In my last column, I identified the first two criteria for a good trail horse (load willingly, go where you point him) and here are the rest of the criteria (as identified in an article written by Dee McVicker and published in EQUUS:
3. Come back to neutral — nothing good happens if your riding horse “explodes”, if there is confusion and unrest around you. If another rider is having difficulty with his horse, you don’t want your horse to over-react and take matters into his own hooves! You want your riding horse to look to you for guidance and keep a cool head while things are happening around him. As the rider, it is your responsibility to remain calm and keep your horse’s mind engaged.
The danger when this trait is lacking was made quite clear to my husband and I on a challenging trail ride in K-Country. I was riding a green broke gelding on his first trail ride. My husband was riding my big Canadian gelding, who really is not all that keen on being a riding horse, but had not really given us any trouble. We were walking along, enjoying the scenery when two riders came galloping up behind us. They barely slowed to a trot as they passed us (very bad horsemanship), then galloped off ahead of us. My big green horse was confused and nervous, but did not misbehave. Unfortunately, my big Canadian lost it and started to buck. My husband did an awesome job of staying on 1,500 pounds of cranky Canadian, and got the horse settled down.
We didn’t get 100 yards down the trail when a second pair of riders (trying to catch up to the first pair) blew past us at a gallop (we were just off to the side of the trail recovering from the last incident) and the Canadian started bucking again. This was a very dangerous situation for my husband, but he still stayed on. Once the bucking stopped, my husband dismounted and was done riding for the day. Needless to say, the Canadian is not being used as a trail horse for hubby any more.
4. Be careful about where he puts his feet — this is critical for a good trail horse and will keep you out of a lot of trouble. I have been on more than one ride in the mountains, where being on a sure footed horse certainly prevented a problem — some of those high-mountains trails are quite narrow, and the consequence of a horse not placing his feet carefully can result in a life-altering spill.
I recall a challenging switchback trail near Lake Louise, where one misstep could have sent both me and my horse down a particularly steep, rocky slope. Once safely at the bottom, I walked partway back up the trail to look at the footprints left by my horse and was amazed how well he placed his feet on that trail — from the saddle it felt like his hooves were right on the edge!
5. Overcome his flight instinct — you don’t want your horse to wheel and bolt at every little surprise on the trail. You cannot avoid surprises (like a moose snoozing in the bush); instinct dictates that your horse has to react to that, but the ideal trail horse will have a minimal reaction and a quick recovery to being OK with whatever the surprise was.
6. Maintain his independence from the other horses — you want your horse to be comfortable being in a group of riders, but equally comfortable leaving that group or maintaining his pace if the group is doing something else. Failure to do so can quickly deteriorate into a dangerous situation out on the trail. Problems can arise if your horse is plodding along half asleep then realizes the group has left him and he rockets off to catch up — that can leave the inattentive rider sitting on the dust wondering what happened.
7. Head out as eagerly as he heads home — trail riding should be fun and enjoyable for horse and rider. You want a horse with a good attitude, not one that fidgets when leaving the trailer and attempts to bolt for home as soon as you turn around. This good attitude in a trail horse is worth its weight in gold.
Hopefully these characteristics of a good trail horse give you a goal to shoot for when determining how you want your horse to behave out on the trail and help you if you too are searching for the perfect trail horse.