you can take him out. It's easier to begin somewhere your horse is familiar and comfortable to get him in a good frame of mind before tackling something new. You will have a better chance of success if you start out on the right hoof.
3. Go with a buddy.
Find a friend with an experienced trail horse. Horses are herd animals and a worried horse on the trail will feel better with a friend. I don't recommend taking two excitable or fearful horses out together in the beginning as they will only feed off each other's nervousness. Find someone with a steady, calm horse that can set an example and keep the energy level to a minimum.
4. Ride with a purpose on the trail.
When you get your horse out of the arena, give him something to do. Your horse may already be anxious and tense, but if you provide something for him to think about you can help guide his mind in the right direction by taking it off his fears. Trot some figure eights, practice backing up, weave through some trees. Make him concentrate on what he is doing and where his feet are going instead of all the scary things outside the arena.
With practice and consistency you will have a horse that not only performs in the arena, but can also enjoy a nice trail ride.
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