Written by Sylvana Smith
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.5
“What did you work on today?” asked a friend, who knew I’d volunteered to work a four-year-old Thoroughbred mare that has been head-shy, bucking, bolting, pulling, rooting, spooking, balking, and traveling hollow with her young rider. “Sounds like you had a lot of issues to take to the round pen and arena!” she said.
Well, the mare’s farm has no arena, and their round pen (designed for cattle) has the common safety bugaboos, so I opted for a casual trail ride instead. What? A trail ride! With so much work to be done! What can you possibly achieve on a simple trail ride?
On her first solo trail ride, the hothouse TB flower showed that, with a little creativity, the 4,000-acre “schooling arena” can be the playground for introducing or improving about 40 key skills in one relaxing and enjoyable expedition:
1. “This is going to be easy,” I thought to myself as the doe-eyed mare turned toward me and stepped slightly over behind as I walked up to her in the pasture. But the next minute, the view was an off-the-track TB heading to the top paddock at warp speed, tail aloft, with trumpeting snorts. I shut the gate to the top paddock, which became our impromptu “square-pen,” and spent the next 20 minutes hooking on.
2. Even after the mare had decided I was no serious threat, and licked her lips with a contented sigh, she still burst into every request to move out. Working on upward transitions, signaling as graciously as I could and retreating as soon as the new gait welled up, we gradually agreed to drive out non-impulsively in each direction.
3. I’d been told the mare had been freaking out when her turnout rug was hauled over her head, which was making her skittish to handle about the head, so I pressed gently and released for tiny tries to move her head down, tip it toward me, tip it away from me. There’d be soft moments and hard ones, but getting better. Good enough for now.
4. The logical progression was to use soft touches to move her feet: back one baby step at a time, tip the hindquarters away, tip the forequarters away (momentary freak-out, back to hooking on), then blend two or three baby steps together in one movement—releasing at the moment I knew she was about to deliver.
5. At 5’6″, I don’t try to bridle 16.2-hand horses when they’re playing giraffe, so I built on Exercise #3 to prepare for bridling with her head down, a real trouble spot for the mare. I’d get her muzzle to my knee, stroke her all over while she appeared hypnotized, and time and again find a surprise hard spot when my right hand brought the bridle alongside her right eye. I took it slowly, honest, but still got hoisted into the air a few times by my elbow hooked over her neck. The farmhand next door, who watched this part of the session, no doubt thinks I’m the world’s slowest bridler. Worse yet, when I finally got the bridle on, what did I do? Took it off and did it all over again! Dumb blonde.
6. Weaving our way through the Nokomis iris trail, I encouraged Miss Weeble-Wobble (not her real name) to hold a straight line on loose reins, no idle meandering into the woods, which for some reason held magnetic attraction. Fix and release. Fix and release. Hold the line, darling, without being held there.
7. The Nokomis trail opens up into the hunter trial field, a perfect excuse for a go-ey Thoroughbred to jig. I defuse the jig by purposely riding it badly, bump-bump-bump (an offbeat but effective strategy Buck shared in a clinic), and by swinging into wavy lines that seem to massage the tension out.
8. Once into the Foundation proper, we transition from positive walk to slow walk and back again, looking for relaxation and attentiveness. Well, that was the idea. It’ll get better. This is okay for now. Rub-rub.
9. The pickup truck hauling the clattering flatbed trailer into the woods was cause for sheer panic, mock or real I cannot say. What a great opportunity to practice one-rein stops in both directions, which also came in handy when we passed the cottage with the killer kitties and, later, the monster shrub.
10. To show the mare my faith in her, and as a celebration for her courage (ha), we trot on a loose rein down a sandy fire road while I try to be invisible, let her stretch her legs, and give her two miles to realize she doesn’t have to rush everywhere.
11. The miles have passed, it’s an unseasonably warm day, and when I feel her almost asking to slow down, I ask for the downward transition with seat alone, no reins. Then a few more times, taking advantage of this precious calm.
