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Getting an arena-bound horse comfortable on trails

I am looking for ideas and advice on getting my 7yo jumper comfortable on trails. I bought him about a year ago, and 99% of our riding is in an indoor arena. We have a few outdoor arenas on the property, but the footing is not well maintained so we rarely ride outside. We also have a few large hay fields out back, and we ride out there in the summer to cool down the horses after our normal riding in the indoor.
Sometimes my horse is perfectly fine out in the fields, but often he seems to get overstimulated? in that he’ll be walking along or grazing, and is suddenly rearing/spinning to get back to the barn, but will quickly settle back down when I prevent him from returning home. I would love to take him on trail rides this summer, and to be able to ride in the fields comfortably, but I don’t know the best way to acclimate him to working outside of the arena! I took him on a short ‘trail ride’ at a local show and he seemed very nervous, which makes me nervous, which is not a great combination.

In general, he is a very easy going and curious horse. When we head out to the fields he is happy to be the lead horse, walks forward and looks very interested in going out back, and isn’t balky. The rearing/spinning really seems to come out of nowhere, and disappears just as fast, and honestly it seems like his excited energy just builds up to a point that he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and that behavior is his release maybe? I think he would LOVE trail rides once he is used to the idea, but I’m worried about getting those first miles on him. He does better in the back fields with a very calm friend, but in general a lot of the horses I ride with are also a bit ‘alert’ in the field, which really amps him up.

Go out with another horse when you ride

Handwalk him and graze on the trails alone.

When you get no adverse reactions to either of this, start riding him out alone. Keep it short. Be super alert to his comfort level.

Ride him out alone as a cool down after a sweaty arena session. Let him graze.

You will need to really up your horsemanship observation skills to observe when he is getting tense and stop before he explodes. You want to not push him to the point where he explodes in anxiety.

These skills tend to come out of ground work gurus not h/j programs. Lots of H/j coaches have the rude them through it mentality that does not distinguish between positive anticipation, anxious speed, and “misbehaving.” If you want a safe trail horse go to people like Warwick Schiller who talk about how to make horses confident and calm.

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Thanks @Scribbler. I am very interested in upping my horsemanship in order to better recognize changes in behaviors and to help create a confident horse. I have watched and learned from many Warwick Schiller videos already, and have taken steps to build my geldings confidence in the arena and around the stable area through object exploration and scentwork. I do try to work on groundwork 1-2 times a week, which I know isn’t enough, but it’s sometimes hard to find the time to do more, especially in the winter with a very busy barn. Do you have any video suggestions that would specifically address groundwork to build his confidence outside of the arena? Warwick has so many on youtube that they can be hard to sort through.

I’ve never used any videos, this is stuff I mostly learned from local trainers or on my own, I trail rode a lot as a teen.

You need to build a rapport with a horse that they will feel safe handwalking with you out of sight of other horses and then riding out of sight, which is more scary as you aren’t in front any more.

Don’t try to go on a trail ride at a show which is maximum excitement and chaos.

Do try to get him outside every single day you can. If he’s your own horse you can make time to do this after your lessons. horses and people get functional agoraphobia after being in an indoor arena all winter

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I would be picky about who you go with and stick to going with the calm horses to create positive experiences. At first when riding out of the ring, my horse would get worked up by other horses who were also worked up, but would be good if we went with a calm steady eddie.

When we went out alone, she was very tense and nervous and would spook at nothing.

We moved barns and there wasn’t usually anyone to go out with at the new barn. So we started small. First just hand walking short distances and gradually increasing them until she was comfortable. Halfway down the driveway, then all the way. Then down the road a bit. Then a bit further. Then repeat under saddle, first halfway down the driveway, then all the way, etc. She was nervous at first but because we didn’t go very far it would be manageable. I think this also slowly built her confidence in me.

I will say I was very comfortable handling her on the ground before we set out, so might be worth making sure you have the tools and buttons to get your horse’s focus on the ground first.

Now she’s good going out alone and doesn’t get set off as much by other horses getting worked up. That said, I am selective about who I go on trails with to set things up for good experiences.

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Another possible baby step in the process: once you’ve worked up to going out under saddle, if you don’t have another calm horse to go out with, try going out with another (horse savvy) person on foot. That can work amazingly well. The ground person can walk a bit ahead, offer a comforting presence, is a member of the “herd” that is demonstrating those noises in the brush are nothing to be afraid of, etc.

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Is the footing in your outdoor ring safe for walking? If so, a good transition may be going out there and walking around to cool out after your indoor work, as the fence may help you both feel more secure to start with. Depending on your horse’s comfort level, you may want to start with hand walking and then transition to tack walking. When walking around the outdoor becomes routine, add in some hand walking outside the arena. As you and your horse get more comfortable, you can slowly add places you are going and/or if you are doing so mounted or unmounted.

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Agree with finding a trail-savvy partner to go out with.
I was fortunate to have a fellow boarder who did nothing but.
His horse reacted to nothing, including my very Looky TB, who approached trails as if they were the World’s Longest Post Parade :smirk:
Jigged the whole way.
Going out with several others did no good.
Using a harsher bit didn’t help.
But going out with just the 1 horse, who ignored TB’s “WHAT’S THAT!?!” spooks, eventually settled him down.
Got to where we could go out alone, on the buckle & even bareback on occasion.

Just make sure your trailguide understands the ride may be really short. You may need/want to turn back in 10min.
I used to go with a group & leave them 10min in to go back to the arena with Mr Coulda Been a Contender :roll_eyes:

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I’ve really had to work on this with all my horses. I don’t really have anyone else to hack out with at my place so they have to go out alone.

I just hack a little bit every day. So at the end of my ride I might walk 200m and back. Big rewards and very positive. The next time I’ll walk the 200m there and back and then walk it again. The next time I’ll add another 50m-100m and just do the there and back. Then some days I do the same walk back and forth a few times, and so on. This method worked for me and my horses all now hack out alone without shenanigans and we can go as far off as possible.

The little increments daily and consistency really build their confidence and yours too.

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Yes to small increments

Also yes to being really picky who you ride with. Right now only ride with someone who you have a prior explicit agreement that they will babysit you. That means they respect your limits. They don’t try to “encourage” you to do anything more than you want. They go out and return with you. They don’t trot on ahead. They have level quiet horses

Don’t go out with someone who is so wrapped up in their own horses chaos that they can’t babysit you. And don’t go out with someone who tries to get you to gallop every where. You are better off alone than with these kinds of riders

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I have restarted several OTTBs and gotten them comfortable on the trails. Many good suggestions above, including riding with a been there/done that horse and hand walking on the trail (I used to dismount and lead horses around/over scary stuff). Another thing I found helpful was to stay on wooded trails at first if possible, rather than being in big open fields. One horse that had a hard time transitioning to trails (he could run backwards faster than any horse I’d ever seen), we used to pony. That made him feel a lot more secure.

I second the idea of having a person walk with you to help give the horse confident. One day I was having trouble getting my mare to cross a bridge and my dog ran across first. She decided as long as he thought it was safe, she could go, too.

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If your horse is more comfortable in a lead position, that might indicate that he is a bit too vigilant. I watched a Schiller video in which he took a jumpy vigilant horse out along the same hundred feet of fence multiple times a day - out and back, out and back. This became a routine so the horse could relax. Then extended it a bit further and did the same, repeating.

I agree that an open field is more troublesome than a trail or path. Can you work around the edges of the hay field, so he has something on one side to give him a steadiness? An open field with multiple horses doing different things is probably the most challenging.