Make a Safe Horse for the Trail

Trail riding can be intimidating to many horse riders because it involves a certain level of spontaneity; you never know what may happen or what you may encounter on the trail! Based on personality, some horses make better trail horses than others; however, there are always things you can do to prepare any horse for the trail.

How do you bombproof your horse for trail riding? Here are simple steps I take to introduce my horse to the trail and situations they may find themselves in:

  • Start your horse on the trail early in their training
  • Introduce your horse to trail situations in a controlled environment
  • Take your horse to new locations
  • Hand-walk your horse on the trails
  • Trail ride as much as possible

Trail riding is one of my favorite things to do with my horses! The effort it takes to make your horse a trail riding aficionado is worth it. In this article, I will break down each of the training steps mentioned above so that you can start prepping your horse for the trails.

Trail Riding Training Tip #1: Start Your Horse Early

I am riding my horse, Tucker, with my yearling, Ruach. This was Ruach’s first multi-day stay away from home as I start preparing him for travel and trail riding.

I was talking to an old horse trainer one time, and they told me this: “Imagine in the old days. Cowboys would take a green-broke horse on the East Coast and ride to the West Coast. By the time they got there, the horse was dead-broke. The trail taught the horse everything it needed to know.”

I heard this, considered it, and incorporated the concept into my training. As soon as I got any horse under saddle to where they knew basic aids, I would take them out on the trail and make it a normal part of riding. I can attest that all the horses I have done this with have become great trail horses and are comfortable riding out by themselves.

If you have a younger horse or one just now starting under saddle, add this to your training plan. Make the first trail ride easy; get out of the arena and ride around the pasture. Take a friend with you on an experienced horse. Make it comfortable and relaxing for your horse. From there, gradually add distance and new situations.

Trail Riding Training Tip #2: Introduce Your Horse in a Controlled Environment

The trail isn’t always a controlled environment. Wildlife, hikers, dogs off the leash, and difficult terrain exist. Me personally, I don’t like to wait until I’m out on a trail ride for my horse to be introduced to these things suddenly. I would rather practice running into these situations in a controlled environment where no other people or animals around could get hurt.

Dogs Off the Leash

Luckily, at my own house and other stables my horses have been at, they have been introduced to dogs barking at them and running around them. Introduce your horse to dogs before you hit the trails; you will run into them sooner or later. One thing to practice under saddle is to stand still or have your horse approach the dog. Most dogs haven’t seen horses, and they’ll want to bark and investigate. The best way to keep the situation from escalating to where the dog wants to chase the horse is to have your horse stand still. Even riding toward the dog can be enough to scare some dogs off.

Hikers and Bikers

A hiker in the distance with a backpack on can be scary for a horse. A bicycle coming up behind your horse can startle them. Introduce your horse to these situations on your own farm or boarding stable before hitting the trail somewhere else. Have a friend walk ahead of you on the trail. Grab a bicycle and ride it around your horse.

The important thing to remember is that most people you encounter on the trail won’t have horse-sense. They aren’t going to know that loud noises and sudden movements scare horses. They aren’t going to know to pass your horse at a distance. While most trails give horses the right-of-way in every encounter, most people aren’t going to remember that.

Difficult Terrain and Obstacles

One of the fun things about trail riding is the varied terrain and obstacles you’ll encounter. Water crossings, ditches, fallen logs, and banks are common challenges. Your horse must be sure-footed to pick its way through rocks and tree branches. You can do some things to prepare your horse for these situations. One easy method for helping your horse in becoming more sure-footed is polework. Put some jumping poles on the ground for your horse to step over. You can even scatter them over each other, making crosses and angles so your horse really has to think.

Another way to overcome all of these obstacles is to go cross-country schooling. Cross-country is an eventing discipline that incorporates jumping over different natural obstacles. I just went cross-country schooling and encountered logs, man-made ditches, banks down into the water, and a water complex where you can practice riding your horse through the water. Horses learn by repetition, so practicing these obstacles before you go on the trail can give your horse confidence when encountering them again.

