Question: I have a 14 yr old QH mare who when my daughter and I go on trail rides panics if she is not the lead horse. It is difficult because my daughter likes to ride ahead sometimes but my horse gets real speedy and bouncy trying to catch up with the other horse. If I hold her back it is difficult and i do alot of circles to get her to stay slow. I have also noticed that when we are in the show ring she tries to catch up with the horse in front of us and then when and if we pass she is fine. Is there any way to make her feel more comfortable without being in the lead? I do trail ride her alone a lot also and she is fine. Just when there is another horse in front of her.
Answer from April Reeves: You could work on this problem a number of ways. What I will try to do is set up a training method that you can accomplish.
This is a tough habit to break. Your mare is likely the dominant in this herd of 2 (herd of 4 when humans show up), so she will demand that her role be acknowledged on the trail or arena.
Or she may be suffering separation anxiety (herd bound). If this is the case, you may have a horse that you will never be able to break from this habit entirely. In all honesty, I have worked with these horses and although I can ride them safely, when they go back to the owners it starts up all over again.
You will need a lot of time and patience to work this through. The other idea is to just let it go and live with it. Unfortunately, there is no teaching or lesson learned by either you or your horse by doing this. While I don’t have any problem letting the horse lead a trail ride, I do find that there is a bit of danger involved when the horse is in the show ring. Other rider’s safety is at stake here, and accidents are often caused by horses that lack obedience.
Also, a herd bound horse must be constantly reminded and retrained to stay responsive and quiet. It’s not a problem that disappears forever.
(I just had a little chuckle to myself. Earlier I had a question from a TB trainer on how to get his horse to want to be a lead horse when racing with others. One man’s problem is another man’s dream).
Let’s start with arena exercises.
You will need another rider and horse to help you with this. It is going to take some timing.
Have someone ride in front of you about 5 horse lengths. Both horses stay on the rail at a trot. Allow your mare to trot behind, keeping a loose rein and allow her to choose to speed up. When she tries to catch up, yell “okay’ to the rider ahead, signaling them to walk. You take your mare and circle her twice in about a 20 foot circle, then back on the rail, staying at the trot. The rider ahead at the walk will begin to trot again, so that the two horses are back to being 5 horse lengths apart.
You do not want your mare to ever be able to catch up to the horse ahead. As you begin the circles, gently guide her by following a feel, as opposed to tight reining her through the circles. You want to establish the habit of being able to stay soft with her, and not raise any anxiety she may already be experiencing. You want her to know that she will always be in the vicinity of the other horse without having to be too close or passing it, and that it will not leave her.
As the two horses continue around the ring on the rail, and your mare makes a second attempt to speed up and catch up, repeat the process. You will likely have to do this over and over again, for three or more days – as long as it takes. Never let the two get any closer than 3 horse lengths.
If your horse or the other horse gets winded, stop and let them catch their breath by walking around the arena in multiple directions, never getting close to each other or in the same direction.
Once she seems to be okay with this new arrangement, and you have allowed her a loose rein to discover this lesson on her own (thereby setting up responsibility for the horse to assume instead of you, by trying to hold her back), you can now work on down transitions. This will be odd for her as she will now be watching the horse in front leave her. This will be asking her for obedience, which you will need on the trail.
This is a figure 8 pattern. The two of you will ride the top circle of the 8 about 30 feet in diameter together and come into the middle. You will stop your mare and the other rider will carry on. Start at the walk so that you can get a halt from your mare. She will have to stand quietly while the other horse walks a circle and comes back to collect her. When the other horse returns, pick up your walk with them and walk another circletogether. Repeat the pattern until your mare is standing quiet on her own.
Once she is quiet work the figure 8 at the trot, halting in the middle and picking up the other rider for the other half of the 8.
Another exercise I like is the ‘meet and greet’. Each rider starts at each end of the arena, and trots toward each other, passing by about 2-3 feet apart to the other side. It really gets the horse thinking, as they come together and leave. I do this continually with my young horses that will be entering the show ring.
These simple exercises are great for teaching a horse to stay calm when horses come and go. If your mare does not warm up to them right away, you will need to keep them up until she gets it. When it comes to training, never give up too soon and never give in.
