Cross train your horse's mind with Mountain Trail

Physical conditioning is important for your horse, but cross training his mind may be even more critical. Here’s how the exciting discipline of Mountain Trail can help.

When we condition and cross train horses, we canter or lope (cantaloupe) in a way that builds muscle and improves performance. While physical conditioning is vital for any horse, training the mind is even more critical – and often the least addressed. Cross-training using the discipline of Mountain Trail is a great way to build a horse’s mind.

Mountain Trail, founded in 2000, challenges horse and rider to become partners in order to navigate obstacles of varying difficulty. If you and your horse specialize in other disciplines, cross-training with Mountain Trail can benefit you both in myriad ways.

At our facility, we build boldness and confidence through Mountain Trail, using many obstacles to get into a horse’s mind. We find that most of the four-bar jumpers or dressage horses coming to the facility lack confidence, and many are nervous wrecks with very poor ground manners. Since these horses, for the most part, are 17 to 18/2 hands, manners are a must and need to be corrected on the first day by properly establishing ourselves in their world. This must be done before cross training really starts.

Establish yourself in the horse’s world

Before cross training with Mountain Trail, we start with a few short ground exercises to establish ourselves in the horse’s world. This is critical, for horses do not think like us and their world is very different from ours. Theirs is a majestic and beautiful world, but it’s very black and white, and in some ways barbaric and brutal. When you take a place in this world, the horse has a full right to find out where you stand in his view of things, so you will often see surprising behaviors. You need to establish your place – which must be above the horse in his perceived pecking order.

This is not about respect, domination or who is boss; these are just pieces of the larger puzzle. It’s about who is worthy of a leadership role, and that will be determined by the horse’s instinct.

Instinct is a different type of intelligence from what humans possess and one we can’t scientifically explain or duplicate. Instinct is not right or wrong; it just is. Your horse will have an instinct to please; he will please those he perceives to be above him in the pecking order, but have very little regard for those he perceives to be below him.

We humans may not like this impolite and unequal view of the world, but I am not one to try and change the horse’s world. I don’t want to humanize the horse and make him like us because we’re completely different. Let’s simply accept this world and bring forth what it can do for us and our horses.

Mountain Trail – let the cross training begin

Start with simple obstacles

Once we have established that we are above a horse in the pecking order, cross training work can begin, using Mountain Trail. I start by introducing the horse to simple obstacles, such as a few logs to step over. I do this from the ground; I never begin with riding because this time belongs to the horse and I want my own heartbeat out of the equation. After the horse has navigated (not mastered, but willingly walked through) the first obstacle, I move to the next one.

The second obstacle could be a small bridge that does not move. I simply let the horse walk over it. I don’t lead him because this wouldn’t build the boldness and confidence I am looking for. I want the horse to begin to look to himself and hunt the obstacle. That means he is dropping his head and thinking his way through it. If you force the horse, he will not buy in, meaning you will always need a “tune-up” and he will not have that quiet, bold, confident look.

If your horse is given time to process and think things through, he will “own the obstacle”. Once he develops this attitude, the obstacles will become easier to teach, even though they become more difficult. A good indication that the horse is buying into learning the obstacles is a dropped head; he will often also chew on or paw at them. All this behavior is positive and appears to be a sign of acceptance and learning. I find that the majority of horses will begin to seek the next obstacle. If a horse doesn’t do this, you will need to back up what you are doing and change the program slightly.

The final obstacles at our facility, such as the suspension, rolling bridge and balance beams, are the last things we teach. A normal horse will take approximately five to ten minutes to learn an obstacle. We know, for example, that 50% of horses will be able to do a 180° turn and walk off within ten minutes. At this point, we are ready to ride, for these horses are now learning what to do with their feet. The most critical thing at this point is to relax. Allow the horse to do what he knows, and get out of his way. When you approach the obstacle, allow him to naturally drop his head and step into the obstacle. Use your legs to keep him straight and work with him.

Moving up the Mountain Trail

Once the horse can navigate the obstacles, the real cross training begins. It will take time for the horse to move up and master the levels of difficulty (Mountain Trail). Our final goal is to be able to cantaloupe between obstacles, then break to a walk and step into the obstacles. Often, transitions have little meaning when we ride. What I mean by that is if we drag a lead in reining, we may have a deduction to our score or miss a change in dressage. However, transitions have real meaning in Mountain Trail; if you cantaloupe up to the cross buck and fail to break to a walk, something will go very wrong. Recently, at a clinic, we had an event rider who failed to transition to a walk at an obstacle. Fortunately, it was not a wreck, but from that point in the clinic, the rider concentrated on the transitions.

These are methods you can try with your own horse. Begin with simple obstacles, take your time, and follow my tips. I suggest obtaining Mountain Trail training materials to help you on your journey.

Once a horse buys into Mountain Trail, he is never the same. The boldness and confidence it brings to any horse in any discipline is amazing. For example, a horse that isn’t afraid of a water obstacle will jump over it very differently than a horse with this fear. Mountain Trail often brings new life into a show horse that has soured to the ring. It brings back meaning to cues from the rider. Cross training in Mountain Trail will bring back and/or teach a crispness to transitions as no other training tool can. The confidence it brings to the rider is equally amazing. A confident rider is a happy rider and a happy rider leads to a happy horse!


Mark Bolender’s name has become synonymous on an international level with an exciting new equine discipline called "Mountain Trail". He is the author of Bolender’s Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding and has produced Mountain Trail training DVDs. Mark and his wife Lee own and operate Bolender Horse Park in Washington state, which houses one of the finest Mountain Trail courses in the world. They founded the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) to promote the sport of Mountain Trail, with the goal of bringing this discipline to the Olympic Games. Mark has designed and built Mountain Trail courses around the globe. He says that activating key instincts in the horse, along with good horsemanship, results in real equine magic.