Prepare for the Worst To “Win” on the Trail

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Prepare for the Worst To “Win” on the Trail

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Raye Lochert, Known for his Sense and Horse Sense
No games or tricks - just practical horsemanship. This is Raye Lochert.  Though the industry has an insatiable desire for knowledge and is exploding with information, trainers, and “new” methods, the horse hasn’t changed.  And neither has the need for simple and sound solutions to resolve common problems and increase performance with the horse. “I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel.  I just want to relay information in a way that makes sense to the average person.  If I find it confusing or complicated, the horse doesn’t have a chance”.  Training and conducting horsemanship clinics all over the US and at his home ranch in Northern California, Raye is considered one of the most accessible teachers, using an approachable style that sets him apart and allows for greater comprehension. His clients feel empowered, capable of handling their own horses, no matter the discipline or level of riding.  For more information and Raye’s schedule you can visit his website at www.RLHorsemanship.com.

By Raye Lochert

There is a popular board game called “The Worst Case Scenario.” The object of the game is to successfully navigate unexpected and dangerous scenarios. In one version, the winning player will not only finish with the most gold tokens, they must keep the most body parts. I think a useful game for horsemen and women might be called “Worst Case Scenario—Trail Riding.” Players would win by staying on the trail, gathering gold “sanity” tokens and, of course, keeping all their body parts!

Trail riding is the most popular thing to do with horses.  More people are on the trail than all the competition events combined. Why? We love the relaxation of a scenic ride. As do LOTS of cyclists, hikers, dog walkers, and campers. With all these people sharing space there is bound to be some congestion, frustration, or worse. With a bit of forethought and preparation, you can be ready for the “worst case scenario,” and maybe help keep someone else safe, too.

While hikers need to look where they are going, bicyclists need to be careful and dog walkers need to keep dogs under control. This is also our responsibility with a much larger animal—our horse. All too often we check out and then something happens.  That’s when we ask our horse for their full attention.  By then it is too late.

A sensitive flight animal, horses are usually aware of something well before it actually spooks them. You may be chatting with a friend or day dreaming when that bike comes around the corner, or the hiker pops out of the brush, or the dog starts barking. When your horse is spinning and jumping it is too late to ask them to pay attention. They are busy reacting and, in their minds, surviving. To avoid that unpleasant scenario we need to ride proactively.  This doesn’t mean a death grip on the reins or a tight body in the saddle, but rather an ongoing, relaxed communication with our horse. Our horse’s focus should be on us.

So how do we accomplish this?  With controlled riding.  An arena is a great place to practice the moves and cues you need your horse to understand when it counts.  For me, that includes a horse that collects, turns left and right, stops and backs up with ease.  Notice I am not asking for anything too demanding, just the basics.  If my horse will do these five things easily, and with little pressure, in the arena then I can prepare for the craziness of the trail and the possibility of the worst case scenario. 

How does one safely transition from the relative quiet of an arena to the potentially emotionally charged environment of the trail?  By adding speed. With speed comes emotion—in both horse and rider.  With this in mind, I practice my basic moves at speed.  First I start with a walk, then a trot and then I practice at a lope.  The faster I go the more the emotional level rises in the horse.  High emotion out on the trail equals a lower performance in the horse.  The same thing occurs in the arena, but I can control it more effectively.

For example, let’s consider the stop.  In the arena I work on my stops at the walk before going to the trot.  This sets the horse up for success.  As soon as I increase the speed to the trot the level of performance in the stop goes down.  Now I can back down to the walk and work my way up to the trot again.  Soon the horse will stop at the trot as well as they do at the walk, if not better.  Once I can stop my horse 100% of the time at the trot softly and using the hindquarters I increase my speed to a lope.  I do not expect the horse to stop as well at the lope as when they were trotting.

When I can do the basics with ease in the arena, I move outdoors.  This is an area such as a pasture or even a quiet dirt road.  Just being in a different place is enough to raise a horse’s emotions.  Once I feel like I have control in an outside arena environment I will go the park.  I don’t start with the busiest park, but neither will I choose the quietest. When riding my horse in the park I am not riding as though I were in the arena.  I ask for the basics whenever I feel that the horse’s attention is wandering.  If my horse starts looking around a lot I ask him to do something.  This draws his attention back to me and he becomes less concerned or aware of the things in the environment.

For example, let’s say my horse notices a mountain biker long before I do.  As soon as I see or feel his attention divert from me I ask him to collect up. This will get him to lower his head.  As the bicyclist approaches, I will ask him to move his shoulders to the right or left.  While we pass I talk to the bicyclist in a normal tone and keep asking my horse for a response to some cue.  If I can keep my horse focused on listening to me then he has less time to pay attention to the object of his fear.  Another way of thinking about it is that I am purposely distracting him.  This is similar to if I were walking with you down a street in a dangerous part of town and I noticed you were fearful.  I might distract you with  questions to avoid allowing your thoughts to wander to potential dangers.  Your mind would start working inwardly, versus an outward focus.

After a while your horse will become more accustomed to the distractions of the trail and his emotions will have to go much higher to reach the panic level.  Additionally, your responses will grow with practice, adding a level of confidence that will be noticed by your horse. This gives him security and, ultimately, more confidence. A win-win situation.

By preparing for the worst you actually set yourself up for the best, all while preserving you and your horse’s sanity (not to mention your body parts!).  Remember to enjoy your horse.

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