Trail riding tips from seasoned TB trainer

Farah DeJohnette enjoys a spontaneous ride into the water. She wears her helmet most of the time, she notes.

Farah DeJohnette enjoys a spontaneous ride into the water. She wears her helmet most of the time, she notes.

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?

Students and horses face a number of obstacles, including this tarp, and learn to trust each other.

Students and horses face a number of obstacles, including this tarp, and learn to trust each other.

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.

Farah DeJohnnett says she is never a "hero" on the horse, and will bail off if the situation warrants.

Farah DeJohnnett says she is never a “hero” on the horse, and will bail off if the situation warrants.

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.

8 responses to “Trail riding tips from seasoned TB trainer”

  1. Lisa Melone

    Good advice! I always bail if things are about to get out of hand or dangerous. My OTTB can spook and spin on a dime–so if thing’s gets dicey, I get off an no one gets hurt.

  2. Faith

    Don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m loving the last photo…bareback AND bridle-less! Hooray for you and your buddy, Farah!

    1. farah

      Thanks Faith he is an amazing horse! We have come far together from bolting, bucking and spooking to bareback and bridle-less! 🙂

  3. Morgan

    Excellent article. I did a trail ride on my very mellow, very brave almost 4 year old never-raced TB gelding and a friend came along with her fresh off the track 4 year old and she had to hand walk her horse for a good portion of the trail. It was the safe thing to do. It was her mare’s first hack out ever and there was a lot to see. My boy was an excellent companion as he is so “whatever” about the trail (aside from water – momentarily his nemesis) and I think it gave both my friend and her horse confidence and kept anxiety to a minimum.

  4. Susan Crane-Sundell

    I like her advice:Start from where you are and don’t be too impatient to get to where you want to be. The horse will tell you exactly where you are starting from and that’s your best cue. It’s great to take a step back and just spend time enjoying bonding with your horse. I love her bareback photos, her legs have great position and strength.

  5. sharon

    Sensible advice, that often escapes many horsemen…
    thank you Farah!

    1. Kathy Casey

      I am a “special needs” rider and have built a strong bond with my OTTB, turned Therapeutic Partner, Ebony over the 10 years we have enjoyed one another. First through rehab for his hairline fx of a front ankle bone that he raced his last race on, and then as he assisted me to rehabilitate from a total collapse from a devastating MS flare in the process of the diagnostic quandary, and a lack of appropriate intervention with disease modifying drugs.Through it all He gave me hope and our hearts that bonded instantly when we first met, that led to him being gifted to me.

      Over the years many well meaning people have offered their “wisdom” regarding not only my choice of horses, as a 17 hh OTTB was seen as a “death wish” by many or an impossible obstacle to mount or God forbid be thrown from…”better that I be closer to the ground” they said! Ha Ha…the heart knows what the heart knows and Eb and I have become so close that he not only patiently tolerates my somewhat awkward mounts and dismounts but actually will balance and counterbalance to further assist me, allowing me to utilize the stirrup and all parts of the saddle to make the climb up the three step mount without rails and to stabilize my climb down while dismounting. He does not move until I am safely on the ground and then he turns his head toward me in expectation of his “good boy” hugs.

      The one thing we have not been able to do in the last 5 years is trail ride, and I long to do so. In spite of working with him on desensitizing over many things, water seems to be something that terrifies him! I have, several years ago gotten him to go through small puddles however neither of us were within our comfort zone. So my fear that there would be large puddles on a trail as well as his lack of current desensitization of walking through the woods. The fear may be unfounded, however they could be the result of a wonderful fall trail ride we were on in the first years of our life together…UNTIL we came faced off by a very large 10 point buck rutting in the middle of the trail where he stood and snorted loudly and threateningly at poor Eb!!! Well, Eb flew left off the trail and centrifugal force threw me off him and up against a tree on my backside!!! As scary as it may have been for me, it was totally traumatic for Eb, as he came back immediately and stood guard over me and licked me as I attempted to regain breath in my lungs and assess my possible injuries while fighting the pain in my body. The friend riding with me called for EMS to come and transport me out of the woods and when they came with a 4×4 to take me away Ebony was traumatized further by being separated from me. His anxiety was so bad that I had my friend ride back and “pony” Eb along behind the 4×4 so that he would calm down. As crazy as it might sound I was as concerned for him as I was for me. And the anxiety he felt thinking he was at fault only strengthened our bond. However, after that we have not had the opportunity to be where there have been suitable trails to ride on. One barn we boarded at had trails that were mere obstacle courses through dense woods with low hanging limbs to dodge and streams running through most of the few miles of rough trail. Needless to say I went once on the two choices there and that was a nail biting, knots in my stomach experience that I cared not to repeat, even though I was told “I should make him do it” and the barn owner knew he could be made to do it as she had had the audacity to let others ride him on the same trails!! Not again!! So I am currently at a barn that has nice trails however we have only ventured down one of them a very short way and he wanted to go back. I turned him around several times until it could be MY decision to head back, but I was extremely disappointed we did not get very far. I had’nt wanted to go far as I was a lone rider, and having MS I am more safety conscious and wouldn’t dream of going it alone the whole way. That was last fall and I long to try again now that spring has sprung and the weather is conducive to a pleasant ride through the woods. Any suggestions aside from the fact that I need to buddy up with someone who wishes to take a leisurely trail ride.

      1. farah

        Hi Kathy
        My question to you is what are you comfortable doing now with your horse? What baby step forward would you be comfortable doing? Then take that step 🙂

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