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Help for someone who is chicken sh@* on trails

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    Help for someone who is chicken sh@* on trails

    Hi guys,
    Would love some advice here from anyone who truly feels comfortable on the trails.

    I've been in an arena my whole life, and have only gone out hacking a handful of times. I have access to a trail system straight out of the back of my barn, and definitely recognize all the mental and conditioning benefits hacking out gives.

    I am an experienced rider, but for whatever reason, being out in the open on a horse gives me anxiety, and I would love to get over that. Relaxing trail ride is plain and simple not in my dictionary.

    If anything happens in the arena, the horse is contained, but way out on the trails, what happens if you get dumped? That is my major concern. The environment/ wildlife encounters are completely out of your control, and plain and simple sometimes sh%^ just happens. Can you train for this so your horse doesn't disappear into the sunset after an unplanned dismount? Losing a horse is probably my biggest fear.

    Any tips for people like me who feel very vulnerable outside of the arena?

    Second question:

    What is your process regarding taking a horse out on their first trail ride? Granted they are well trained and relaxed in the arena. Go alone? With a buddy? Contact? On the buckle?

    Forgive my trail amateur questions, I have zero exposure. And yes, trail green in both horse and rider isn't an ideal match, but I am very confident in my understanding of training and riding abilities. Just stuck in the Hunter arena for too long, and trying to broaden my horizons.


    Go with a buddy. Go with someone who will respect your limits and be happy to walk. Start by going out as a cool down after arena work and choose a day that is mild, not crisp breezy spooky weather. Go out for 2O minutes the first time.

    Ride neither on full contact not on the buckle. Ride on loose light contact but not with sagging reins. Follow the horse's mouth and encourage d big swinging walk.

    You may feel more comfortable if you take handwalks down the trails, maybe grasswalks. Make sure your horse is relaxed out of sight of the barn. You could also take a trial ride on a friends more trail savvy horse to raise your own confidence.

    But the agoraphobia is real!! I rode trails extensively as a kid. I returned in my 40s to h/j lessons. I'd barely been in an indoor arena before that. By May when the outdoor arena opened for the season I felt like even that was too wide open!

    I've adjusted, j love back country riding

    But don't ever take trail rides as a chance to daydream, text message, or zone out. You need to keep riding and alert and tuned into what your horse is seeing and thinking.


      Yes to the above advice. I'd add that it's best to go out with only one or two other horses at first; more than that and they can start to rev each other up.

      Also, it is a good idea to just go out for a few minutes at a time at first, at the end of one of your regular rides. In fact you could just tack that onto all of your regular rides in the arena.

      As far as some of your specific fears go: a horse will be less likely to gallop off if you fall off if you're out with a buddy. It could happen if you are close to home and the horse decides to get there as fast as possible, but usually the horse will opt to stay with their friend.

      Wildlife isn't really a problem. Most of the wildlife has no desire to come near you, and the horses make enough noise that the wildlife will stay hidden. More likely is a problem with a dog that is out (off-leash), but unless your horse is afraid of dogs, that shouldn't be a problem.

      Take horse treats with you. When things are going well, praise your horse just for being good and give him a treat. Let the horse relax--there's no need to ride on contact, esp. if you are mostly walking.

      Try to inhale deeply and have fun!
      "The formula 'Two and two make five' is not without its attractions." --Dostoevsky


        I agree about going out with a friend.

        Always walk the last bit home. You want him walking on a loose rein, not jogging and going sideways. If you are going to canter, up a steep hill is safest. Don't canter downhill.

        Always halt before a road, this will make them easier to halt when traffic is coming. Horses have no traffic sense and will cross a road with traffic coming, so don't rely on them to stop.

        Being experienced you should be down in the saddle. This means that if the horse shies you will go with it.

        Trail riders have very quick reflexes, they can go from a loose rein to a short collected rein before the horse shies.

        Stop before and after gates to be patient for riders dismounting and mounting again.

