The Making of a Trail Horse

My youngest horse, Pepperoni, just successfully completed his first high mountain ride in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, a steep mountain range in southern Colorado. It was an arduous test of his skills and I’m super proud of his accomplishment. 

He proved his mettle in handling the toughest terrain, and we gained a great deal of confidence in each other. And even though it required extreme exertion on his part, I think he may have liked it (except for the scary parts).

Honey Bear guarding on the hillside. Photo by: Gregory Achenbach

Rich, our horses and I loaded into our living quarters horse trailer and drove to our friend, Lucy’s ranch in the San Luis Valley. (Many of you know Lucy because she assists me on the road a lot.) It’s a large parcel on the edge of the mountains that borders National Forest and overlooks the expansive alpine valley. We found a picturesque campsite, complete with a water feature to lull us to sleep. And we were faithfully guarded by the ranch’s bear-alert system, a Great Pyrenees named Honey Bear. 

The first day, we rode warm-up trails on the ranch, testing the waters (literally), to see if our horses were ready for the wilderness trip. Lucy and her horses know the trails well, and provided an excellent guide service. This is not terrain you want to travel unless you know what you’re getting into. I’ve ridden in these mountains for 30 years, so I already knew that.

Major Creek comes down out of the steep mountains, runs through the middle of the ranch and into the valley. It’s rushing and wild, and we knew the mountain trail we were planning to ride the next day would have numerous creek crossings—some of them complicated by bogs, logs, thickets, boulders, and steep banks. 

The Sangres are rocky and treacherous in places, but the rewards surround you in the pristine high-altitude wilderness. The scree slopes are steep, with loose rock in some places and solid rock in others. The terrain ranges from vast and open to closed-in, claustrophobic and thorny, where it’s not unusual to encounter traces of bears or mountain lions. I can imagine that to a lot of people this may seem both impossible and exaggerated, but it is typical of the terrain in this area.

The Major Creek trail is not highly traveled (off the radar and not easy to get to), and therefore not highly maintained, so the challenges are abundant. Before riding into terrain like this, you want to make sure you have a solid, mature horse underneath you. One that has the right temperament and maturity for the job, the physical strength and experience, plus the training and requisite skills necessary to be an extreme trail horse and a supreme trail partner.

Is a Good Trail Horse Born or Made?

The short answer is both. But I’m not known for giving short answers. 

Think of being a chef—you must know what you’re doing, and be both adventurous and pragmatic with a dose of creativity. But the key to making an exquisite dish is to start with the best ingredients, and then the results are far superior. However, keep in mind that even with the very best ingredients, the dish must be built from scratch and crafted with skilled hands, or it flops.

There are quite a few ingredients in the making of a supreme trail horse:

  • Temperament
  • Physical strength
  • Bravery
  • Willingness
  • Presence
  • Curiosity
  • Thinking rather than reactive

These are all important qualities that a horse is born with. Horses are both instinctively flighty and investigative, but they generally come down strong on one side or the other. Surefootedness, in my experience, comes very natural to some horses, and not at all to others. All of these traits can be enhanced through training, but starting with a naturally talented horse sure helps.

There’s No Such Thing as a Thirty-Day Wonder 

The “finished” trail horse, like any other discipline of riding, takes years—not weeks or months—to develop. The green horse might go out on its first trail ride very early in its training, but to negotiate a wilderness trail like Major Creek requires a mature horse with exquisite control and perfect obedience.

According to veterinary standards, climbing and descending steep mountains is not an activity for horses younger than four years of age. This is why it was Pepper’s first trip. He’s done quite a few rides in the foothills and around the ranch. Even though he was started under saddle as a 2-year-old, he wasn’t ready for the high mountains until he had the physical strength, the mental maturity and the strong foundational training that gives me complete control and authority—stem to stern.

Trail riding through bushes.Pepperoni’s two years of training and experience hauling to clinics and trail rides prepared him for this day. He had some scary moments when he questioned himself, and then me. But when I asked him for effort, he gave it to me. When I asked him to be brave, he was. He came to trust my judgment over his own as he got more careful with his feet and focused his mind on the mission.

