Building Strength & Confidence on the Trail

As a mother of three (and grandmother, too) I know how important it is to build strength and confidence in your children. When my kids grew up in Germany, there were no ipods or tablets, and 'playing' meant running outside and getting knocked around a bit.

Today, my kids are strong and confident adults, who learned to ride a bike, swim, climb a tree, build sand castles, balance on climbing beams, build wood huts on 'adventure playgrounds', spend a (scary) night sleeping in their tree house and exploring the world on their own two feet. All this built physical and mental strength and the ability to find one's way in the world.

Let Your Horse 'Climb a Tree'

The same applies to horses. A dressage ring or jumping course alone cannot provide the physical and mental challenges as a natural environment that needs to be explored. Neither can the confines of a rectangle strengthen the horse mentally and physically to build real ability or confidence needed to succeed in the equestrian pursuit of your choice or to be a reliable partner.

Cavalry veteran and - perhaps - last living cavalry instructor, clinician, riding master, and author Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner hit the nail on its head when he developed and published his DVD "Hangbahntraining", an approach to condition horses in a natural environment on hills (available at Xenophon press).

In fact, the original source of the Training Scale - the HDV12 German Cavalry Manual - lays out a systematic training program that focuses on work on the trail.

Do you (and I...) have what it takes?

Many of us riders, though, have lack in the confidence department when it comes to 'X-Training' on the trail, especially with young or new horses. 

  • What is safe? How can I make my ride safer?
  • How do I start?
  • How do I develop a conditioning program?
  • How do I handle 'obedience' problems on the trail (yes, we need to stay the 'captain' of our ship...)?
  • What equipment do I need?

There are many questions around the topic of conditioning your horses on the trail.

Here some pointers:

  • Start where you are. If you are - for your own very good reasons - not a confident rider on the trail, pair up with a friend with a safe and reliable horse and start by walking, setting attainable goals (start with 15 minutes!). Work yourself up to 1 hour of relaxed riding at the walk. 
  • A good start for a conditioning program is riding 3 x per week for 1 hour on the trail. Start at the walk and incorporate short trot sequences after a few rides. Relaxation is key!  Keep as long a rein as safely doable.
  • Safety first: Check your equipment for comfort and fit, for yourself and the horse. If needed, decide to use a different bit on the trail. Some horses get quite a bit hotter when out in the open. So trade in our bitless bridle for something that provides more stopping power, if needed, for example. Helmet - and perhaps a safety vest - can be life savers and provide reassurance.
  • Practice the 'one rein stop' in the arena. Start your trail conditioning program once you have it mastered.
  • Look into 'gymnasticizing' and transfer exercises (ground poles, voltes, small obstacles, lateral movement) onto the trail!

IMPORTANT: Never rush in any gait! Let the horse pick its pace at any given gait and transition up to the next gait, if you want to go faster. Pick a riding buddy where horses are similar in stride length and prefer similar speeds.

This just in a nut shell. If your are in Wisconsin or Illinois, you will find a great opportunity to ride in a clinic on "Hone Your Competitive Edge- with X-Trainig on the Trail" with veteran Endurance Champion Bonnie Mielke on April 29th in Oregon, WI. Details see here.

Enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

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