Trail Riding.

When I first started taking lessons, I rode with a crazy lady who had lied her way into a training position.  I was cantering fences and didn't know what my diagonals were.

After some drama, that lady fled to Canada (so the rumor goes) and another lady, who I think I've called the "classic master", took over.  This lady knew her shit, but was seriously old school.

The structure of lessons remained the same:  an hour of flat work, a break to water the horses, and roughly 45 minutes of jumping, followed by a trail ride.

Trail rides have been a part of my riding since I could tack up a horse.  It's like a mental thing, now.  I need silence and woods and a loose rein.  I need the seemingly lack of structure to rebalance myself mentally.

When I first started working with Archie, before I bought him, we stayed in the ring.  I'd spent the year-ish prior galloping a quarterhorse in the woods.  I wasn't afraid of riding out there, but I was afraid of him.  I'd taken him around the pond a few times, had a few hard spooks, and built up enough ball-busting fear to be petrified.  Put me on a lesson pony and toss me in with a group of teenagers (they still bounce) and I was fine participating in races between the rows of trees.  Ask me to take Archie back there alone or with another horse and I would turn around almost immediately.

This pond and those woods, actually.
Always wear a helmet.
Eventually, though, I started making myself go, albeit sporadically and rarely.  It was ingrained in me:  trails need to be ridden.  Horses need a break from the ring.  Humans need a break, too.  I found that Archie wasn't the most solid trail horse.  I'll never forget walking down a steep incline and him pausing to scratch his nose.

When we moved to the crazy barn in Savannah, there weren't really any trails.  If you've been with me since the beginning of this blog, you probably remember.  It was a for me to walk him on the dirt road behind the pastures.  I carried my fear with me on every ride.

By the marsh.
At the end of this dirt road is the Vernon River.

Fast-forward to a year ago and the new barn.  This whole experience has been a breath of fresh air.  From the very first ride, I made it a priority to trail ride as much as possible.  Every ride, weather and bugs permitting.  I set the tone for our new lives here and it wasn't going to be a culture of fear.

So Saturday, we set off and explored more and just spent some time walking in the woods.  We had to have one conversation about walking by the ditch we normally use to go home.

I'll never tire of pony ears on the river bank.
I tried to take him to a new place and he tried to convince me that we were going to die.
But, after making him walk until I decided to turn around (rather than one of his signature spins), I ceded.  Way too many damn bugs because the water was right there.
So then we went the other way!
Not super long, but enough.
I know some people have written lately about fear of open riding.  I'm not an expect (yo, endurance riders?!).  But it's a priority to me.  To do it regularly and safely.  I can only offer a couple of tips:  start small and decide in advance where you're going to stop (like set small goals); just like any other ride, end on a good note; if you go alone, have a cell phone handy; if you go with someone, remember that your horses may feed off each other.  And always remember that your horse is only going to have the experience you give him.  Stay calm, breathe deep, and just enjoy the scenery.

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  1. Great job getting out there! Nice post and excellent tips!

    [Oy - did we have the same trainer? I was jumping on my third lesson (9 years old) and never got any instruction about emergency stops, dismounts, how to fall more safely... At least we wore helmets lol. ;D]

  2. Great tips! I have to say since you moved barns the change in both you and Arch is super noticeable and totally in all the right directions.

  3. nice post! i agree completely that the mental break can be so critical - and refreshing!! it's great that you and Archie were able to move past the bad vibes and fear and get back out there :)

    i try to trail ride weekly (esp thinking how great the hill work can be) but my trainer tells me that to maximize the benefit of hill work, the horse needs to be working - ie connected and on the bit. but i just can't bring myself to ruin the mood like that lol...

  4. I love getting out of the ring, and have to for sanity's sake. I'm jealous of your nice trails! We don't really have that.

  5. Great post. I need to set myself some small achievable goals for fall -- nothing too ambitious due to recent injuries -- and getting more confidence trail riding is a great one.

  6. Good advice. Start small, breath. I can do that!

  7. Good for the soul that is for sure!

  8. Oooh trail rides. Welp- I know one thing- you're still braver than I am!

  9. I agree with L: this barn move has been so good for you and Archie!

    I was the opposite of you when I started going back out on the trail: I would make no plan at all. My goal would be to see how far we could go based on Lily's mental state on a given day. If we didn't get that far, that was absolutely fine. The idea was to remove all pressure and make it enjoyable and relaxing for both of us. I'd play music on my headphones at a low volume so I could still hear sounds around me. The music helped keep me focused on the trail and not so much on potential causes of spooks. If I got nervous, I started to sing: singing forces you to breathe and creates the illusion of being relaxed. The illusion then becomes reality.
    This all did wonders for Lily, and that's when I realized that it was mostly my fault that she had become so nervous on the trail: because *I* was a nervous wreck!
    I still need to ride out frequently or I will regress back into the fear. If I spend a couple of weeks riding on the farm property or in the arena, it makes it hard to get back out. Consistency is key when it comes to the mental aspect of trail riding.

  10. Trails are so good for our heads and the horse's - and the trail is so good for their bodies! One of my endurance mentors used to train TBs on the track. Her training program was almost exclusively trail-based. While the horse's owners and others weren't thrilled with her approach, they couldn't deny the benefits of it - the horses she trained rarely, if ever, incurred injuries on the track. Their bodies were stronger and better developed for all of their time traveling over varied terrain. Trails can help so much within so many disciplines!