Reprinted from the February Trail Riders News, BCH of Washington as printed in BCH of America in April 2003 with permission granted to disseminate widely.
Trail riding horses is one of the most enjoyable ways to improve a horse’s movement. Horses that do lots of trail riding have better musculature, are often more sound, more resourceful and more sensible than horses confined to ring work. It is the closest form of riding to the horse’s natural life.
Trail riding prevents horses from becoming bored and ring sour. Both horse and rider benefit from trail riding for movement, balance and attitude. When trail riding, encourage your horse to walk out. A good ground-covering walk is a pleasure to ride and develops the horse’s hindquarters. Feel for the swing of his belly as he walks and use alternating leg aids to ask him for longer strides. Encourage him to stretch his neck and back by allowing him long reins. Allow the horse’s movements to go through your body.
The rider who tries to hold a rigidly “correct” position will stiffen, grip, bounce and interfere with the horse’s ability to move freely and comfortably under him. Tightness and tension are picked up and reflected in the horse’s attitude causing nervousness and unpredictable behavior.
Hills and rolling terrain are great developers of movement. Walking up hills develops the horse’s hindquarter muscles. Trotting up hills develops muscle, wind and impulsion. When going up hills, stay off your horse’s back in a “half-seat” to prevent your horse from developing a sore back. When going downhill, slow your horse down and insist that he frequently rebalance himself so that he rounds his back and engages his hind legs.
Going downhill crooked or hollow-backed and high headed can injure your horse. Good balance is not only a good practice, it is safer for both of you.
You can use natural obstacles to practice bending and handiness. Try weaving in and out of trees or follow a winding trail. Use your inside leg to keep the horse from knocking your knee on a tree. Stepping over fallen logs and natural obstacles is much like cavaletti work and helps the horse to engage his hind legs and round and stretch his back while increasing attention to where he is going. Stay up off his back to help him negotiate such obstacles.
Many horses will be more motivated to move forward outside the ring. Trail riding is a good time to work on lengthening strides in the trot while keeping him in balance. Don’t let the horse fall into a running tempo and sprawl forward. This is not a true extended trot and will cause bad habits when asking for such a gait inside the ring. Cantering and occasional galloping are great for developing a free forward and balanced canter.When allowing the strides to lengthen to a gallop, watch for balance and rhythm. Letting the horse go as fast as he can makes him hot and crazy and does nothing for developing stride and balance. Keep him “in check” and always maintain control. If he becomes agitated, do more calm, quiet work at the walk and trot and omit the fast work.
One of the best tools for maintaining soundness is conditioning. Stretch your horse before and after workouts. Increase stamina by developing a schedule to increase length and speed of your rides.
Take your horse’s pulse rate [heart rate] five minutes after working out and note: