Trail Horse- Elite Trained

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I just finished conducting a Trail Clinic at the World Championship Chuck Wagon Racing Championship in Clinton, Arkansas. I had a wonderful, interactive group of participants. I appreciate each and everyone of them. Their attentiveness, questions, and desire to try new things made my job easy. Thank You for making my Day!

A supple and flexible equine that yields to leg and rein pressure is the basis of many different disciplines. The basic maneuvers required of a horse are backing, stopping, guiding, turns, leads, lead changes, and roll backs.  All of these maneuvers are developed by being able to control a horse’s head, shoulders, rib  and hip.  Horsemen simply use those controls with the pressure and release technique to encourage the horse to learn all of the essential elements of handling. In addition, those same cues allows us to set up more advanced maneuvers that are easy for the horse to learn and execute without much resistance.  In all of our training, we want to develop relaxation in the horse.  Generally, the slower you go and the more black and white you make it for the horse, the more the horse understands it and the more relaxed the horse will be.

I have a very strong philosophical belief that recreational trail horses should be the most highly trained and responsive horses in the industry. Why? There are several reasons. 1) Safety. A safe horse is a highly trained, responsive horse. When you are riding on the trail you have little or no control of the circumstances that you may encounter. You need a horse that you can control with no resistance and little effort. 2) Enjoyment. You trail ride for recreation, relaxation and pleasure. What is fun about riding a horse that is unpredictable, uncontrollable and a nuisance to ride? 3) Comfort. Hours and miles in the saddle is physically challenging for even the most dedicated trail rider. Riding an unresponsive or belligerent horse increases the physical demands on the rider and reduces the time spent in the saddle. Thus, it cheats you out of opportunities to see or experience those once –in-a-lifetime events that can occur while on the trail. 4) Cost. What is it costing you to feed and care for those horses you are keeping that you prefer not to ride?  What does it cost you each time you make a trade for a new one? The good ones may cost more on the front end, but after that the expenses are the same. 5) Time. How much valuable recreational time are you wasting because of reduced time in the saddle as the result of stress, anxiety, or physical demands from riding a horse you don’t like? Time is valuable these days. I want a horse that I can catch, trailer, saddle and ride with no effort. Like cost, it takes more (time) on the front end, but the dividends are very high after that.

Getting a horse to tune in and listen to your cues begins with getting into their minds. I start my training on the ground, and hopefully at an early age, although any horse can be re-programmed. It just takes longer. Only after I build a foundation on the ground, will I progress to the saddle. All training is based on the basic principle of pressure and release.  We put pressure on the horse in some way or another and as soon as the horse responds in a positive manner, we release that pressure.  The horse learns to respond and give the appropriate response by the release of pressure.  So if we ask the horse to move his hip, we put pressure on his hip and as soon as he moves his hip, we release that pressure.  If we fail to release that pressure, the horse will get frustrated and confused and try other avenues of escape. On the other hand, if the horse responds inappropriately to pressure and we quit applying pressure, he has learned the inappropriate response to the pressure and/or cue.

Progressive pressure is our way of asking the horse in an escalating way for a response. If we do not get the response from the cue, then we apply progressively more pressure. So we cue the horse first, then we bump the horse, and then we will apply our spur lightly and then ultimately we spur heavily or spank with the reins.  As soon as the horse responds, we will release all pressure as previously discussed and the next time we ask for a response, we go back to the lightest cue.  In every situation, we ask with the lightest possible cue and progressively get more demanding until we get the response that is appropriate. We can define our request of the horse as “ask, tell, demand and force system” where we always ask first before we tell them and then ultimately demand and enforce our request.  Again, it is always critical to go back to the lightest pressure each time you ask for a particular maneuver again.

As the horse develops, we continually increase our expectations.  Increasing expectations is what moves the horse from the average and mediocre level to the intermediate and ultimately the advance levels of performance. Ultimately all horsemen are seeking to create a partnership with the horse where you communicate with the horse with very subtle cues and the horse responds and operates with little or no pressure. When the horse is listening to very subtle cues and has learned his job well, they get the responsibility of a partner and in some cases the opportunity for independent thought.

I ride in many disciplines- from recreational trail riding to all elements of ranch versatility and cow work. I expect my trail horse(s) to work a cow. I expect my cow horse to carry me over the Rocky Mountains or compete in a trail/ranch class competition. If I plan for elite training, I get elite performance. I get to enjoy the experience and feel safe doing it.


