"Making" a trail horse

Hi all - I’m an infrequent poster and longtime lurker on COTH, but totally new to this sub. I’m a W/T rider, getting comfortable at the canter, can trot crossrails. My horse is a former western reiner (registered QH) which my trainer and I are are reshaping into a hunter/equitation horse. She’s a 13 yo mare, switched to English a year ago (when I bought her). “We” are in a full training program. She’s very willing but a kick ride, slightly opinionated, seems to prefer more complicated ground work rather than endless ring circles. She occasionally has a slow spook which I can head off by keeping her mind and her head in her work. We ride in an indoor and outdoor arena. She is fine alone or in a group in the arena (although when it’s too crowded she seems anxious), and is turned out for half a day with a friend and her friend seems far more invested in the relationship than she is.

My eventual goal (at least a year into the future) is to move her to my farm property which is 20+ acres, a mix of woods with trails, open space (hay fields) and an outdoor arena. She will be there with our retired show pony gelding and possibly another older gelding owned by my elderly neighbor.

I would love to get different opinions about how I can prep both of us to become a confident/competent team in an exclusively outside environment particularly on trails and in an open field. Exercises we can do, experiences we can have, how to introduce a new property to her, an idea of “warning signs” I might see indicating she’s not on board with my plan, how to work through issues, etc. At our training barn right now we have access to some open fields, although none as big as the future property, and no woods/trails.

I feel like I wrote a novel, but if there’s any more info I can provide, please ask. I really look forward to any insights/advice that anyone is willing to provide!

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From what you’ve said, I think you might find she enjoys outdoor trail experience quite a bit. I have a KMSH who can be balky in the arena, but is a light quick ride on trails. He loves the outdoor open perspective.

For now, maybe concentrate on your own core fitness and some gallop sets for the horse. Make sure you have established go and stop cues in a variety of circumstances. If there’s a field with a slight up incline, use that to gallop or lope up and walk quietly down.

If possible, can you get a friend/companion horse to accompany you on the first few home rides?

Have fun!


From what you’ve said, I wonder if you should have a chat with your trainer about your goals? (If you haven’t already). If your goal is for your horse to become a trail mount, I wonder why she’s in training to become a hunter/equitation horse? The skillset required is pretty different! Unless I’ve misread your post, it doesn’t sound like your goal is to show her at all once you move to your own property.

There are lots of in the ring desensitization exercises your trainer could start doing with you to prepare for the trails, or maybe she has another client with an older, very sensible horse that you could start hacking around with on the property?

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I trail rode every day as a kid, even the open areas I schooled on were a couple of miles from the barn and we had no arena. It was glorious. I was fairly brave. When I returned to riding almost 15 years ago, I put myself into h/j lessons which was a wise move. But by the end of the first winter I realized I was becoming agoraphobia!! Even the outdoor arena in April seemed too wide open and controlled after a winter in the indoor!

When I could ride w t c independently again I went looking for lease horses at facilities that had both arenas and trail access (that h/j barn had no trail access), and eventually got my own truck and trailer too.

Here is my suggestion. Start now doing what you want to do, assuming you can ride this horse independently outside of lessons and around the field.

Move now to a Western or recreational barn that’s adjacent to a safe trail system and start riding with your new barn buddies.

It might help to realize the “trail riding,” that is transporting a rider across open country in a safe manner, is the natural function of horses and what most horses primarily did until about 30 years ago. The idea that most horses do only arena work and compete and can’t hack out at all is a fairly new idea.

That said, my recreational barn with trail access and good arenas has a divide between people who trail ride every day and even trailer out and camp, people who school in the arena and also hack out on the trails, and people who never leave the indoor arena.

My observation has been this is entirely dependent on the goals and anxiety level of the rider. I would say that horses display the same behavior on trails and arena, but go forward more joyfully on a trail.

Go out with another rider who will agree to respect your limits. Don’t go out in a group. It is perfectly OK to walk an entire hour trail ride. Indeed, on more hilly or technical terrain, you can only walk. Of course it is also fine to trot and canter on good footing especially with a slight uphill rise.

I also wonder why you are schooling a discipline you have no interest in pursuing. You have a Western Reiner! Think about the depth of education she has already got, and the lightness of touch she can understand as cues. Beginner english riding with contact and leg on probably seems very stupid to her. Why don’t you try her out in a Western saddle and see how lightly you can ride her?