I recently went cross-country schooling and introduced my horse to many new obstacles we may face on the trails. You can watch the YouTube video by clicking the picture below!

Trail Riding Training Tip #3: Take Your Horse to New Locations

When I got my first horse trailer and started taking my horse places, he was always so nervous. Riding in the trailer and being in a new place would make him nervous. He would work himself up and be on edge the whole time I rode. Initially, it made it difficult to trail ride.

I tried to take him somewhere new every weekend. If we didn’t go somewhere new, I would at least load him in the trailer and take him to another farm to ride. While it wasn’t immediate, he became increasingly relaxed over time. He would actually load into the horse trailer the first time I asked him to. He would calmly stand tied to the trailer as I tacked up. He would calmly walk down the trail rather than jigging.

Routinely taking your horse to new locations is vital for helping them feel comfortable on the trail. When trail riding, you’re away from your normal surroundings. A horse has to be comfortable in new environments to enjoy trail riding.

Trail Riding Training Tip #4: Hand-Walk Your Horse on the Trails

I consider myself a bit of a wimp in horseback riding, which may be surprising. I would much rather take things slow when introducing a horse to something new. I would rather do everything from the ground, so if the horse reacts, I won’t fall off. I’ll be happy to ride once I see my horse can handle itself.

If you’re like me, this method may appeal more. When I first wanted to get into trail riding, I wasn’t sure how my horse would handle it. I started trailering off the property to local trails and would lead him down the trail. While the first few times he was nervous, by the third trip, he seemed much more confident and relaxed. Then, I knew it was time to saddle up.

Don’t be afraid to get off and help your horse through incredible terrain or scary objects. Most horses feel more confident with their handler on the ground than on their backs.

Baby Ruach has started trail riding! I take him to local trails and lead him along. He’s encountered water crossings, dogs, and hikers.

Trail Riding Training Tip #5: Trail Ride as Much as Possible

Horses learn by repetition; the only way they will learn how to do something and get comfortable with it is by doing it repeatedly. If you want your horse to become a trail-riding machine, you have to ride your horse on the trails as much as possible. As I mentioned, my horse didn’t start out as a great trail rider. He was nervous and would spook at everything. I made a purpose of taking him out at least once a week to trail ride off our property. Now, I could take him anywhere, and he would be fine.

If you’re nervous about trail riding with your horse, start slow. Do something easily attainable yet just outside of your comfort zone. If you’re nervous about taking your horse away from home and trail riding, take them away from home and hand-walk them on the trails. If you don’t know how your horse would react if you run into other people on the trail, have someone go with you who can walk on the ground in front of you to give you and your horse comfort as if someone is already there.

Keep at it even when you face a setback, like a bad spook or falling off. It’s insanity to think your horse will naturally enjoy and be good at something they never do. Give your horse time to grow.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can All Horses Trail Ride?

I believe that with the right patience and training, every horse should be able to trail ride; however, some will be naturally more inclined than others. Horses with naturally calm demeanors tend to make great trail horses. Spirited horses can be great rides if you want more endurance and competition.

Horses started early in their training on the trails will be much more comfortable and confident than a horse that has been under saddle for a while but is just not experiencing trail riding.

Not every horse has training to give it confidence on the trails. Remember, horses learn by repetition and by doing. If a horse has never been on a trail ride, it will probably feel anxious and insecure. Helping it feel more confident on the trail will make a difference in how it behaves when trail riding.

What is the Best Horse Breed for Trail Riding?

Some of the best horse breeds for trail riding include:

All of these breeds have proven themselves in trail riding and endurance competitions. Each breed has unique qualities that make them a great choice as a trail partner. Each breed is also common throughout the USA, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one to purchase. To learn more about each of these breeds and other horse breeds great for the trails, check out my article, Trail Riding Horse Breeds: Top Horse Breeds for Trail Riding.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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