The sun on your face, the creak of saddle leather, the company of good friends and the beauty of nature…a summertime trail ride is the perfect form of relaxation for cowgirls. That is, until your usually calm and responsive horse starts acting up, acting out, and turning your highly anticipated excursion into a trail of tears.

The Water Hazard

A babbling brook may be only a few inches deep, but many inexperienced trail horses tremble anxiously, refuse to cross, or finally, if forced, leap over water on the trail as if they’re clearing a steeplechase obstacle. It’s only water, the same stuff they are bathed with and drink every day, so why the extreme reaction? Survival. Your horse’s brain has evolved to avoid anything that is remotely unfamiliar.

The connection between the H2O he sees every day and the reflective, sometimes noisy & meandering element often encountered at the bottom of a small ravine—or worse, a large canyon—exhibits all the warning signs Mother Nature says to stay away from. Horses instinctively know that an animal bogged down in mud is easy prey and some won’t cross until they can confirm or believe that the bottom is sufficiently solid.

Professionals suggest the following approaches:

1) Use the herd instinct along with your horse’s innate fear of being left behind and follow another rider across, one whose horse isn’t troubled by the water. Stay fairly close to the lead horse, for the best chance of success.

2) Relax, but keep your horse’s head toward the water with gentle but steady leg pressure, and let him explore the situation. A curious horse will put his head down, sniff, and possibly paw the water. Don’t rush, but don’t let your horse turn back away from the water either. Encourage and reward every movement forward with soothing words and a rub on his withers…

3) Another technique, depending on the terrain, is to circle around a pond nonchalantly, moving closer on each revolution. At first, just one hoof may go in—that’s success, but don’t make a big deal out of it. On the next pass, perhaps two steps are taken in the water… in this manner the horse is desensitized and eventually may walk right in.

Helpful tip:

Don’t dismount and attempt to lead a balking horse into or over water. If you’re pulling on him to cross a small stream, for example, a horse may leap over it and right into you. This can be especially dangerous at the bottom of a ravine.

Once a tentative horse has finally gathered up his courage and crossed water, it’s fine to go back over it one or two times for practice, but crossing  back and forth ad infinitum to “drill it into his head” may make the event feel more like a punishment than a pleasure to your horse. Repeated practice on different days, in different situations, is the best way to create a calm, confident trail horse.

If your horse cannot be urged or encouraged over a water feature, consider giving up the squabble before it becomes a full-fledged battle with casualties. Even if you could force a 1,200 pound animal to act against its will, the damage to your relationship with your horse—not to mention your pleasant outing—could be dire. Commit yourself to more work with your horse to gain his trust and perhaps try another water crossing. A horse that normally goes into water without too much fuss and suddenly resists may be communicating that the crossing you have selected is unsafe.

Getting Jiggy

At a guest ranch, commercial trail ride, or resort stables, trail horses are ridden almost every day, nose to tail, and selected for their sedate personalities. Strolling along is a great way to see the sights, especially if you’ve never ridden a horse before, but riding one’s own horse into the countryside is a dream of almost every cowgirl.

If you’ve ever ridden out with a group of friends on their own horses, however, you’re almost certain to have seen this: a saddle horse prancing uncontrollably, lathered with sweat, perhaps even bucking or rearing to go. The rider may be coming unglued—either with frustration, fear, or both—and the anxiety level is escalating. Any attempt at discipline, or slowing down, just seems to make the horse more agitated. The only thing that seems to help is to allow the high-strung horse to take the lead.

Whether it’s your horse or a friend’s horse that’s jigging, try to remember that the horse isn’t trying to be a jerk, ruin your day, or engage in a battle of wills—he’s trying to survive. Out in unfamiliar territory, traveling in a new “herd,” his instincts have taken over, and his instincts tell him it’s the animals lagging at the back of the group that get eaten by predators.

Horses who are natural leaders and have more dominant personalities may revert back to that position, relegating the rider to a lower rank, her requests no longer mandatory. It may seem counterintuitive, but an extremely submissive horse may be the worst jigger. Lacking confidence, their worries are magnified at the back of the pack; these horses are often becalmed when allowed to lead the group.

What to do? First and foremost, try to relax. Tensing your body and legs, tightening up on the reins and forcing the horse to stay back only reinforce the fear. You’re not going to solve this issue in one day or on one ride.