I also worry it is taking you so long toearn to canter. You have had your own horse a year and presumably lessons before that. You have a QH with probably a rocking horse slow canter. Get on a longe lesson with a neck grab strap and learn to sit her canter.

You may never want to canter on the trails. That’s fine. But I worry about a rider on trails who cannot canter, because if a canter inadvertently happens I want them to be able to sit the canter and slow down, not panic.

Haha, I sound like a coach there. I’m not. But I have my own trailer and take friends trail riding. My mare is solid so I am able to offer support to my friends. I will ride with a friend on our barn trails and evaluate them (silently) before I offer to take them out.


Thank you for replying! My own core strength is definitely something I am working on and will continue to work on. I started riding from a place of no fitness two years ago and have been improving ever since. I forgot to mention in my first post that I was a new rider at the age of 50 and I’m 52 now - it’s not like 25 years ago when I could decide to “get in shape” in a month!

My horse definitely has good stopping cues. A whoa or any word that has a long o sound, even if it comes from across the arena, results in an instant freeze. The fields at our current barn have some topography, so I’d like to start doing some outside rides there once the mud dries up.

A companion rider is a great idea. The elderly neighbor’s gelding would be perfect for that - he has trails on his adjacent property and frequently trail rides. I have to keep my fingers crossed that they are both still riding over the next year - they both just celebrated some type of centennial, which if I understand correctly means his age plus the horses age equals 100+!

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Hi! My trainer definitely knows my goals. It might have gotten lost in my lengthy post, but we are installing a 100x200 outdoor arena at my farm, so our riding time will be split between the arena and the trails. You are correct that I don’t show (even now), but I enjoy learning and practicing the technical elements of riding and doing different exercises and activities in the arena.

I will look into ring desensitization, and I also need to just get outside. I mentioned in an earlier reply, once the mud dries up, I want to get into the fields I have access to. I’m definitely mentally bound to the ring and the safety I perceive there. I just have to get outside in small controlled doses and see how my mare does and then work on what I find.

Thanks for your reply!

Your post really resonated with me, so much in there!

I definitely feel your “agoraphobia” comment. I’m sure my mare will be fine in any situation I can put her in, but I’m the one who overthinks and “what-ifs” everything! I wouldn’t exactly say I have anxiety, but I definitely prefer a situation where I can pin down and resolve as many of the unknowns as possible.

I am riding English just because of how I came to be around riding (my son rode a hunter pony and I actually started riding on his horse, which is a large quarter pony). When he suffered a career ending injury, I rode lesson horses at the barn until we decided to look for my own horse a little over a year ago. My mare checked the boxes for size, temperament, and pretty much everything but discipline. She is wonderful - you are correct that she knows so much, probably even more than I know she knows! She is super sensitive to aids and learned English cues and methods so fast. She is perfectly voice trained and listens to every whisper that comes from my direction. I also laughed at your use of “stupid” - many times I feel like she’s thinking "my God, this is so stupid, but I guess I’ll just do it!’ as she plods over a pole.

Cantering is something we are still working on, for a few reasons. My son’s pony had a beautiful canter, just like you describe. With my mare, even once we improved her fitness a little, it was a bit of a struggle to figure out her reliable canter cue. She really lunges into the canter and the motion is extremely deep and rolling. It still takes me a while to get her into the canter and then keep her going for more than a lap. I won’t lie - I’m a slightly timid older rider and it’s definitely taking me a while to build up to sustained cantering!

I take your point on finding a barn/trainer that is a closer match to what I want to do eventually, but . . . I love my trainer and my barn family! Although your advice is really sensible, I just can’t see myself making that move in the next year. I’m willing to work on as much as I can for the future on my own while still at my current barn, and continuing to work with my trainer on the technical side of my riding.

Again, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply!

