How to work past horse backing down trail

Depending on who we ride with, my horse has started to plant his feet, refuse to go forward, and begins to back when he becomes “frightened” down trail. Needless to say, this is obnoxious, ticks me off, and sometimes scares the bejeebers out of me (depending on the surroundings). I try to keep his nose pointed in the direction I want to move and apply pressure (legs, heels, rein to rump, etc), but he shuts down and moves more quickly in the wrong direction when I get too forceful (and stressed out).

When we had trouble like this on the main lane heading to the trails, I backed him up the lane to a certain point, turned around and moved forward. If he balked, we repeated this over and over again. I made backing work and moving forward where I asked easy. I won that battle and he balks very little on the lane now.

Again, I say only with certain horses I see he act this way. I rode with my husband and my horse acted like he was going to balk, but kept moving without issue. I ride with another more confident lead gelding, and he’ll follow that horse almost everywhere. I ride with a similar mare and he balks. I ride with a stubborn mare that pulls the same crap, he balks.It’s a struggle and I’ve about had it.

He’s responsive in the arena and around the grounds, but the lane was and trail continues to be an issue. Getting off and leading him is not an option as I almost think this is what he wants… and to go home (which I refuse to do). He knows his job, but is acting like a bratty teen.

Any suggestions?

Turn him around and back him up the trail in the direction you want to go. He gets to go backward and oh boy it’s a lot of work and you get started to where you want to go. The minute he decides he wants to go forward, whip him around and move forward. Also, work on forward in the arena and on the lunge line. He has to understand that when you say “March!,” he marches. He figures he has you buffaloed here so the key is that no matter what kind of hissy he throws and for how long, you are prepared to stay there alllllllll daaaaayyy if necessary. If you decide to take him home, then guess what buster? You get to go to work - HARD work. Lots of trot and canter and up and down transitions and all kinds of fun things. Not. He is what a trainer I worked with once called barn sweet, trail sour. I had a horse pull this same kind of crap and really, it makes you want to pull your hair out.


A snappy trot down the lane makes it harder to sull up and quit. Look where you are going and ride his butt there.

He’s fine in the arena because you both feel safe there. I bet if you by golly trotted from a halt then halted and did a 180 and by golly trotted again from there in the arena you’d find he’s lazy and taciturn about obeying. Ride him like you stole him, giddyup.


Try tight small circles. Make him circle just as soon as he baulks or even indicates he is going to stop. Tight turns around your leg and do it until you want to stop, not him. Two or three are usually enough. No anger, no frustration, no wacking him, no pulling back on his mouth. Just let him learn that stopping without permission means a lot of hard work, instantly. Works for a horse that doesn’t want to lead, too.


Maybe the “brute force” method of whip and spur is not the most productive way to deal with the problem.

The rider controls the horse, not the other way 'round. Building this control starts ON THE GROUND!!! This means you go back to the round pen/longe line and build/re-build that bond of obedience that comes from confidence… Said bond is build on trust, not force. This does NOT mean you can’t discipline the horse for failure to follow instruction. You can, and must, if you want the program to work. You must gain the trust of the horse that whatever they see as a threat is one that YOU will get them past without harm. This takes time.

Just how you do this is going to vary from person to person and horse to horse. I like the approaches used by Vladimir Littauer and the U.S. Cavalry. Other folks may find alternatives that work better for them. But the human has the Big Brain and they should be using it before they start with whip and spur.

This is not some sort of “woo-woo” silliness. It’s intelligently using the instincts of the horse in your favor.

Make no mistake, this is not a problem you’ll solve in an afternoon. It will involve intelligently wetting the blanket.

Good luck going forward.



I hear this all the time. But what if the horse is calm, respectful and well trained on the ground but a mental mess under saddle?


The Op’s first sentence starts with “–my horse has STARTED to—”

The inference with that is the horse didn’t used to refuse but does now. Also the horse doesn’t always refuse to go forward, it depend who they ride with.

it isn’t the horse – it’s the rider, who also states further down the post, the horse sometimes “-scares the bejeebers --” out of her.

the horse has figured out his rider is not his leader and therefore has decided to take control of the situation in his own way – it isn’t the right way but nonetheless, refusing to go forward equals safety for the horse UNLESS he happens to be beside a much more confident horse and rider, then he will follow them.

Before getting ticked off at the horse (the OP’s words), I am sorry but the rider needs to take a look at their self in terms of lack of confidence to keep the horse moving out on the trail. Aside from learning riding skills necessary to “steer” a horse and stay on it, riding ability in an arena does is not the same as riding in the real world where rabbits, deer, dogs, big boulders and funny looking trees jump out to scare some horses.

the rider needs to bump it up a few notches in the "confidence and no fear department before the horse gets ruined, then gets sold for behavior issues that could have been prevented.

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You teach them the core basics of dressage… meaning relaxation and rhythm and how to lower their head and stretch over their topline and turn loose of all that baggage.

you ride where you can, maybe that’s in a small arena or only alone or only in small groups- whatever the horse can process and accept. Over time you build on small success toward bigger places and better rides. There is no shortcut.

I think both TMares and Guilherme are right. I’d stop riding on the trails for a while and start training to give him confidence in you.

I’d also spend more time in the ring doing both ground work of all kinds and riding/training the horse is a situation that doesn’t seem to set off the horse’s worries/fears/brattiness. Whatever is the root of the behavior, what you want to do is, for a while, only ride the horse in a situation where, if he misbehaves you can work through it without being afraid you’ll fall into a ditch, get tangled up in brush, etc.