The jigging horse may be the type that needs skillful handling at home or in the arena, and regular enforcement of hierarchy out on the trail. This horse needs to know that you are in charge and just as importantly, that you’ve got his back. Repetition, preferably in a relaxed group of riders who are willing to alternate leaders and followers can be a successful strategy.

Helpful tip:

One technique used to transition a horse from instinctive, reactive behavior to a thinking, more respectful state is:  Move his feet. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, a horse asked to move and change direction usually “switches gears” from “instinct” to “think.” When you start by flexing the horse’s head to one side, then insist he change direction, circle, etc., you reassert yourself as the leader without resorting to violence.

I Swear I’ve Never Seen That Before!

You’ve practiced desensitizing your horse to a variety of items: Noisy plastic bags and tarps, rocking bridges, spraying hoses, other animals, even snapping flags… yet once out of familiar territory the sight of a simple log or boulder can send him flying sideways!

How can the natural world be so scary? Natural to whom? It’s likely that your horse spends most of his hours in the same paddock, pasture or barn stall. Riding and schooling may take place in an enclosed, safe arena or round pen…it’s all very reassuring to a prey animal, especially one that has never been asked to work in the wild.

Then comes group riding day in a place he may not recognize, so Mother Nature reminds your horse that to survive, he needs to be able to detect even the slightest variation in his surroundings. So while a blue tarp may be no problem, a red or grey tarp is considered a brand new threat! A hopeless case? Not at all. With continued exposure to new activities and places, horses can learn to quickly accept novel circumstances, and trust their rider’s judgment.

Helpful tip: 

Why do some horses always remain fearful? In many cases, the rider is reinforcing the behavior. Anticipating a negative response, experiencing fear yourself and expecting your horse to behave badly exacerbate any authentic trepidation.

If you’ve been successful in establishing a trusting, respectful relationship with your horse, the animal looks to you as its leader. And even the dumbest horse in the herd knows that when the leader is scared, it’s serious! So stay within your own comfort zone, and try to focus on something other than how your horse is going to react. If the horse feels that it’s no big deal to you, he’ll most likely decide it’s no big deal to him!

I’m Going Where She’s Going

An unhealthy relationship? You bet. And this one’s between the bay gelding and the paint mare that just met each other last night! Bonding with another horse, sometimes almost instantly, is clearly advantageous during evolution.

An unlucky prey animal separated from the herd does not have very good odds of survival; even one herd-mate is invaluable. Moreover, it’s horse-sense to do whatever it takes to keep buddies safe—and keep them from leaving!  Charging, biting and kicking other horses that come near are some shocking behaviors used by otherwise well-adjusted horses who are “defending” a new buddy.

Helpful tip:

Don’t be an enabler! It’s often easier, and a lot more fun, to just let your horse stay next to his buddy, but this only reinforces the herd instinct. Tough love, in the form of separate stalls, enforced distance when riding, and when possible, a variety of other horses and riders can reduce equine co-dependence.

Home Sweet Home

You’ve enjoyed a beautiful day of trail riding, and it’s time to go back to the barn. The horses will be bathed, groomed and put away, where a flake or two of hay and clear fresh water are likely to be waiting for them.

It’s not hard to figure out why horses can become a bit obnoxious on the ride home. If you’ve ever left work a little early on Friday afternoon, anticipating a relaxing evening or your local happy hour, you know the feeling! From walking more briskly, to all out jigging and head throwing, the “barn sour” horse is saying “I’m done.”

Helpful tip:

Don’t make a habit of running your horse all the way home, or even back to the trailer. At the end of a ride you may be tired, but keep your position as leader and don’t allow your horse to accelerate into a trot or lope without being asked. Frantic prancing is more challenging but the same tactics that work for jigging on the trail can be used on the return ride as well. Your horse may have learned he can wear you down, so your commitment to consistent behavior modification and your riding companion’s patient cooperation is a must.

Once home, if you can delay putting your horse away in its usual enclosure, and instead ask it to “keep working,” or even just tie it for awhile, you’ll begin to weaken the “trail is work, home is rest and relaxation” connection. Similarly, waiting an hour or two before feeding helps keep homebound anticipation low, and your horses mind on the here and now!

(Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).