Just wanted to wish you and your horse the best of luck OP! Excellent advice already given. I’m just a trail rider myself. I lease an Arabian mare. The only advice I have is discussing your goals with your trainer, definitely desensitizing your horse. They can startle on the trails if you suddenly come across wild life like a deer jumping out in front of you from nowhere, a vehicle backfiring in the distance, guns going off, etc. Also being able to sit her canter will help in case of a sudden spook and bolt. My mare is a seasoned trail horse, but just this weekend we came galloping out the woods into a field, broke the tree line and startled a group of quietly eating deer. Maresy teleported sideways ( sheer dumb luck I managed to stay on lol). We ride on shared trails, so we get dirt bikes whizzing by, people with dogs off leash, hunters. Walking along the road you get cars. And kids. I swear they pop up out of nowhere. I’ll see one or two- they go “Horsey!!!” Then were surrounded by a dozen kids all wanting to pet her. It sounds like you don’t have to worry about any of that (aside from the wildlife or sudden noises)… Also I recommend looking up some Warwick Schiller or Clinton Anderson videos (they’re both on youtube, and they each have a monthly subscription service for their in depth training vids.) I think they each have videos for training trail horses. (I know Clinton does for sure)

Thank you Vyce! Deer popping out of nowhere will definitely be a possibility. We have a ton of deer on our property. She already knows about deer because my current barn has a large herd that goes in and out of the pastures with the horses, but popping across a trail unexpectedly will be a totally different experience.

I will look for those Schiller and Anderson videos!

Check out the virtual challenges at https://natrc.org/.

Also, I think it’s invaluable - though often overlooked - that horses are able to replicate their good ground manners of the barn to the trail, such as

  • standing still
  • sidepass
  • tacking up (switching out bridle and not running off)
  • picking feet
  • mounting from the offside
  • mounting from a log or less than ideal circumstances and not walking off

Good luck! Just take it one small step at a time. Maybe start by just having lunch in the field and teaching your horse to stand patiently.

Ah if you started as a new rider two years ago at 50 you are doing just fine! I would still suggest learning to canter on a longe line lesson with a grab strap.

You might want to find a reputable dude string trail ride outfit and go for some guided trail rides. Wierdly, they tend to be more expensive than actual lessons. But it will get you out on a trail in a safe way and let you see how easy it can be.

I also bet you’d love a Western saddle on your horse.

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Just do it. You and your good-minded horse are going to have such a great time out on the trail together. And, look. As someone who is older than you, I would say get out there as soon as your can. Tell your trainer that you want to ride the fields as soon as they’re dry enough and you want her to help make this a specific, actionable goal.

In the meantime, after your riding lesson, stay in the saddle and go for a walk around the property. Ask your trainer to walk along with you if you would like that support. One the fields are dry, ask your trainer to borrow a horse and take you on a hack, instead of your lesson being indoors. You could also ask your trainer to take your horse out, and then report back to you how your horse did; then you will know more of what to expect. And, expect it to be wonderful, and that your horse will not put a foot wrong and even if she does, you’ll be fine. :slight_smile: :heartpulse:

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These are all really good, practical points, thank you!

I’ve been on a ton of trail rides, but my thinking is always “these are finished trail horses, they are perfectly safe and bomb-proof!” Probably a totally ridiculous assumption, but there you have it!

A western saddle will have to wait, my tack buying sickness is getting out of hand :sweat_smile:

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These are definitely all actionable goals. I have to stop thinking this is a future thing to prep for and start thinking it is a “now” thing I will make happen!

Many trail strings have well exercised horses that understand the head to tail routine but have only the most rudimentary understanding of aids. They may be relisble at a walk but buddy sour. They may or may not be used to technical terrain since most dude strings stay on safe easy footing.

I would never assume one of these horses was a made trail horse for independent riding. I would assume it was green broke, buddy sour, and possibly body sore or tired. I would never assume I could grab one of those and ride alone up a mountain without incident.

You are much better off with your Reiner. Can the sellers tell you if she’s had trail experience? Most Western trainers put a lot of outdoor and trail experiences on young horses before they specialize. Most Western riders want the option to get outdoors. It’s really just English that has turned into an indoor sport.

You can always start by handwalking horse outside for a few days, then riding out after an indoor session.

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I did this with my younger horse, who started from a more precarious place than your horse. He was anxious, spooky, and had managed to injure me several times. There was a time I would have sold him if I had thought he could be safely trial ridden by potential buyers. I would have laughed in astonished disbelief if anyone had told me our first ever, solo, off property trail ride would be a 25 mile endurance ride.

The solo bit was accidental and my horse was great. He didn’t want to cross the ditch with running water and I dismounted, stepped across and got out of his way as he jumped, then remounted. Horses passed him and he let them vanish. ahead without fuss.

Anyway I did a lot of handwalking trails. Often after I rode I would handwalk a little way down the trail, then did a very short loop. Then I rode out, dismounting if he ever got too anxious. I did some Warwick Schiller stuff with him to help him let go of his rabbits (anxiety).

