How We Train Trail Horses

By Cheri Wolfe

Here are the best tips and ‘rules’ we have for making a good trail horse.   Of course, as with any horse training project, many of these things are easier said than done — particularly for novice riders and riders that lack confidence.  But, here are some of the ingredients that go into making a good trail horse AND a confident rider.  Some of these principles over-lap and are a little redundant, but they are so important to making a good trail horse, that I want people to look at them from several angles.  Remember, you are always trying to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

1)   Obedience should NEVER be optional.  A good trail horse is nothing more than a horse that does everything ‘right away’ that a rider asks.  Absolute and quick obedience — 100% compliance without an argument — total respect — these should be the goals.

2)   Your job (as the rider) is not to let your horse look at everything new and decide it is OK.  That is your job.  You should NOT show him that there is nothing to be afraid of.  Your job as an ‘effective’ rider is to teach him that he needs to trust YOU and ONLY YOU — not his natural instincts.  As a natural ‘flight’ animal, a horse comes ‘hard wired’ to bolt and run from anything and everything that it perceives as a threat.  It is your job to teach him to pay attention to you, his rider, and his job (doing whatever you ask) and not his surroundings.  Your goal should be to teach him to ignore anything he ‘perceives’ as fearful if you say it is OK.   You should not reinforce those fears by ‘showing’ him everything he is fearful of.   Horses, as ‘creatures of habit’, just do not make a habit of stopping and looking at everything.

3)   We NEVER let a horse look at things, examine things, go up to new things, ‘sniff” things or any of that.  If I did that, I would just be teaching him to stop and look or sniff everything instead of go on down the trail.  The habit I want to reinforce is to go past, over or through anything without stopping to look at it.   If I tell him it is OK, I want him to accept that without questioning me.  You can’t have it both ways.  He either has to become the leader and figure out everything for himself in his time-frame (for some horses that is never) or he has to let the rider be the leader.  I am convinced that I am smarter and know what I am doing and I know where I want to go, so I don’t really need or want his opinion at all.

If you let a horse look at things, then you are teaching him to be afraid of everything that is new and telling him that things should be looked at instead of ignored.  You are not telling him that it is OK to go right past it.  I want a horse to ignore everything but me.  You have to remember that whatever you let or ask him to do (like checking things out) is what you are teaching him to do.  Do you want a horse that is afraid of everything and stops at every new thing he encounters or do you want a horse that goes everywhere you point his head without questioning you?  Remember, you just can’t have it both ways.

4)   The rider needs to look past or out beyond the obstacle.  This does not sound like it does anything for the horse’s schooling, but it makes a World of difference in the outcome.  If you ride with the resolve of a rider on a mission that needs to get somewhere very quickly, this translates into a much more assertive rider and the horse will ‘read’ this as confidence instead of reading your demeanor as being timid.   Don’t look down at your horse.  Focus on the place you are going. (Note — I did not say the place you want to go.)  If you ride hunting 'boogers', your horse will find them for you!

5)   Never ride straight toward something that you can go around or ride past.  Only ride straight toward things you intend to go over or across (like water or a big log).  If a horse is afraid of a big tree stump, do not ride him straight toward it.  [You are just setting his up to stop and back up.]  Remember, you are trying to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.  Setting him up to stop and back up is not doing that.

Ride past it several times while taking his attention away from the stump and keeping it on you.  I like to use ‘leg yielding’ exercises.  I will ride past an object with his head bent away from the object and my leg pushing his shoulders and ribs toward the object.  I watch his ear that is away from the object.  I know I have his attention and respect for my leg when that ear stays ‘cocked’ back toward me.  I will go past the object, switch my dominant rein to the one nearest the object, will reverse directions TOWARD the object (I never let him turn his tail to anything he fears) and I will leg yield back past it again using my other leg to push him (bend him) toward it.  I will go back and forth again and again until he walks right on by without looking at it or veering away from it — just goes straight on by like it isn’t there.

6)  When a horse starts to hesitate and shows fear of an object and it is not trained enough to know how to ‘leg yield’ past the object, there is another way to advance training and obedience.  It is to ‘ride hard and fast’ — well, sort of.  Go faster (ask for more impulsion), cover more ground, ride off of the trail and in the roughest footing you can find, distract the horse with more pressure.  All of these things get his attention back to his ‘job’ and back to you and off of whatever he thought was a big wooly booger.  DON’T look down at your horse and DON’T look at the booger object.  Concentrate on where you are going.  Many people ‘spook’ worse than their horse.  They are looking for scary objects down the trail before their horse is.  If that is part of a rider’s problem, they need to learn to ride far ahead of where they actually are.  Then, once the horse has passed the object, you should turn him back toward it (never turning away from it when you change directions).  Then, do this over and over until he passes close to it and ignores it.  I have ridden some green horses back and forth past something a hundred times until the horse ignores the thing.

I know it is tempting for a novice rider to get past something and not want to do it again.  But, the horse’s training and future fears are helped so much from doing this, that it is well worth the time and effort every time.  If you respond this way to every fearful booger your horse finds, he will find fewer and fewer of them.  ‘Boogers’ are not ‘fun’ or rewarding any more to the horse.

7)  You cannot talk about trail horse training without discussing proper preparation.  Before you head out on a trail, make sure you have good control and, most of all, good forward impulsion around the horse’s home area.  If you do not have good control and good forward impulsion at home, it is obviously going to be much worse in a strange or scary place.  We always tell riders, “Don’t ask a horse to do anything that he is not ready and able to do.  (Key word here is ‘ready’.)  Then, don’t accept anything less than full compliance.”  So, you don’t start a project you do not intend to finish.  Make sure your horse is ready for the project.  Make sure you have enough time to get it done.  (Don’t start something 30 minutes before dark or before you have to be somewhere else.)  Make sure you have the resolve to finish what you start.  Make sure you are ready and have the necessary tools to ‘force’ him to go forward if he completely refuses.  If a horse is not completely prepared and that horse ‘stalls out’, threatens to rear, starts backing up, keeps whirling around, etc. you are either going to have to ‘spank’ his butt or do something else to get the job done.  If you don’t, you will have a ‘spoiled’ horse that will use the same avoidance techniques only more seriously and more quickly the next time you want to go north and your horse wants to go south.  So, BE PREPARED!


We help a lot of riders get past their fears on the trail.  When you have an apprehensive rider that is possibly more fearful than the horse, you cannot expect that person to project a confident ‘git-er-done’ bold demeanor to the horse.  A rider that lacks confidence needs to work on that first.  Confidence comes from control.  Control comes from learning how to get a horse to go where you want it to go in the way and at the speed you want.  Control comes from ‘being in charge’.  It comes from having the unwavering respect of your horse.  It comes from having the ‘tools’ to counter a situation when things start to get ‘out of control’.  It comes from knowing how to use tools like a ‘one rein stop’, a quick ‘disengagement’ of the horse’s hind quarters, a quick ‘ground-work’ session if you find yourself in over your head.  There are many methods you can use (and we teach) to get yourself out of a bad situation and still be in control.

I will try to follow up this article with instructions how to teach a horse a ‘one rein stop’ the way we do it and an article on desensitizing horses and why it is not as effective as other methods to get a horse over being ‘spooky.