You can also invent other exercises to do that bring together and separate her from another horse. I like exercises that make the horse experience closeness by working together, then instantly separate them, keeping them working and thinking. Then come together again and repeat the separation exercises. It sets up the horse to accept separation without reacting.
Once you feel your mare is becoming more comfortable with the process, ask the other rider to leave the arena. Go back and forth, walk in and ride a round and walk out. Keep your mare in and keep her working.
By getting their minds on other things you create a process of learning. Horses by nature, in the wild, are habitual and instinctual, and do not normally use their thinking brain. Humans have to set up the pattern to get the horse to not only try using thinking brain, but to look to the thinking brain first before instinct and survival. This is what we teach young horses when we desensitize them. We are actually asking the horse to shut down their reactive side and use their thought process to get them through the experience. As with teaching a horse to not react to spooky stuff while riding, you are asking them to use a thinking brain first before reacting. This is not a normal function for a wild horse. As humans, we must train horses by setting up the lesson for using thought over instinct.
Exercises for the trail
This will take a bit more patience and follow through. You will be doing similar exercises as the arena work, but on a trail, which means you may not have the room to circle safely.
Once your mare is comfortable in the arena leaving horses and not trying to catch up to whoever is in front, you can begin to work on her outside. You will now have a level of obedience that will help you on the trail. Without it, you would have been fighting her too much, and teaching this lesson on the trail for anyone is not easy.
First exercise I like to do is ‘approach and retreat’. You and your riding friend will halt both horses on the trail. You will face opposite directions and walk off. At first, walk far enough that you are away from the other horse but not out of sight. Turn around at the same time, and walk back toward each other. Once you meet in the middle, just keep going in the other direction. Repeat this until the horses are quiet, and then take it a bit further by going out of sight. Stay at the walk still. Once the horses are quiet with this, pick up your trot and do this at the trot.
When that lesson is established with control and obedience, now your mare will be tested. Walk both horses together and have the other horse trot off in front of you. Have that horse stop just within eyesight. Walk up and meet them, pass and trot off yourself to almost out of eyesight. This is a good exercise for both horses, and I work on babies with this exercise all the time (and older horses too). Stop when you are almost out of sight, then have the other rider trot, pass and go ahead and stop. Repeat this until both horses are quiet and then try moving out of sight. This exercise is for herd bound horses also, but it works for horses that like to keep up. It’s really about being obedient.
While you are doing each of the arena and outside work, your mare should be good with all the aids. If you find you have to get aggressive or strong with ANY aid, go back to basic foundation work and start again. Then you can pick up these exercises again. It’s no fun to have to pull to stop or get on a horse that walks off. I get a solid foundation on a horse before anything else. With it, you may find that all the other problems go away, as foundation work teaches obedience. If you need any help with foundation training, my blog ‘April Reeves Horse Training.wordpress.com’ has a really good long article about the basics. Go to ‘Basic groundwork and saddle work for the herd bound horse’, under the general category.
I do use circles on the trail, but only when I have the space and footing to do so. I find however that most circles only encourage more behavior, as the rider only uses them for a short time and then takes the horse back on the trail. It’s important to remember to keep up the circling long enough to get the horse soft and responsive. You need to keep their feet moving until you get that breakthrough where the horse ‘changes his mind’ and stops the ‘catch up’ process. That’s where patience comes in. I have often taken older horses on the trail to teach this lesson, and it takes a ton of patience from the other rider to wait it out while you circle for half an hour. You need space as you can’t circle them too tight – if the horse begins to experience pain with the training program they will become more resistant.
I find that I get more accomplished by getting off the horse and doing groundwork to get obedience, and then get back on and continue. I never fight a horse in the saddle if I don’t have to. The horse you lead is the horse you ride, and if you can be safe on the ground and work out the problem you can get the job done safely and effectively. I think that same article has mention of this also. I normally get off a horse that is spooky or balking. For your problem you may not need to but it’s a good thing to learn anyway.
I hope this gives you a start to overcoming the problem. It’s just not fun when you have to micromanage a horse on a trail. Take the time necessary to get a result, and find the results in the smallest of breakthroughs. What may seem small to the human is a really big deal to the horse.