How to work past horse backing down trail

Malda, what are you saying?

You start off sarcastically, talking about there are no bad horses, then you go on to say she’s gentle as a lamb on the ground her previous owners did this to her I’m not responsible for it etc etc so is she a bad horse or not? Maybe that comment just doesn’t belong with the rest of your post? Maybe you started thinking in one direction and went somewhere else.

As for the horse, if you’re asking for ideas (And I’m not sure if you are) this sounds like one of those situations that could be a tooth problem, it could be ticks in her ears, it could be a saddle problem. It’s a mare, maybe she has an ovarian problem.


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.)[/QUOTES

Summer Rose and Guilherme, I am following this thread with interest as I am bringing along my own young horse who is sometimes balky on trails. Thinking it’s a confidence issue (mine and the horses both) as when we rode out with my friends steady eddy gelding, my horse was fine.

However, I just wanted to commend both of you for the professional and mature way you handled the above comments and slight misunderstanding! Instead of desolving into nasty remarks, you both were polite and respectful. :slight_smile:


Oh geez… Let me clarify… My horse and I have an excellent bond and trust. When I brought him home nearly 5 years ago, he had numerous issues and was super spooky and balked at/ ran from everything. I didn’t ride him for many months thanks to hours upon hours of ground work needed to build that trust. Now, he’s amazing on the ground (again thanks to many many many hours of previous and continued groundwork) and had come a long way under saddle. He knows his job & how he’s supposed to behave, but has started to be a brat (under saddle only).

I’m hesitant to say he’s barn or buddy sour since some days he’s pumped and ready to hit the trail without issue and rides out with just about anyone. I should also clarify that he will test in the arena, but it’s rare, short-lived, and easier to correct. True, I’m not afraid of falling off an incline/ cliff, getting hit by a car, or stomping on a hiker in the arena… but there are always multiple other hazards that could pose a threat… other riders moving faster, other horses that can bite or kick,and my not wanting to touch the electric fence or get dumped in the water trough…I don’t think that’s the issue. Besides, I would think that any rational rider would be a little intimidated if their normally quiet, easy going, la-de-da, best 4-legged buddy decided he was going to back them into or off of something after never having a problem.

Yes, he knows leg/ body cues based mostly on where I’m looking.

He trusts and sees me as the “alpha” enough to ride with most horse/rider combos that we go out with (new or familiar), open and close gates leading to trails from saddle, maneuver obstacles both on and off property (cross bridges and water, walk through snow gates, step on stands, walk over tarps, through kiddie pools, ride with a large flag, ride without a bit/ bridle/ halter, self load into a trailer, etc).

Unfortunately, I feel that both of us are sensitive to others (horses and riders) and sense the vibes we get (pinned ears, mean comments, failure to respect our space, running up behind/ biting, etc). This leads to us riding in the back or away from other riders to avoid being on our toes the entire ride - annoying when you just want to meander peacefully down trail and enjoy nature. We’ve been left behind when riding with a group that simply didn’t give a crap when he had to relieve himself. He was fine not catching up and being away from them since one of the horses was being difficult and pulling these similar shenanigans. (Could this be a learned behavior?)

Again, he’s not really afraid and there isn’t what I would call a trust issue, but more of a battle of wills. What’s more frustrating is that it’s not consistent which makes it difficult to correct on a regular basis.

Like I mentioned originally, this is a newer problem that we’ve been working through. I was just hoping for suggestions to move getting past this issue along faster as it’s quite annoying, not pointing of fingers and the blame game. We know we have an issue and we’re attempting to work through it.

My guy does that, and it is a bit unnerving. He also tests before going in the arena and a bit on the way out to trail, and then while out on trail. I hope the riding, riding, riding technique works because picking a fight makes it 100x worse.

He is not afraid. He is worse with me than trainer or another skilled rider, but still tries it with them.

What has worked best is “riding every step” – so I know when/where he is likely to do it and I keep my leg on and his head straight between his shoulder blades and ride forward. Before I used to give him a chance to be bad, but now I just stay ahead of it.

It also helped that someone was videotaping me when he was particularly bad at going in arena and trainer was there to advise. Despite him getting light in front , and us disengaging and him backing up, she insisted I drive him forward at canter (eek!) it took a lot of kicking, and I was positive he would rear or buck. Her technique worked, and well, the video showed it wasn’t as bad as it felt and it pointed out how ineffectual my initial attempts to recover were. That gave me a lot more confidence (besides feeling stupid…).

It still happens, I don’t trust him completely on a drop-off trail, but we are making progress.


Without video of this horse’s behaviors, we’re all looking in the crystal ball of our own experiences and offering suggestions based on that. We can’t know what we can’t see in this case.

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All I can say is that my green horse used to do this all the time. With me also being green, it got worse before it got better. I tried all sorts of stuff, from backing her in the direction she didn’t want to go, turning her in circles, banging on her with my heels … at the last resort I would swat her butt with a barrel-racing popper crop. She hated that and would leap forward wildly. But that did work in that very soon I need only to threaten her with it. It’s been a long time since I carried a crop.