12. The woods open up wide here on either side of the fire road, with big pine trees scattered about and no underbrush. What a great opportunity to circle and figure-eight using leg aids alone, following up with a touch of inside rein only when necessary. Looping around the trees helps clarify the exercise for the horse, and discourages her from diving shoulder-first into the turns.
13. When this is going along, I up the ante and ask her to tip her head slightly inside as she turns. Fix and release. Fix and release.
14. When the lateral flexion is starting to flow on circles, we experiment with changing the bend, doing a drunken serpentine on leg aids (as much as possible) weaving in and around the trees as a visual aid.
15. That was tight work, relatively speaking, so I reward her with a long canter on loose reins while I once again become invisible and just give her time to enjoy and realize she doesn’t have to rush everywhere. She bolts once, I ignore it and it disappears. She bucks twice, and bumps into the bit each time (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) and we go back to another loose-rein mile, then another, at a steady
16. On a level quiet stretch of trail, we practice walk-to-halt transitions every 10-15 steps. Walk. Soft halt. Walk. Soft halt. Repeat until she is reaching for me when I reach for her. No more lugging, pulling, rooting.
17. The calm and slow work naturally leads into introducing the soft feel at halt. Her habitual response is first to root at the bit, but this response eases away with patient repetition.
18. The slow work recharges her batteries, and at the next broad fire road, she’s rushing the trot again, so we ease into looping serpentines at the trot to slow the gait without picking up on two reins.
19. Taking advantage of a short rest break, I ask for a soft feel with the head tipped laterally ever so slightly, first to the left, then the right. Just a hint, not a real bend. Then bringing the head around and stroking her on her sweaty forehead. Then a baby step back, releasing when she shifts her weight, not yet expecting a full step. This is good enough for now. I’m not expecting to fix chronic pulling in a day.
20. Crossing the twin bridges was a challenge for the inveterate balker, but when I would neither argue nor give up, she agreed that of the two choices—flattened figure-eights or facing the object of her mock terror—the bridges were looking pretty good, eventually. Ditto for stepping over the logs at the timber zone, then trotting calmly back and forth over single knee-high logs. Funny how a three-foot hunter can find such alarm in an 18″ log when it’s in the wilderness instead of a protected ring.
21. The lateral work at the twin bridges softened things up, so it seemed like a good time to take up a soft feel at the walk, just a step at a time. First just a hint of flexion, then a little more. Just a step at a time. It sounds like so little, but these tiny improvements are a big deal for a horse who has responded to the bit with head-up hollow movement her whole life.
22. Enough fiddling. Time to loose-rein canter a long open stretch of fire road again! This time I’d like a designated lead and eventually a canter-to-trot transition on seat aids alone. I ask when I’m likely to get it anyway, going uphill, and it works several times.
23. With a full winter coat on this warm day, the mare is starting to look like a Swamp Thing, so we take a rest break. The intersection of two fire roads yields a workspace just right for practicing 10-foot circles on loose reins, looking for her to volunteer the proper bend and transfer softly from one bend to another through the center of the circle.
24. With a more relaxed and supple mount underneath me, it seems like a nice time to experiment with a soft feel at the trot. Just a step and release. Later another step. Cool. We’ll revisit this frequently.
25. Riders up ahead on the trail. It would be rude to trot or canter up and maybe startle their horses. What a great opportunity to carry the soft feel at a walk for multiple strides. In spite of her interest in the two trail horses ahead, this goes okay. Some fidgets, but not bad.
26. Meeting up with the trail riders couldn’t have been better timed, as one of them agrees to give my water-shy mount a lead walking through a big trailside puddle—great introductory stream-crossing practice.
27. In exchange, I give them directions to the lake they’ve been trying to find, and we go our separate ways. The fire road opens up golden and wide again, and the mare and I experiment with subtle leg yields. Near-invisible leg yields really, just releasing when she lightens off the leg aid. With repetition it becomes a hint of lateral movement. Am I expecting too little? Just having her work at sorting through this request is a delight, on a mare who previously thought all fire roads were private race tracks!
28. Our time-out to walk and jog over a single log (Exercise #20) paid off as we hop casually over a moderate-sized log jump on a loose rein. It was sloppy, but who cares. She didn’t grab the bit and dive for the jump, so I’m happy.
