Training On The Trail


training on the trail

Learn how to maximize training opportunities during the time you spend with your horse – both in and out of the arena.

Doing clinics across the country, I’ve discovered some interesting patterns in the average rider’s training methods. One is a tendency to only train in the arena and only ride on the trails. What do I mean by that?

The Learning Center

As children, we are taught to “go somewhere” to learn. We naturally learn a lot through a various experiences and by watching our parents, but the bulk of our formal education involves having to “go and sit” somewhere. We were told to sit at a table to work on crafts, color or do homework. We were sent to school every day to sit at the same desk in the same room to learn. We were often encouraged to do homework in a specific area – our bedroom or at the dining room table.

As a college student, you were sent from lecture hall to lecture hall, over to the lab, and to any number of other rooms to further your education. As a working adult, you probably find yourself continuing the pattern as you attend meetings and training sessions in conference rooms, or are sent off to programs at convention centers.

During all this educational time, one pattern is clear: you “go somewhere” to learn, and when you leave, you get to take a break and relax.

Teaching Timeframes

The next pattern that emerges involves time. We are taught in short blocks of time. Most teaching is done in periods of about one hour. Sometime during that block of time, you may be offered a break of some type. It may consist of a switch to the next subject, time to have a cup of coffee or go to the restroom. As we mature, learning times are sometimes lengthened – although if you want to upset a group of adults, try getting them to sit through four hours of training without a break of any kind.

After being educated in this manner for years, is it any wonder we transfer these same patterns to our horses?

Set In Our Ways

Most people try to improve their horses’ performance by “schooling” them in the arena, round pen or some other area set aside for such work. You might do anything from lunging to groundwork to riding exercises. You might work on leg yields or side passing, picking up leads, cantering circles, trotting circles and backing up your horse.

Most people also feel they shouldn’t train horses for more than 45 to 60 minutes at time. I have heard many reasons for this time limit, but the most common is that the horse doesn’t have the attention span to learn for much longer than that. Ironically, it is often just the opposite – the horse has the attention span to learn, but the average person does not have the attention span to teach for more than an hour or so. In many instances, in fact, horses can keep their attention span longer than most humans. I have often observed that just prior to horses losing their attention span, the owners lose theirs.

This usually happens when the human starts to think of other things, like what she forgot to do at home, a project at work, what one of the kids is doing, what a spouse said, an argument she had, or any number of other thoughts. She loses her attention span and shortly after the horse follows suit.

Learning “Outside The Box”

So how can you change your patterns and gain hours of valuable training time? Learn to train in places other than the “schooling area” of the arena and round pen. Admittedly, there are certain training issues that an arena or round pen can help you with, but the majority can be improved on while riding anywhere you choose.

For instance, you can work on all of the following when trail riding:

• Improving your stop from the walk, trot, and canter
• Side passing right and left
• Improving your trot or canter
• Turns on the fore
• Turns on the haunches
• Back up
• Shoulder in
• Herd bound issues

While haltering your horse in the stall to get ready to ride, work on:
• Teaching him to give his head for easier bridling
• Respecting your space when walking through the stall door
• Stopping effectively
• Moving sideways • Standing patiently
• Lowering his head and backing up properly

When leading your horse from stall to pasture, or from place to place at a competition, you can:
• Improve how he leads
• Improve how well he stops • Practice turning right and left
• Practice moving sideways
• Work on hand grazing without the horse dragging you all over

Taking The Pressure Out Of Training

The best part of training on the trail or in other locations is that it doesn’t seem like training. You don’t feel as if you are in a classroom and that everything has to be perfect. It is easier to take breaks and give each other a few minutes to rest, then try again with less frustration. This works especially well while trail riding.

Here are a few examples.
1 While riding on the trail, ask your horse for a fast walk, then using just your body, ask him to slow down and then stop. Work on this three or four times, then ride along for ten minutes just enjoying the trail before giving it another few tries.
2 Ride along for half a mile without asking anything of your horse (in essence, taking a mental and physical break). Then spend a few minutes asking him to sidepass from one side of the trail to the other.
3 Ask your horse to trot 100’, walk 50’, trot another 100’, then come to a stop and stand still for 30 seconds. Then let him walk along for ten or 15 minutes without asking anything specific.

You can get a lot of extra practice and training done on your trail ride without turning it into a “schooling session”. Neither you nor your horse will be waiting for the “bell” to ring, so you can quit “learning/teaching” and go have some fun.

Whether you are a competition or trail rider, you can gain a lot of valuable training time by working in areas other than the arena – and you can do it while having fun!


Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn, and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at HorseThink.com. To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260 or e-mail Sandy@HorseThink.com.

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