On the trail, now, if you get scared when he balks, it probably reinforces his balking behavior (omg, my rider’s scared there must be something bad ahead. Best not to go forward).

On the ground, walk him over small logs or cavaletti, through some trees, up and down hills, etc (assuming you have access to some open space) as well as walking him through cones in the ring, doing dressage type figures, teaching him to stand while you walk away, etc.

After a month or so of this, I’d gradually go out onto the trails, only on short rides at first and only with the more confident other horses. If those go well, then gradually extend the length of the rides and the different companions.

Are they this way when stressed or tired or just plain cantankerous?

I had a mare who was reasonably well behaved most of the time but acted up badly at an event were participating in. I decided it was time to demonstrate to her that her job was to do as she was told. We went into the round pen and started to walk. Then gait a bit. The canter a turn or two. Then do it again. After a short time she started to get tired and balky. She began to try and plant her feet. Eventually it took some significant “pushing” to get her to go forward. Then she got really angry and came at me with her butt. Four, good swats the lash on the longe whip told her that was a Bad Idea. We kept on and and eventually she went forward willingly and quietly. That took just over an hour. Then we had to do it the other way (with all the same stuff except the threatened kicking). It was sort of like she had a “personality transplant” and was a MUCH better ride all 'round.

Note that this is NOT “run 'em 'till they drop.” This is work them quietly until they accept that you are the Great Alpha and they have to do as you say. It’s a form of intelligent wetting of the blanket.

I’ve managed to teach every horse I’ve ever owned a bad habit. Sometimes it was through ignorance, sometimes through neglect, sometimes it was just a failure to pay attention to detail. Then I had to fix it which is vastly more difficult. Life is not pleasant when you do something bad to yourself! :frowning:

YOU have to fix this because YOU are the problem. This not a moral or ethical condemnation it’s a statement of fact. The horse does not believe they have to obey YOU unless circumstances suit THEM. This is an unsatisfactory and dangerous situation that YOU must change. A long, quiet round pen session worked for me with a similar problem. I’ve used the technique before and since with success. There is nothing wrong with seeking the advice of a local professional to help you out with this.

Good luck as you go forward.



Does your horse know how to leg yield or side pass, to turn on the hindquarters and forehand, bend off leg in serpentines, etc? I used to ride babies out on the trail for a trainer who trained trail horses and we worked a lot on teaching them to move off leg before we even hit the trail. I found that it was a lot easier to head off issues by working on lateral work and figures around obstacles than it was to re-engage a horse that was acting up. And if I did miss the signals and the horse did act up, I usually found it a lot easier to bring them back without (or with less, anyway) confrontation.

It’s definitely something you need to nip in the bud. One of the worst wrecks I saw occurred when a horse backed off the edge of a steep trail. Fortunately the rider and horse separated as they rolled and neither was seriously injured, though it took several months for the horse to recover. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that one or both could have been killed.


Indeed. So the ball remains in your court.


G I think they were asking the op.

Hey, G? I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts because you’re knowledgeable, insightful, and usually bring an interesting POV. I even look specifically for your posts, especially on legal issues and cavalry stuff.

Slight miss this time.

I was responding to the OP. :slight_smile: (No hard feelings on my side! I’ll keep enjoying your posts.)

Perhaps so. There was no clear “addressee”!! :wink:

Sorry if I was over the line.

Then, my comments go to the OP. The Object of the Exercise is obedience of the horse to the rider’s cues and aids. This begins with intelligent ground work. I again recommend Littauer’s Common Sense Horsemanship. It can be downloaded for free. That’s a true Good Deal.


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My first question would be ----- if this is a new behavior, what happened just before it started?

My horse has to stop and look sometimes. That’s his nature, and I respect it. Sometimes, he’s even right (he picks up on bear and boar before I do, or before the other horses do). If giving him 5 seconds to think keeps us safe, I’m cool with that. If it’s longer, or something dumb (a rock, I mean really!), he gets a tap with my water bottle holder (it multi-tasks!).

Riding with one particular friend’s horse, he was extra balky. No idea why. Riding, riding, riding has fixed it. That’s the fix to most everything.

All the responses given are helpful, but I know on our trails, there’s often not room to safely spin and back down the trail (rock steps backwards on a narrow trail, no thanks!) or do circles (if it drops both directions?), Real trail terrain can make all those things dangerous.

Like most things, the secret is time and practice. Yes, groundwork. Yes, arena work. Yes, ride those trails. Time will fix most everything.

I do agree it’s a people problem, as is most everything.

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I’d say you need to get walking down the lane 100% first. This is where the problems start. It’s the same behavior further out, it’s just escalated.

If you walked him partway down the lane, stopped, dropped the reins (i.e. no steering) and asked him to move forward, would he keep going the direction he was pointed or would he turn around and want to go back to the barn?

Text here:

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You certainly drank the “no bad horses only bad riders” Kool-aid.

My horse’s problem has nothing to do with me. I’ve had her a year and she came with it (she’s 10). I also have nothing to do with the good stuff like standing still, accepting a saddle, bridle, turning, etc. Someone else taught her those, I can not take credit for it.

It is my responsibility to re-train anything I don’t like about my horse. However, I am not responsible for the problem existing. The previous owners created that.

There is nothing to teach her on the ground or in the round pen. She is extremely well behaved, trained, respectful and trusting. I have seen the sale video and spoken to the people from the place where the people I bought her from got her. This was a quiet, well-trained horse under saddle. What the people I bought her from did to her I have no idea but it must have been pretty bad. They only had her five months.

I understand what you are saying about going back to basics, but this isn’t a horse with holes in her training. The previous owners undid her under-saddle training.


And what does your conclusion suggest?