There were times when full body control was necessary to negotiate tight and dicey terrain. There were places where stepping over logs and rocks required deliberation, and places so steep he had to work hard to rate his speed. With every mile of our trip he got better and better, embracing his role as my supreme trail partner.

A lot goes into training a horse to be your partner at this level, no matter what your chosen equestrian endeavor, but there are a few things unique to the trail. After thinking on the subject, I realized it’s too much for one article, and worthy of a blog series on the making of a good trail horse. 

Consider this part one, and please join me for later  installments of The Making of a Trail Horse, as I share my personal experience and my pet peeves about training for the trail. Here’s a sneak peek at the fun we’ll have…

  • Requisite Manners and Skills: Tie, load, stand, highline, obedience, work ethic, rating speed, and body control
  • To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the question: Training your horse to accept all positions in the line-up, and ride calmly away from the herd when asked.
  • Sure Footedness: Evaluating natural talent (or lack thereof), and developing good habits
  • Navigating Natural Obstacles:Water, bogs, timber, scree, thickets, and exposure
  • Live Hazards: Lions, tigers and bears—Oh My! De-spooking the trail horse
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September 2020 Letter from Julie

Dear Friends,

This fall brings a transition like no other. Normally, I take a break from business travel in the summer and ease back into full swing, traveling to horse expos, clinics and conferences in September. Of course, this year, I’ve had a five-month stretch with very little business travel. Like a lot of people, back in March I went from shock, to wandering in circles, to settling into a new normal. I love traveling, meeting new horses and helping them with their people. At first, I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I couldn’t travel—all I could think about was when things would get back to normal. Then came a period of adjustment; then came a new normal. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Now it’s time to dust off my suitcases, pack my bags and hit the road again! Although a part of me has become content staying at home, I’m super excited to get back to what I do best—teach horsemanship! Although my fall schedule does not look like it used to, I’ve still got some trips on the books, and I’m excited to get back in the arena with three clinics at the C Lazy U Ranch, plus my Equus Win-A-Day clinic in Jackson Hole, WY. Apparently, many of you are eager to travel, too, since our clinics at C Lazy U are filling fast!

The Ranch Riding Adventure in September is full but the Fall Getaway (co-taught with Barbra Schulte), October 8-12, still has a few openings. This is a new, vacation-oriented program, where guests can pick their own agenda each day, choosing from all the ranch amenities (riding and non-riding), plus lessons with Barbra and me each day and plenty of social activities (outside and social distancing). Bring your spouse or a non-riding friend for this fun, action-packed outdoor program. October 22-26 is Horsemanship Immersion—a program you’ve asked for, specifically designed for insatiable learners. This will be a hands-on, 4-day program that covers riding skills, groundwork, health, first aid, conformation, saddle fit and bits, behavior and training, plus trail riding in the Rocky Mountains. These clinics are filling fast, so if you’re ready to venture out, check out these fabulous programs.

This month I’ll be conducting a recorded clinic for the CHA V-Conference on October 30th. The conference is open to anyone and will offer educational horsemanship clinics, both English and Western, from a variety of nationally known presenters. I’ll be offering a clinic on lead changes, which will be pre-recorded and viewed on October 30th, with live commentary from me. The Certified Horsemanship Association is a nonprofit organization that promotes safety and effectiveness in horsemanship instruction. I’ve been a proud member, spokesperson, and certified Master Instructor with the organization for decades. This virtual conference will certainly be chock full of high-quality horsemanship instruction. Please join us!

This year has been like no other. We’ve learned a lot about human nature and how quickly our society can change and how well we can all adapt. I’ve found some unexpected treasures, with more time to do the things I love. I’ve found new strength in my ability to pivot. I’ve had a lot of fun with the Daily Doses of Horsemanship Homework and found a lot of satisfaction in foster-training Doc Gunner (please visit MyRightHorse.org to find out how you can help horses in need). If you asked me back in early March if I would be willing to give up traveling, I would have said no. But now that I see that even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we can find joy in the smallest things ,and opportunity where we didn’t know it existed. I have a new perspective. I know many people are hurting, and I am heartened by the kindness and generosity of others. As we ease back into “normal” life, there will be more bumps and recalculations, but I do have faith in the positive outcome and I hope you do too!

