Kayla was all pumped up, bright eyed and bushy tailed (for real!) as we flew on winged legs over the sandy terrain. The footing reverberated deeply with each footfall as I heard the soft, hollow-sounding thumps from each of her steps.
These were some of the best trails in the province! I couldn't believe that I was there, looking ahead but feeling the trees beside the trail fly by as my fearless steed kept up an eye-watering pace. Her attention was focused ahead to the horses in front but she was also keeping an ear back, listening to the rhythmical breaths of the horses behind.
There is nothing better than being involved in an activity you love, with an animal you love, with like-minded people all working toward the same goal. Although the above scene was a competitive trail ride, you don't have to ride competitively to get the same level of enjoyment and challenge. Just head for the trails, with friends or without, and explore the surrounding natural landscape at your preferred speed.
The trail provides opportunities that you just don't get in other riding venues. There are forested paths that weave through dense brush, or open fields covered in high, waving grass that surrounds your horse's legs. There are hills and bogs and cleared tracks and bumpy root-encrusted trails.
There are also fairly flat, fairly clear fields where you can enjoy practicing your riding skills without the constraints of walls or fences, in the open air where your horse is inspired to move more openly and enthusiastically, covering ground with less inhibition or restriction.
It's not like riding on the trails means you won't learn anything. In fact, there are many things you can learn because of the trails, especially when travelling at the trot or canter. Here are six.
Don't pull on the reins!
This is something that Kayla taught me really well, but is true for many horses. I know I've mentioned not pulling on the reins a lot, but it's mainly because I learned the hard way that grabbing the horse's mouth (or nose if you're using something bitless) only positions the horse to lean forward into the pressure, lean forward in balance, and move along at a faster rate - especially if you are at a canter!
Rather, use your seat and half-halts to balance the horse into a position that allows him to transition downwards. By all means, pull if it's your last resort, but don't be surprised if it doesn't bring the desired result.
It took a good amount of ring riding - and then on the trails, where the environment can be significantly different - for me to really understand how to do a down transition from the seat and not the hands.
Feel the energy.
There is so much room for the horse to move in a more natural environment. So if you find your normally flattish, pluggish horse resembling a sprint runner (or doing a jiggy dance on the spot), see if you can "ride" that energy and put it to good use.
Feel the energy come over the horse's back and use it as an opportunity to memorize what it really feels like when the horse tucks under and engages. You can try to emulate that feeling later on when riding in the ring.
Slow down to turn.
If you drive a car, you know that you need to slow down a bit before the turn, take the turn, and then speed up again after the turn if needed. Same goes with the horse.
Although you might not need to physically slow the legs down, you do need to shift the horse's weight back before you head into the turn. Otherwise, gravity will work on your horse just as it does on a car - and you may discover that your horse has to scramble while careening around a turn. So if you have a little speed going, check your balance before the turn.
Know when to trust your horse.
There is no better place to learn about your horse than on the trails. You really have a chance to bond and get to know each other, while also "becoming one" with nature. The more you ride on the trails, the better you'll know your horse's signs and signals - when he's on alert, when he's truly relaxed, when he's going to ignore your aids, and when he's honestly tired.
The more I rode the trails, the better I got to know Kayla's personality. I learned that she was super honest and rarely acted up unless there was a reason (stampede of cows coming straight for us). I learned that she would go go go until she could go no further - which meant that I needed to stop her long before she was completely spent. I also learned that I could ride a bold, fast moving horse with full confidence in her.
Bend your horse - for a reason.
Bend - it's often such a difficult concept, especially when riding in the ring. Try NOT bending when moving along a curvy trail, and you'll know why instructors harp on it so much. There is a reason that your horse should step under with the inside hind and "wrap his body around your inside leg": balance!
Be careful if you are approaching a curved path at speed because it's easy to lose balance if your horse is rigid or counter-bent. It helps if you can get him to look into the turn (flexion), and avoid leaning one way or the other. Getting a full body bend gives the horse the balance he needs and supples at the same time. The trail is the best place to learn all about balance!
So far, I've talked mainly about riding the trails at trot or canter. That's probably because of my horse's competitive trail experience (you can't really take the speed out of the equation once she gets used to it).
But there is another huge facet to riding on the trails - the beauty. Our often hectic lifestyles tend to reduce opportunity to simply be in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
Some horses love ambling along at a leisurely gait. Walking on the trails allows you to take in every aspect of nature - the smell, the breeze, the scenery, the squirrel scurrying off under the leaves.... We're heading into fall here in our neck o' the woods, and the brightly colored leaves and the swish of your horse's feet through the foliage is enough to make a good day great.
Well, those are some of the things I've learned on the trails. I'm sure I've missed many. If you have some experiences of your own to share, please add them in the comments below.
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Top Ten Reasons To Ride A Horse: There must be as many reasons to ride horses are there are people who ride.
What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.
4 Steps To Help Your Horse Through A Turn: I’m sure you’ve seen it before – there are many situations where a horse turns too abruptly, unbalancing himself and also the rider. Most often, the rider hangs on but other times, she might be unseated, losing balance, stirrups and/or seat.
How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.