ID MyHorse

Expect More From Your Trail Horse (and Yourself!)

Let me start this post by stating that I am absolutely NOT a professional horse trainer. What I AM is an “aging horsewoman” who has been riding for over a half-century. Right now, I don’t need a show pony, I need a great trail horse. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t expect great things from my trail horse!

I have never stopped trying to learn to be a better rider. There are many aspects to riding that I understand, even if I am not as successful as I’d like to be when it comes to implementing that knowledge. I have far more knowledge of equine biodynamics and movement than I ever did as a child.

On the other hand, my husband Alan is a relative newbie. He has no fear of riding and he has great balance. However, he’s only had a few lessons and most of his knowledge of “advanced riding” has come from me. He has little understanding of the nuances of riding a horse.


His mount is Sadie, a 7/8 Arabian mare we purchased at the end of 2019. I have written about her in several posts. When to Hold and When to Fold talks about her acquisition after crying “Uncle!” on the horse we owned before her. That Relationship Thing discusses that period of time where we are trying to develop trust and cooperation with a new horse.

Sadie was born on a show farm. During her first two years of life, she had consistent and appropriate ground training. The trainer at that farm then left that position. Sadie just hung out on the farm for the next 7 years, as she apparently didn’t meet the owner’s requirements for further training for the show ring. When Sadie was 9, the owner called the trainer from 7 years prior and offered to give her Sadie. The owner knew the trainer would treat Sadie well.

The trainer couldn’t take her, but her sister did. That gal put a couple of years of Clinton Anderson training on the mare, and then sold her to a gal who planned to do endurance riding. Sadie really moves out, covering even more ground at a walk then my energizer bunny gelding! That is a delightful quality for a trail horse!

The gal who bought her then had a baby, and endurance riding was put on the back burner. Sadie was once again for sale, and she went back to the sister/trainer. That is who was marketing her when we got her a little over 2 years ago. At that point, Sadie was 13. The original trainer did a one-month tune-up. However, when we got her, Sadie hadn’t been regularly ridden or handled. The trainer was up-front about how rough Sadie’s canter was (and is!) We don’t canter much on the trail, so that was not an issue for us.

I rode her for the first 5 months or so, and then Alan started riding her. She’s had two summers climbing the Rocky Mountains, and she has come a very long way. I have done a couple of other tune-ups over the last couple of years.

Terminology… Frame, rounded, collected

Most of our riding is walking, often on rocky, uneven trails. But occasionally, especially when riding in the vast desert around our home, we want to trot a little. I would talk Alan through trying to collect Sadie up and round her back to improve the comfort of her trot. Sadie would respond by immediately rooting into the bit and throwing up her head.

Remember when I started this post stating that I am most definitely not a trainer? Here is an excellent article to help describe the meaning of the words frame, rounded, and collected. At the end of that article is a link to a second article in that series. Read it too!

In spite of the fact that I started riding as a single-digit child, my real education began after I purchased Kadeen. As a kid, I had many lessons that taught me how to look on a horse. My instructor was showing at Madison Square Garden when she was 6 or 7! Janet would say, “lower your hands” or “wiggle your fingers” or some similar instruction that would get the result she wanted on a horse that she had trained. But she never told me why what I was doing elicited the result she wanted.

I bought Kadeen when he was 7 years old. He had two years of reining training, followed by another year of Western Pleasure training. He was shown nationally as a Junior horse. He had buttons on his buttons! And I didn’t know how to push very many of them.

trail horse

These photos were taken 2 years after I bought Kadeen. We were at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. We were still figuring each other out… that was a 3-year journey. Note I am looking down! One of my most consistent bad habits. My earrings are made out of Kadeen’s hair!

You want me to do WHAT?

I remember getting a lesson from Jim Hitt, the Arabian trainer that last had Kadeen and the one who showed him in Western Pleasure. Jim asked me to do some very basic exercises as we trotted around orange cones. I understood what Jim was saying, but I realized I really didn’t understand what he was after. I didn’t grasp all of the nuances of collection, rounding, flexing, etc.

Thus began my education. I have learned a great deal since those few lessons with Jim over a decade ago. Armed with my average skills, I am hoping to improve Sadie’s ability to move properly and more efficiently.

The first thing to “fix” was her immediate response of rooting into the bit whenever I asked her to “soften” or come off of the bit. She had no respect for the snaffle we were using. After consulting with my Kansas trainer (that I sadly cannot take lessons from any longer…) I put a bit with a little more bite in a new training bridle. I didn’t know what to expect that first day…

She didn’t get belligerent, but she was surprised. Initially, I am just letting her root against herself. If she slams up against this bit, she knows it… At the same time, I am driving her forward with my leg aids and trying to get her to soften her mouth. We practice just having her drop her head in response to wiggling the bit while we are standing still.

I wrote about our ride at Turkey Creek last week. We returned to Turkey Creek a few days ago to explore some of the other two-tracks. This was probably her 4th or 5th time in the new bridle. She was frustrated that her old ways weren’t working. She ignored leg cues that I knew she knew. We had a bit of a discussion…

One thing about Sadie that is different than Kadeen is how quickly she’s willing to acquiesce. Kadeen tested me a lot longer with a lot more commitment. Sadie caves pretty quickly, which is wonderful. She really has made significant improvement in just a half-dozen times in the training bridle. But clearly, I need to put some consistent time into her to get it to “stick”. I don’t want a heavier bit in Alan’s hands, as he has enough of a learning curve.

Sadie’s Clinton Anderson training is still there. She moves nicely off my legs, at least when she is paying attention. As we rode the trail a few days ago, I would randomly turn her on her haunches in a 360 degree circle. She’s rusty on the execution… I’m rusty on the cues. But we get it done. Kadeen has very well-developed buttons for much of that higher-level training. I can get by with sloppier cues. However, I am striving for us both to improve.

I rode both horses in the pasture last week, and I was shocked to realize how heavy in the bit Kadeen was. But why wouldn’t he be? I haven’t asked him to set up or collect or do much of anything as we amble along in the desert. It gave me a better perspective on what to expect from Sadie.

Do you have goals for performance?

I would like to encourage you to always strive to be a better rider. Better educated, better balanced, more consistent, and always pushing to be better. Not only that, but expect more of your horse! Don’t let your horse get by with some objectionable behavior one day and be frustrated when dealing with that behavior the next day. Be consistent in your expectations.

One of the hardest things for me to learn, and something that I still struggle with, is to let the horse make the mistake so that you can correct it. Don’t anticipate what you think they will do and correct too early. By the same token, be ready to correct immediately when the mistake happens! Timing is everything!

Kadeen’s many buttons come in very handy when navigating tricky terrain. A willing backup, a half turn, an immediate halt… all great tools for trail riding. What are your goals for you and your trail riding buddy?

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