Enjoy the ride,

Calm Your Horse During a Ride

Has your horse ever been anxious or amped up during a ride, and you just need to help him calm down a bit? Whether you’re on the trail or waiting to go in the ring at a competition, practice this calming maneuver at home so you have it in your toolbox when you need it later on.

Riding Bridleless with a Neck Rope

Do you want to learn to ride your horse without a bridle?

To me, the ultimate sign of true unity, trust and respect between a horse and the rider is when you can remove the bridle, have nothing on his head, and have the horse perform as well or better than he did in the bridle.

The ideal bridle-less horse is well-tempered and well-trained. He has a calm and willing attitude, a strong work ethic, good manners and he hates to get in trouble. He tries hard most of the time and is sensitive to the aids of the rider. He accepts your authority and generally tries to please you. Although no horse is perfectly behaved all of the time, the ideal bridle-less horse is well-behaved almost all of the time.

You don’t just take the bridle off one day–there is much preparation work that must be done. A neck rope is an important tool in this transition. You can use the neck rope to turn, stop, slow down or back up. Remember, don’t just trade reins for the neck rope. Try to ride using your seat legs and arm position to cue the horse and only using the neck rope if needed for reinforcement when your horse needs help hearing your cues.

(Search “bridleless” on my site for detailed step-by-step directions on safely transitioning to bridleless riding.)

Take your time and take small steps. If you have any doubts about your horse’s obedience or responsiveness, do not move on to the next step. Keep working where you are until you have complete confidence in your horse.

No matter how long it takes–a month, a year or longer–you’ll be making progress at each step and you’ll enjoy the journey. When you get to the point that you take off the bridle, it is incredibly exhilarating and rewarding–that’s when the fun really begins!

Myler 3-Ring Combination Bit: Introducing a New Bit to Your Horse

Want more videos from Julie Goodnight and Horse Master? Please visit the entire video and article library at http://tv.juliegoodnight.com –watch full horse training videos there and check out the interactive training help with monthly curriculum and bonus videos! Thanks for visiting and call us for help finding training tools and DVDs: 800-225-8827. Free horse training and natural horsemanship news at: http://juliegoodnight.com

Myler 3-Ring Combination Bit: Working a New Bit Over Your Horse’s Withers

Want more videos from Julie Goodnight and Horse Master? Please visit the entire video and article library at http://tv.juliegoodnight.com –watch full horse training videos there and check out the interactive training help with monthly curriculum and bonus videos! Thanks for visiting and call us for help finding training tools and DVDs: 800-225-8827. Free horse training and natural horsemanship news at: http://juliegoodnight.com

Myler 3-Ring Combination Bit: Unpacking and Assembling with a Western Headstall

Want more videos from Julie Goodnight and Horse Master? Please visit the entire video and article library at http://tv.juliegoodnight.com –watch full horse training videos there and check out the interactive training help with monthly curriculum and bonus videos! Thanks for visiting and call us for help finding training tools and DVDs: 800-225-8827. Free horse training and natural horsemanship news at: http://juliegoodnight.com

Myler 3-Ring Combination Bit: Unpacking and Assembling with an English Bridle

Want more videos from Julie Goodnight and Horse Master? Please visit the entire video and article library at http://tv.juliegoodnight.com –watch full horse training videos there and check out the interactive training help with monthly curriculum and bonus videos! Thanks for visiting and call us for help finding training tools and DVDs: 800-225-8827. Free horse training and natural horsemanship news at: http://juliegoodnight.com

Winter Grooming Supplies for Horses

Sponsored post, W.F. Young Co.
Take a peek inside Julie Goodnight’s tack room to see the grooming supplies she stores-up before winter and how she uses Show Sheen, Miracle Groom, Bigeloil Leg Poultice and Magic Cushion on her horses.