        Talk with your companion, this has you breathing right down into your diaphragm and tells him you are not scared.
        It is better to ride 5 minutes a day than it is to ride 35 minutes on a Sunday.


          Good for you! I agree with the others that riding with a friend is a good place to start. Consider riding with a light contact until you and your horse are comfortable enough for a long rein. If my horse is a little excited I will often throw in some transitions, leg yields, shoulder in etc to help them settle and channel any nervous energy until they relax. I would wager that if you can stay on your horse when you hit an awkward distance to a jump, you are probably fine handling the odd spook.

          As for what happens if you fall off, it depends on the horse. Some stick around, especially if you are riding with another horse. If you are close to home, your horse might head there or to the nearest horse property. Make sure you tell someone where you are going, and take your cell phone with you when you ride.

          I have always wondered if teaching a horse to ground tie increases the odds that they will stop and stand if you come off. Anyone?


            My boy stood well when I hopped off to help hubby, but then he went home when he got upset by the other horse.
            It is better to ride 5 minutes a day than it is to ride 35 minutes on a Sunday.


              Great advice here already.
              Best to go out with an experienced trailrider for your early ventures.
              Make sure you let them know you are nervous & turning back early must be an option.
              No sense in making yourself go on if nerves are building, as that feeds through you to your horse.

              What worked for me & my OTTB was going out with a fellow boarder who only rode trails & his Totally BTDT horse.
              My guy would tense & feel bouncy, his horse would be like "Chill, Dude!" & we would relax & go on.
              *friend of bar.ka*RIP all my lovely boys, gone too soon:
              Steppin' Out 1988-2004
              Hey Vern! 1982-2009, Cash's Bay Threat 1994-2009
              Sam(Jaybee Altair) 1994-2015


                I always tell people that as important as the horse you ride are the people with whom you ride. Go with experienced, relaxed riders. They will send off a confident vibe and set the tone for the ride.

                Also, go with people who realize you always gear the ride and pace to the least experienced horse or rider.

                I ride extensively in the nearby mountains where I live, and have taken lots of people out for their first rides out of the arena. We've never lost one yet! The benefit of going with others is also that if there's an unscheduled dismount the horse is less likely to leave for good. Even with some excited running around they have always circled back to the security of their new "best friends". But honestly, in 20 years, I've only had it happen twice that someone came off..and one of those times it was me. The mare left, but came back in a few minutes.

                I've gone trail riding with all of my show horses, usually for their first time ever out of an arena. They have all taken to it quickly. I think it's so good for their minds.


                  Go with a buddy, and find someone who will take you out on horses that are SAFE SAFE SAFE btdt on trails.

                  I too was traumatized young early in my riding career. I wasn't fully over the worry until I learned to event.

                  Might I suggest a riding vacation, to get you past your tension? Find a place that takes their horses out on the same trails every day, where people who don't know how to ride are safe, and do that. Get so you can breathe and feel super comfortable, just enjoy the scenery. There may be a stable like this near you or you might have to travel, but there are many out there that treat their horses well. There are even some that will take you out on guided rides at speed so you can get comfortable with trotting and cantering out in the open, again on a horse that is very reliable and safe.

                  Practice getting comfortable with your horse on the farm but outside the arena to the extent that's possible, just riding around the barn on whatever pathways there are.

                  When YOU are no longer so stressed, then you can take your own horse out, again in a situation with a buddy with a steady horse. A steady horse will help keep your horse steady.

                  Set yourself up for success. Make sure your horse has been worked the days before. Maybe do a schooling session in the arena before you go out to take the edge off, if you think your horse might be at all hot or goofy. You can also consider leading the horse out on the trail to see how he'll be, or having someone else take him out there first.