29. Splashing around in the puddle (Exercise #26) paid off as she faced her first-ever crossing of the evil black creek, with its mysterious shadows and black-peat bottom. We wouldn’t have won a trail class with her pondering and reluctance, but there was no panicked dash either, so I was happy with three calm crossings.
30. We’ve both recharged our energies with quiet work, so off for a loose-rein trot through the roller-coaster hills trail, using seat aids to rebalance and slow, rather than rolling down the hills in bowling ball pace. Reality fell short of ideals here, I confess. That’s okay. Next time.
31. If there’s enough energy for a bowling-ball trot, why not keep it up for the next mile of uphill? Taking advantage of the powerful thrust required for going uphill, I ask for a bit of trot lengthening, and alternate between minor lengthening and relaxed jog… transitions within a gait while trying to keep things as relaxed as possible.
32. Rest break. I take up a direct-rein feel and bring her head around, no feet, then head around and holding until the hindquarter steps across. Rub-rub. Then back one step at a time, asking for a little more than I did an hour ago. It’s okay to put together two or three steps at a time, releasing between steps. There are hard moments and soft, but it’s getting better.
33. More terrors. Crossing the earthen dams of the two Nokomis ponds. Again. With herons and Canada geese. Killer kitties and camellias. Gasp. I ignore some of the silliness, defuse some of it with one-rein stops, and distract her from some of it with a hint of shoulder-fore and soft feel. And I sheepishly note to myself that she’s doing better than some of my own zesty horses through this spooky stretch.
34. Back at home, we revisit the head-shy issue at unbridling, which isn’t 100 percent yet. It’s better, but there are still some bursty moments, and the four-in-hand hitch of Friesians rumbling by on the lane is cause for complete distraction for a moment.
35. The mare’s teenage owner opens my birthday present to her (a Double Diamond rope halter and lead, of course!), which reveals a need to desensitize the mare to gift wrap and ribbons! I flip the ribbon and tinsel around idly—within view but not within striking distance—rub her with it, alternate between the two, and generally wait for her to determine that satin bows are nonlethal.
36. The bridling issue reappears when we go to halter with her head at waist-level, relaxed. So, back to the groundwork. Halter on. Halter off. Pet-rub-pet. Halter on. Halter off. I’m not sure if I convince her to cease the head-tossing or just bore her out of it. Whatever. It works!
37. She darts backward when I gather up my halter rope, revealing a grand opportunity to desensitize her to the rope. I throw out the rope, gather it up, swing it, make it dance, coil it up and rub her with it. Silly mare. Why is everything so traumatic?
38. Ditto for the front-end loader chugging back from the manure pit. And the new golf cart, which just appeared on the farm a few weeks ago. I wave them by and feign nonchalance, communicating the message: “I am aware of nothing but our quality moment together, lovely mare.”
39. With a history of histrionics, which includes flat-out refusal to go into the wash stall, it looked like even as I was 10 minutes shy of a beer and Squire’s Pub dinner, I would not get off easy. Treating the wash-stall balking like a trailer-loading problem—”Here are your choices, mare, work hard out here or relax when you contemplate the wash stall”—we worked through yet another habit. For now. I’m sure we’ll revisit this one later.
40. Three hours from the start, we walk back out to the pasture for our last little skill of the day. To address her habit of diving out of the halter and darting away, I foil her by putting on two halters. When she tries to dive out of the first one, voila, she runs into the second one. Soft feel, back a step, tip head toward me, away. Slip off the second halter (keeping the halter rope looped around her neck in case she tried a second dart). Then a snuggle, some heartfelt words of appreciation, and I gently tip her head away from me to say, “Class dismissed, you were great.”
That’s it, just a simple trail ride. No big deal, no arguments, no drilling, no dulling repetition. Lots of variety, 15+ miles of beautiful scenery, and 40 key skills introduced or improved while horse and rider just have an enjoyable country outing in the biggest schooling arena of them all.
I hope this day’s diary provides some affirmation that we don’t have to choose between a productive work session and a fun trail ride. In fact, the convergence of the two seems to bring the most gratifying results!
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.5