Sunday, April 23, 2017

From Faith to Fulfillment: The Making of a Trail Horse

Day 50: 2016 Blog Entry

"In truth, I would rather that our 50th ride had been better, so that I could sit here and write about how wonderful it was and how hard work really pays off. Instead, I'm trying to talk myself out of discouragement, if you couldn't tell.

I guess you've gotta have the faith."

For fun, I clicked on the "Day 50" keyword to compare Day 50, "Heaven, I'm in Heaven," of 2017 to the corresponding Day 50 of 2016.  The quote above was taken from that entry.

What a difference a year makes.


How we got here.

The huge leap in Leah's trail abilities got me thinking about what it was that made a difference, and I want to quickly write about that today.

1st, I spent many hours with trainers helping me with Leah's first rides.  Regina was my first mentor, and she was there with me when Leah had no steering or understanding of any cues--no practice carrying a rider--in other words, completely "green  horse."  She gave me several tactics to stop her when she'd run away and to stay safe in those first few rides.  We started on the ground and worked our way into saddle.  She never got in the saddle for me.  (Rachel, another trainer, did on three occasions.) I had to dig deep and overcome a lot of fear in those days, but something in me was determined to finally get Leah trained and on the trails.  After all, I'd had her since she was two, and time was ticking--she was 9 when we started.  But doing it with Regina and Rachel by my side, and only doing what I was comfortable with--made all the difference in Leah getting a positive start.

After 9 months of lessons with Regina, I had Leah going pretty well, and I was ready to start the trails, but I made the mistake of letting her get obese, and she developed mild laminitis, which ended our trail riding season before it began.

Enter my new trainer, Rebecca, who helped me keep Leah going at home and through monthly trail clinics at the barn next door.  Those clinics culminated in last month's trail obstacles and a private lesson in crossing water--which brought us to "Heaven, I'm in Heaven" last Friday.

Those of you have followed this journey know all the ups and downs I've encountered, and I'm sure they will not be the last.  That's life with horses.


The day of the trail ride.

The day of the ride, I was meeting 4 other friends at the trail head at our large state park.  I fully expected that I would have to let them ride on without me so that I could help Leah get through it, and I let them all know that they should be prepared to leave me behind.  

The ride was about Leah and me.  Period.  

I made sure to arrive at the trail head 45 minutes before the others so that I could work with Leah in the 60' roundpen.  I did the exercises Regina (1st trainer) had taught me with a little bit of Rebecca's "at liberty" sprinkled in.  

Round-pen exercise: I asked Leah to move out at walk, trot, and canter, and had her switch directions intermittently. (No lead line).  To switch directions, I would scoot backwards really fast and block her path, while opening up a door for her to face me.  At first, she didn't want to face me, she wanted to look over the round-pen into the woods, so I'd push her on, but eventually, she tuned in and faced up.  When she'd face up, I'd ask her to turn in and switch directions. Eventually, I had her come to me and walk, and back up, at liberty by my side.

Obstacle Course:  After the round-pen work, Leah was listening and using the thinking side of her brain.  I saddled her and walked her through all the trail obstacles.  She did fabulous on all of them.  (The ladder, bridge, tire mount, and all the rest.)  After in-hand, I mounted up and did them all in saddle.  

Trail Ride:


The actual trail ride had me worried.  She had been bolting, on the previous ride, even at the sight of water in the distance.  I didn't expect it to go well, and I told everyone that to prepare them.  She quickly made a liar out of me, though, because the first puddle we came to, she crossed.  Then the second, and then the larger third puddle.  She balked at four and five, but followed another horse through.  Remember, my plan was to stay at the puddle until she crossed, but once she crossed, to ride on.  On one of the puddles, she started to balk, but when she saw the other horses moving on without her, she made a mental determination to cross and follow them. (Smart girl!)  I rode with a crop to block her if she started to bolt.  I did have to wave that in front of her left eye a couple of times.

Walking Out Fast:

After the water, Leah gained confidence and wanted to take the lead.  I let her, as long as she stayed at the walk.  She had a fast walk and quickly outpaced the rest of the group.  We were so far ahead, I could barely hear them anymore, but Leah seemed unfazed.  She was completely tuned in to me--both ears constantly checking in with me--so much so, we couldn't even get a picture of her without both ears back listening for direction.  (My friends clucked, called, whistled, but she wouldn't give them a single ear.  Makes for bad pictures, but good horses.)

Cliff Side:

I hadn't planned on going cliff side with Leah, I had planned to stay on interior trails, but she was doing so well, I felt like it was the day.

We had a few issues.  

First, we encountered standing water at a narrow, steep point, and her first inclination was to find a way around it.  I tried to hold her in the center, though, and keep her going forward.  She did.  

Second, I could feel her getting disconnected at times and building up increasing fear (we were cliff side, after all, right next to a rushing river.)  Regina had taught me this gentle back and forth with the bit to remind her I'm there and to keep her from looking too long in one direction.  I took the reins up a big (she had been on a loose rein) and started to tweek it with my pinky--gently--a little, "I'm here, Leah. Look this way. Now, look that way."  It worked and she regained confidence and connection.

Third, at the steepest and highest part (right before we ascended to the bluff pictured above) she tuned into the trees and shrubs on our left and wasn't looking at all at the extremely narrow path (any misplaced foot would be a drop) or the right side drop off itself.  It was almost as if she was too scared to look at it.  In that minute or so, I actually had a very crazy thought, "If I die now, I won't get to enjoy my new tack room!!"  So, I used my pinky to gently tug on Leah's bit to the right--as if to say, "Hey Leah, looky over here, girl, there's a big, big drop off.  We don't want to go there!"   When we got to the top, my friends said they didn't notice anything, but it was very obvious as the rider.  I think she will get better with more confidence and trail miles.  

When we did get to the top, I was ecstatic, and I asked them to take our picture to commemorate.  It was a mixture of feeling lucky to have survived those last scary moments on the trail and pride in Leah for having carried us through.  (Cowboy was a much more seasoned trail horse when he first rode that trail, and he was worse his first time over it.  So much so, that I avoided that section with him for over a year.)

I know that Leah and I have many fears to overcome as we continue to get our trail miles together, but I plan to stick to the foundation and the training regimen that has carried us this far, and I expect it to get easier and easier, and our partnership, deeper and deeper.


  1. This post makes me happy. I know the depth of your happiness over this because we have been on parallel journeys. It's lovely on the other side isn't it.

    1. Yes, it is. I have to take it one day at a time, but that one was lovely and she was lovely again today. Dare I hope?

  2. I think you and Leah have come very far in your partnership and her training. Everything from here just gets better and better each time you ride together ;)

  3. A lot of the success in this story is in your grit and determination to help your horse- and in doing so, helping yourself. Good work.

    1. Very true. It has been quite the adventure!

  4. Replies
    1. Ha! Judging by the 2016 entry, I guess that's true!


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.