                  Sometimes horses who are excited jig, especially headed towards home. Strategies I use for this to get the horse back to a flat walk include shoulder-in where I am adding leg to really engage the horse and put the hind leg under and a pull and release - don't ever get in a situation where you are just pulling and never giving back the rein. Enforcing a long and low can work well too for a horse that knows that. Ideally your buddy horse is steady enough that they can go home in front of you and that you can keep the horse behind him. Have a feel before you go out if bonking into the buddy's tail is going to be a problem, so that if you lose control you'll know whether you need to avoid that or use it.

                  If your horse gets stupid and you can't deal, get off and lead the horse home. It's fine. You'll be training the horse this way too. Just make sure you didn't go anywhere that you can't walk home from .
                  If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats. - Lemony Snicket


                    Also maybe put on walking shoes and hike the route you are planning to walk. Look at potentially spooky things etc. If you hike alot anyhow you will probably feel comfortable but if you don't do much outdoors or will help *you* feel comfortable with being alone in the trees


                      I'm in my late 60s and I trail ride alone a lot. Here are some things I do:

                      1. I always carry a phone, attached to my body and not the horse.
                      2. I attached a luggage tag to my saddle that has contact information for both me and my husband, just in case my horse and I get separated (that's never happened).
                      3. I always tell my husband where I'm going and when I should be back. I do not deviate from that route unless I call him first.
                      4. I wear a helmet. Even if you never get dumped it's handy for keeping low branches off your head.
                      5. I do not hesitate to dismount if anything makes me feel at all unsafe. At my age, my only goal is to get home with an intact skeleton.

                      Scribbler's suggestion to walk the route is a good one. I've done that, and I like knowing what's along the route so there are no nasty surprises. It's also good for you!

                      All the suggestions to go with a buddy or two the first few times are good advice, especially since you and your horse are new to this. One suggestion I would add to this is to make sure both you and your horse are proficient with the one rein stop and the pulley rein stop, and know when and how to use both. Done correctly, these will stop your horse when things are starting to get out of control (but if you or your horse aren't trained for this it could cause a wreck).

                      Just remember, trail riding is supposed to be fun for both you and your horse. Relax and enjoy! And let us know how your first ride goes.


                        I would actually avoid doing anything faster than a walk until both of you are 100% comfortable and secure. A trail ride should be of the “Sunday in the Park with George” type of stroll so both of you are secure. Personally, I don’t recommend cantering up hills as I have seen (and ridden 😡) those that get to anticipating cantering up a hill and start going sideways when not allowed to run up the hill. YMMV, however.

                        As said earlier, make sure you ride out with another horse/rider combo who are of the supremely “steady eddy” type as this will give your horse good experiences and hopefully instill good behavior for the future.

                        if you are going to be riding in an area where there are lots of other people, dogs, bicycles, etc, try to expose your horse to those at home. Remember, though, that you can’t prepare for everything but hopefully your horse will be able to handle the unusual. I am in a major urban area with regional parks (multitude of various users) and my last horse was still a bit green on the trail but pretty darned steady. Everything was fine until we rounded a bend and came upon 13 Sikh Indians in full flowing robes, walking staffs, and headdress. Even that was a bit much for him, but due to his steady prior experiences, all he did was spin around and then stood looking at them with wide eyes. He knew the word “whoa” meant “stop immediately, don’t move, and grow roots”.


                          First, it's not that dangerous. It's fun, relaxed, and easy. Don't make such a big deal of it.

                          Go out only with someone who respects your concerns and will go at your pace, on a mellow horse who has ridden the same trail many times and gets along well with other horses.

                          I disagree with the stay focused advice. Look around, enjoy the sights, breathe deeply. Your relaxation passes to your horses, as will your alert vigilance.

                          There's nothing wrong with leading your horse if you're nervous.

                          If you have an iPhone, and you are with a friend with a phone, you can put your phone in your saddle bag and use find my Iphone if he goes awol. It won't happen, but this way, you won't worry about it.

                          Have fun! I do 3-4-5-6 trail rides a week, of 5-20 miles. It's a blast.


                            I would advise using split reins on your horse when trail riding.