Stop Being Human Long Enough to Let the Horse Participate


I made this quote to a new riding friend the other day and the ensuing discussion lasted for hours. It sounds simple, but when you apply it, there is a multitude of applications – self-discipline, cognizance of what your body is signaling to the horse and that slow and deliberate is fast. It also opens the door to timing and feel.

We as humans are the predator – we want and need to control things. And, we want it NOW. The horse is prey- he reacts to the circumstances. The horse doesn’t care when or how it happens, as long as his comfort returns. Yet, the horse has the ability to reason to some degree, if for no other reason than to seek release from pressure. In the training process, we need to allow the horse to seek the right answer. That means we may need to hold a cue a little longer or change the cue ever so slightly and allow the horse to figure it out. This is how you get quicker responses, softer feel. Your horse will be more relaxed and confident. True unity will start to form. This philosophy is the basis of the lessons that Tom Dorrance describes and Ray Hunt taught. It’s taken me years to grasp it, but the picture is getting clearer


Successful training results from the human understanding how to see life from the horse’s point of view. A horse’s motivation in life is to be safe and comfortable. A human motivation may be success, praise, recognition, money, etc. These things have no value to the horse. Horsemanship is a partnership between human and horse. This partnership must be based on communication and trust, not fear and intimidation. We must be able to trust our horse to the degree we want our horse to trust us. I see trust starting with communication. Communicating with the horse is getting them to respond to a cue in a manner that results in the correct response, yet, provides comfort and safety for the horse, at least from the horse’s point of view. To accomplish anything, there must be someone in charge, the leader. It is important for the human to establish himself as the leader. Quality leadership demands emotional, mental and physical stability and consistency in communication from the human. The horse will be more willing to try hard for you, if you have demonstrated this leadership style over time.


If we consider horsemanship as a partnership between human and horse, then both parties have responsibility. If we have established the human as the leader, then what is the horse’s responsibility? The horse’s role is then to follow the leader. The horse also has a vested interest because he is the one that is expending the energy! The horse needs to be part of the training process. They are capable of many things athletically, but you must include them in the mental part of things as well. The horse must be rewarded for any success. This reward is comfort and safety. This principle results in the horse willing to keep trying and ultimately, searching for that particular movement (or lack of movement, in the case of stop) of feet and legs that results in release of pressure (stimuli).


Here is how we include the horse in the training process:

  1. Listen to him. The horse will tell you what he’s thinking. He can communicate confusion, fear, understanding, excitement, or level of effort through his body language.
  1. Build a basis for communication. Ray Hunt always said, “Reward the smallest change and the slightest try.”
  1. Always be consistent in your cues. Start from the ground and then progress to the saddle with lateral and vertical flexion, control of the feet, and control the movement of the body. This will build a supple, willing horse, and give consistency to communication.
  1. Expect and accept failure. Each cue is not going to be understood and executed. Therefore, failure becomes a “teachable moment” in which we can re-evaluate our communication. It is also an opportunity to back up and make sure the fundamental training steps have been learned.
  1. Build a foundation for success. Everything we ask a horse to do, he already knows how to do. We are just asking him to do them exactly when we want him to do it. All a horse can do is move forward, backward, sideways, left, right and stop. Everything we ask is a combination of these maneuvers or change in speed. Start slow and build momentum. Allow the horse to buy into our system.
  1. Wait on the horse. Sometimes the horse knows what we are asking him to do, but he is not confident of himself or natural instincts say there is potential danger. If we wait, let the horse try, and have success, then that builds confidence in the horse. Success will build success and give the horse confidence to try new challenges. He will also learn to trust you more in the process.
  1. Challenge you and your horse. How do you know your horse is ready for a new challenge? Ask for it, and see what happens. Make sure your insecurities are not hindering your horse’s educational progress. Progress cannot be measured by always executing the past lessons. Add challenges to your routine that causes the horse to think. Horses become bored from monotonous routines


Having clear communication and a horse that wants to work with you can only improve your performances. To gain and maintain top performances you need to regularly review your communication and the quality of your partnership by allowing the horse to think and participate in the process. Mistakes will be made, but this creates an opportunity to evaluate the process.


“The horse will teach you if you‘ll listen.” –  Ray Hunt