Springtime and horses complete the quintessential picture so many dream about in the coldest depths of winter.
But when the barn door is open, and it’s time to step out on that first trail ride, the experience may not be a walk through the park.
Without a strong trust bond between horse and rider—one in which the rider knows the horse’s limits, and also understands his or her own capabilities as well, trail riding can be tricky, according to Farah DeJohnette, a Massachusetts-based trainer who specialized in Liberty training.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, DeJohnette talks trail riding as she preps to host the Confident Trail Riding Workshop May 4 at Windhorse International in Bethlehem, Conn.
Q: How do you build trust between a horse and rider for the trails?
I’m big on baby steps on everything. There are a lot of people with well-meaning advice out there, like your more advanced friends who push you and encourage you to do more than you can.
I don’t believe in pushing a horse or rider beyond their comfort zone.
Q: How do you know what a horse and rider are capable of?
I get a baseline and work from there. First I find out what the vision is that the rider has in mind. A rider might say she “sees herself riding on the beach,” but her horse might be thinking he doesn’t. He might think he’d rather be in the pasture with his friends eating grass.
My approach revolves avoiding the “big no” or a confrontation and instead I like to find things that the hose will say yes to. This is how I take baby steps to see what the horse is willing to do, right now, and to reward him for that.
Q: So before the horse and rider ever make it to the fields and valleys, they’re doing ground work in an arena.
In the ground phase of training, we work in an arena with obstacles and fundamentals. I will purposely create a situation where the horse will escalate to a level outside his comfort zone to get a read on how sensitive the horse is, and how the rider will respond to that.
When I’m looking at a horse, I grade them on a scale of 1-10. A horse at a level 1 is a horse who is politely asking for something, he’s suggesting something. A horse at a level 10 is being hysterical, melting down, and being dangerous.
If the horse is at a Level 5 or below, he is probably somewhat negotiable, and teachable.
Some Thoroughbreds are really brave—they’ll jump anything. But others are very timid. The goal is to figure out where they are and then learn how to teach them to remain confident.
Q: Another important part of prepping for trail riding is gauging the rider’s confidence and sensitivity to their horse.
I ask people to be very real about themselves, and to describe what makes them uncomfortable. Some people think the horse should give them confidence, but that’s a rare horse. Sure there are old schoolmasters out there, but for the most part, we need to give the horse confidence. When he spooks and freaks out, if we go to the same place and start freaking out too, it only escalates it.
I quiz people to get an idea of their confidence. Some people have an irrational fear, which has nothing to do with the horse they’re riding or the situation they’re in. Then there is healthy fear, when you’re presented with a situation, like an escalating horse, and at that point I don’t care what you do in that situation except to make yourself safe.
Some people say that you should stay on your horse no matter what. We’re taught that to get off is wrong. I don’t agree with that. I will be the first one who feels a young horse escalating on me and I’m not going to be a hero about it. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get away from danger.
If your horse goes into a dead panic, I say, move away from whatever is frightening your horse. Become your horse’s hero. This will help the horse have confidence in you.