                            My small son and I went camping with 2 new horses, who were experienced at riding in wilderness areas. After crossing the river (new to Plains horses), the mare laid down on sandy trail under my son, wanted to roll! He stepped off, she jumped up and trotted off! With buckled reins (safety so he could not drop them accidently) we could not get her to stop. She was a PITA without reins to step on, would not stop and stand. I was ready to call husband and tell him we lost his new horse at the 10,000 acre Park! After a few hours of her avoiding us, I managed to get beside her using the other horse, grab the reins. I put the spare split reins on her, told son to kick hard, lift reins high, if she tried to go down again. She was just trying to get out of work. He did and she stayed up. We had a lot of fun the rest of the campout!

                            Since then I always use split reins for trail riding. You take one rein down with you when getting off. Even pulling away, that trailing rein gets stepped on, so surprise jerk/halt, can help you grab them again.


                              If you are riding out directly from the barn your horse will more than likely bolt for home if you come off and he bolts.

                              When you go out just do a little bit at a time so your subconscious learns that hacking out is okay.

                              Remember that you can direct your horse. You know the aids and you know he responds. So if he speeds up, transition down before he gets to really fast. You decide speed and gait and tell him, rather than allow him. This may mean agreeing to trot with your buddy, but then you get your horse trotting first even if you are following the other horse, or you let your buddy trot away a few steps before you tell your horse to trot.

                              Remember that you are imposing on your fellow rider with the steady Eddie trail horse and don't ask them to babysit you every day. Most people are happy to help, but they will be slowing down for you (babysitting) and helping your horse and you chill. The ones that won't babysit are the ones you don't was to ride with at this point. In the beginning you might ask if you can do a short loop with them and then go back to the barn while they finish their ride. As you want to ride longer, recognize that you will be affecting their ride and don't ask to go with them every day.

                              Set up a trail ride in advance (arrive early and do some ring work first if it will help your confidence) or ask if they're planning a slow/fast, long/short ride that day before asking if they mind you tagging along. And don't get offended if they refuse on any given day.

                              When setting up a ride, set a boots in stirrups time so you will be ready to go at the same time. Let them know if you plan to do some ring work first so they don't rush to get ready when they find you heading out to the ring as they arrive.
                              ​​​​​​I have an awesome trail horse, but I don't want to do walk/trot babysitting trails every time. Having worked as a trail guide it's automatic for me to keep an eye on the other horses and adjust speed/gait as needed to keep everyone safe. You might not even realize it was happening so you wouldn't have any idea of how much you were affecting my ride plans. I am happy to help out regularly as I will end up with another person to ride with, but I also need to do my own thing without looking out for someone else. It's great to ride out with those who can look after themselves and I'm happy to help new riders and horses get there.


                                I am a big proponent of hand walking a prescribed trail a few times first. Then when you go, never go alone. Always go with someone you know for certain has a very calm trail horse, and absolutely agrees to a walk only. don’t ride out with someone whom you don’t know well. If you have Apple products, wear an internet-enabled apple watch (detects and reports a fall) in case you fall, and put your phone on a saddle bag (with “find my iPhone” enabled).

                                Keep it to a walk the first mounted time, no matter how tempted you are to try a faster pace. ALWAYS walk on the way back, it’s a good cool out. This is why you ride with someone you know, because I’ve seen other riders take off on a “walk only” ride, even though they agreed otherwise.
                                Banter whenever you want to banter....canter whenever you want to canter.


                                  BTDT. Kinda back there again with a new horse and no trail access for a while...

                                  Previous horse was nervous and had been raced on trails. After establishing obedience in the ring, I followed much of the advice already given. Did a small "cool out" loop with a boarder riding a calm QH after a good workout in the ring. Continued to do that loop alone since companions were limited and the loop was short enough to be walkable. Before too long my horse relaxed and viewed it as something pleasant and stopped jigging and fussing. (Yeah, I did notice that previous rider must have always galloped up hill as he really expected it!)