There is a big fat difference between a horse who simply feels like going home right now to stand in the cool shade eating a popsicle, and a horse who sees something they do not have the courage to go past. I once tried threatening my horse with a swat if she didn’t go past a parked tractor. She went straight up. Easy to predict, in hindsight.

What changed about my mare’s balking is that we just have put in a ton of miles together. I can tell when she is lazy and sulky, when her mind is disturbed, or when she is genuinely scared, and those all call for different responses. It is just automatic for me most of the time, these days. She also pretty much knows what I’m thinking most of the time. We trust each other, but that trust did not happen immediately. It crept in bit by bit, over some years.

Since I would much prefer her to just stop dead rather than back up on a trail, I tend to not push too hard when she does that. I give it a bit of time to figure out why she stopped. Perhaps because of this, she virtually never backs up evasively anymore. It went away. Not instantly. Gradually.

I wish there was an easy answer to your problem but I don’t think there is. You have keep wiggling it, trying things, thinking about it, carefully observing when, and hopefully why. As always, reward any better behavior immediately and copiously. Like the adage says, you only have two choices, to listen to your horse or wish you had.


Some horses are smart enough to know they have four feet on the ground and the rider has zero. If independent enough, they may also accept any punishment the rider wishes to dish out. But if the horse is genuinely afraid of something ahead, you won’t make it go ahead using cues or body control. Because cues are nothing more than a request and you never control the horse’s body. Only the horse’s mind controls his body.

If the horse is genuinely afraid, you need to teach it you know better. You can offer an alternative solution - maybe a detour that takes you both past the scary thing, but at a distance the horse can accept. With time, that distance will decrease. Other times, you might want to turn the horse around (if he hasn’t already turned) and walk away. When the horse feels safe enough, you can dismount and lead the horse, as slowly as needed, without force and with you staying between the scary thing and the horse. You may need to do that a lot at first, but then it will be less common.

If it isn’t genuine fear, but a “battle of the will”, then you will need to figure out what “reward” the horse is getting. What is the common thread to when he is resisting? And what incentive (reward) can you give him for not resisting? I’m not talking about treats. What might HE see as a reward for good behavior?

I used to have a horse who would back up without looking where when something ahead really bothered her. When she backed up, the only way to keep from getting hurt was to ask for an immediate 180 degree turn and go forward (ie, away). Then maybe look for a patch off trail where we could go to get her feet busy and get her thinking about me again. When we were back in mental synch, we could figure out how WE could get to where WE needed to be.

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Update: It took a few new ride buddies to get him over his vice. I started riding with my husband and felt less judged and hurried when he started acting up. My husband just sat and waited for us to work through it. This got me back to thinking it’s not just the horse, but me. My confidence was clearly tanking riding with the more judgemental and mouthy rider and her pushy horse. Needless to say we no longer ride with that horse and rider and have a new group that is patient and willing to wait when whomever’s horse decides to be the joker for the day. I’ve seen a change in my horse’s attitude overall and willingness. I’ve been able to get him down trail alone multiple times and although sometimes grumpy, he’s less likely to balk and fight more than a few minutes… especially when I say the words: “cookies at the crossroads”. (if he makes it to the trial goal, he gets a cookie. If he makes it to the rest area, cookie. If he lets a hiker pet him, cookie. I go fully stocked and ready with praise.

Summary: It was not fear, but more a learned behavior and a lack of confidence for both of us. Although he may side spook in the wind or a group of deer jumping up from where we startled them, he is pretty chilled out with me alone or in his new group. We’ve worked through our little backing issue and he now leads and follows without much fight.



Good for you! Sometimes the people we ride with can be part of the problem.

My mare has times when she just needs to stop and figure it out for a minute until she feels ready to move on. My daughter and her mare wait quietly for a minute and then we move on in an orderly and calm fashion.

If I immediately started kicking and turning and trying to back her past to would just make a mess of her and I. Glad you found out what works for you both. My goal is a happy , quiet, uneventful ride for the both of us.

Good for you, OP!

For anyone else having this problem, here is a word of encouragement. My friend bought a 10-year old experienced and well-trained horse, who at first would randomly back up on trail. He would go quite quickly, so it was unnerving to her, but she was an extremely outwardly calm rider so she just let him back up. Then she continued to ask for backing up, while I waited up ahead, sometimes for quite awhile. She’d back him right off the trail and into prickly shrubbery. My horse and I would stand and listen to them crashing backwards out of sight.

This problem pretty quickly solved itself as her gelding had no desire to go backwards bushwhacking away out of sight of his fellow horse.

So it isn’t 'always necessary to do endless ground-work, go back to the beginning, get psychotherapy etc. Sometimes you just have to let the behavior become undesirable on its own.


I know this is a somewhat older thread (I’m new and going back through topics that pique my curiosity), but I have to say this was a really great read! I appreciated the comments, the suggestions, the sidebars - and most importantly, the OP’s update. And this statement:

Sometimes you just have to let the behavior become undesirable on it’s own.

is pure gold. I can hear that horse crashing backwards through the brush and thinking, “This is not exactly what I had in mind…”