I handwalked a ton last winter (19-20) and let him do whatever he wanted within the boundaries I set. His feet couldn’t go past mine (stop, back up, pause, walk on - got to the point of just swinging the whip round from my left side to in front on him and he’d slow down ). He couldn’t push into my space (stop, back up,. pause, walk on). He had to walk with me (if he stopped then when I got to the end of the lead rope he had to move). We’d do rabbit practice if he was spooking at something. Basically I let him worry, spook, get curious, touch things, walk his own pace, whatever as long as he was paying enough attention to me to stay out of my space and respond to anything I asked immediately. The early walks were probably 55% forward and 45% backwards. :rofl:

Your biggest thing is your confidence. A little handwalk after a ride gets you out seeing how your horse feels about it. Then you ride the same path you walked, and at any point you can just dismount if you’re concerned about a reaction. Ride with purpose, not relaxed on a loose rein, and you will minimize spooks and maximize your chances of staying on any spooks.

I rode with others but I always got ready early so I could ride in the ring and see how my horse was that day, and get him settled and tuned in to me. Unfortunately the others tended to rush when they saw me go out and my 20min shrank to 10 which was often not enough and I sent them off without me. I would keep riding in the ring and sometimes could get out for a loop, sometimes not. I have also dismounted and walked back alone when another horse in the group was acting up and making my horse anxious. I was able to remount before getting all the way back.

Being willing to do what makes you comfortable is important. Remembering to tell your horse what you want them to do instead of just allowing them to do what the other horse is doing will keep your horse listening to you. When we trot in a group I let the rider in front trot away varying distances before I ask for trot so that my horse doesn’t just trot off when the other horse does. I didn’t let the distance get big enough for my horse to get anxious which allowed that distance to grow to the point he didn’t worry about being left behind by passing horses on the Endurance ride last year.

He can lead, follow (I don’t make him follow the pony for very long because his stride has to shorten too much for his comfort) and ride beside other horses. I usually go up front for cantering, though he is learning to canter in the middle of the group. He learned that just because the horse behind canters it doesn’t mean he should canter.

He’s really good most of the time now. I have no hesitation in jumping off and handwalking if I think it’s safer (like the day the snowmobile came along the trail behind us).

Forget other people’s expectations and decide your own.

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I’ve started several OTTBs out on the trails – nature was a very new thing for them! I always started by going out with a steady, experienced horse. For one horse, we actually had to pony him off the steady horse as he could run backward faster than any horse I’ve known!

Start at a walk, and start on wooded trails rather than open fields.

Progress to a trot when YOU feel comfortable, but take your time. Always walk on the way back to the barn so your horse doesn’t get jiggy or excited.

Learn how to use a one-rein stop. You may never need to use it, but it’s nice to know how.

When riding on your own, it’s perfectly okay to get off and hand walk your horse if you come across a situation that makes your horse (or you) nervous. Even on my hunt horse, taking her out last week in the warm weather, she went nuts over some kids playing Frisbee next to the trail. In July, she wouldn’t blink. In March? I got off and walked her by because she was spinning and snorting.

Take it slow, keep your safety a priority and enjoy!

I wanted a good horse for search and rescue. I bought a competitive reiner that had never been ridden outside of an arena. After a few get-to-know-you rides in the arena, we started going for quiet walks through some lightly wooded areas.

I signed us up for some obstacle challenge courses and competitions. She won her first one. It gave her some confidence on facing new things while still being in an arena. Doing this also taught me how she would react to new things and what I should be doing when she does. This was a big confidence builder for both of us. We also took a mounted shooting class.

The deer problem was a little more entertaining to solve. She had never seen one. Where I ride there can be 1-25 deer running by. After her initial introduction, we started chasing them. She seems to be ok with new things if they run away from her. We have chased, herded, and tried sorting deer. Now when one jumps out of the bushes, her ears go up, not from fear but knowing we are getting ready to have some fun.

Another great advantage to having a good reiner is that she is still teaching me to be a better rider even after six years.


Yes!! Love the deer sorting!

This reminds me that in our area we have a trainer who has set up her property for “mountain trail” as a clinic and competition venue. She does a fantastic beginner trail clinic where participants learn ground skills, walk their horses through obstacles, and then proceed to riding through obstacles. Folks who have got a little arena bound find her clinics really useful. It gives them confidence in gnarly technical terrain and on the ground. I’d suggest finding something like that in your local Western riding community.