                                  Once my horse and I were calm on our known loop I added in a little trotting and allowed him to calm himself afterward. He did get into a gallop once (darn hills!) but it was reassuring that I could regain control. Eventually we were both comfortable and went on longer walk/trot rides with reasonably calm horses and then alone. In our New England woods, many of the trail sections were walk/trot only! It was probably a year before I was comfortable with cantering with another horse on the trail - we actually cantered alone before. He turned into a reliable trail horse and I never did come off him on the trail in spite of some scares and spooks! (Good thing as it was pre - cell phone days and I went a good distance out!)

                                  New horse has little experience outside a ring and I am old and breakable now. Fortunately he is sensible by nature. Unfortunately he is also athletic! I have walked around the stable grounds a bit. Plan to get to the little trail access we have in the Spring or Summer following the small loop plan. For both of our comfort!


                                    I foxhunt, but in my previous location (I moved recently) also took lessons at a barn where most riders very rode outside the arena unless it was a formal schooling day on a manicured course, so there was some overlap in my two groups of riding friends (people who both took lessons in the arena and also trail rode regularly), but not much. A few of my arena riding friends did express interest in taking their horses trail riding, but they were nervous to do so.

                                    I have a couple of very good trail horses, especially my husband's mare, who has an excellent "follow the butt ahead" mode if her rider is nervous or otherwise not doing much active riding or decision making, so I typically offered friends the option to ride one of my horses for the first ride or two. A couple of them took me up on this offer and said that it was very confidence building to know that whatever they saw that concerned them was something the horse had already navigated before, likely many times.

                                    When we switched to taking their horse, we picked our trails carefully. The best trails were ones without big ditches or trappy creek crossings, but that still had some winding through the woods, hills, etc. because it gives the green horse something to think about that isn't too overwhelming. I rode a calm horse who didn't mind if the greenie got following a bit close, and in most cases, I would ride in front at first. However, there were a few cases, where the green horse was less worried in front, so I rode behind at whatever distance seemed to reduce the green horse's anxiety. We mostly walked, but sometimes a little trot was helpful.

                                    As far as rein length, generally I suggested that if the horse was calm and confident, a loose rein or light contact would be the way to go. You can always shorten the reins if needed, but I think it is important to let them know that strolling along in a relaxed way is the right idea

                                    One friend of mine who is new to trail riding always wears her safety vest and leaves a rope halter (with lead rope tied around her horse's neck or I can wrap it up and clip to the D rings on my saddle) on her horse as both of these things give her more confidence.

                                    Definitely be up front with your trail buddy about exactly how slowly you would like to be going. I don't at all mind helping green horses or riders on the trail but I'd like to know ahead of time so I can be well prepared, from picking the right trail horse to wearing the right clothes as I will dress quite differently for a walk ride at 35 degrees than a ride to do trot/canter sets at the same temp. I also appreciated when friends would ask me "Do you have any slower/easier rides planned in the next few weeks that I might be able to tag along on?" because I sometimes found that describing generally what I planned to do gave them more information about whether they would be comfortable on a certain ride or not than just an open ended suggestion from either of us that we go trail riding.


                                      I think my comment was taken the wrong way I did not mean canter up every hill. I did not mean canter on the first rides. I meant when you finally canter, uphill is safer than downhill. Or you can always try the Man From Snowy River trick but I don't know anyone who has! Shudder!
                                      It is better to ride 5 minutes a day than it is to ride 35 minutes on a Sunday.


                                        I have seen too many accidents happen, to ever encourage cantering uphill! Often horse starts bucking, speeds up to get out of control, then bucking. They can easily trip at speed, lunging uphill, going down, flinging rider aside.

                                        No real reason to canter uphill! Not a test of horsemanship or a show of more skilled riding to any onlookers.

                                        MUCH safer to keep control, walking (building muscle!) uphill or very slow trot. Horse has more feet on the ground each stride, should one foot slip or stumble. Same thing going thru water, slower is safer, especially if water is deep, because it impedes leg movement.