In urban equestrian areas, off-leash dogs and baby buggies are often as common as horses. These unfamiliar, fast-moving, and loud objects can frighten horses, causing them to startle, panic, rear, or bolt.
A few strategies can help prepare your horse for these contemporary trail obstacles and increase safety.
Know the Trail
Trail rules vary, but even in designated equestrian areas where horses have the right of way, people don’t always follow trail etiquette. Other trail users might be unfamiliar with local ordinances, and they often have no experience with horses. Before heading out on a ride to explore a new area, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the trail and the park rules.
Prepare in advance by learning about the park’s flora, fauna, and terrain, as well as who you’re likely to encounter, such as mountain bikes on horse trails. Some trails can be crowded, but others—like the stunning Norse Peak Wilderness area on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington State—limit hiking group size and exclude motorized vehicles and bicycles. The primary reason is to prevent wildlife disruption, but these restrictions also benefit horseback riders.
Joining an established group of riders, who have a wealth of local knowledge and experience, is one way to learn more about your region’s equestrian trails. In my state, the Back Country Horsemen of Washington is one such group; its members work with federal park agencies to maintain trails and advocate for equestrians.
Prepare Your Horse
Historically, trail riding has involved traversing ravines, wildlife run-ins, and bushwhacking through heavy brush. Trail obstacle courses were designed to simulate and prepare for some of these challenges, and course designers threw in a few manmade obstacles, such as mailboxes and gates. In addition to these traditional obstacles, riders are now encountering an increasing number of mountain bikes on horse trails, along with hikers, cyclists, baby buggies, and motorcycles and ATVs, which can be unfamiliar, fast, loud, and terrifying to many horses.
Positive or neutral experiences with obstacles beforehand can help your horse remain composed when coming across them on the trail. The first step is to simulate encounters in a controlled way. Training should involve three basic processes:
- Gradual exposure;
- Systematic desensitization; and
Setups promote habituation, which is a decrease in response to the object with repeated exposure. You can achieve habituation through desensitization exercises.1 In systematic desensitization, the horse initially experiences a mild or weak version of the object, and when he no longer takes particular notice of it, you increase the intensity progressively.
For example, a bicycle might initially be parked and ridden at a distance from the horse, then progressively brought closer across several training sessions. After desensitization training, the horse should be much less likely to react to a bicycle on the trail. You can use this method with a variety of novel encounters, including hikers with backpacks and strollers.
In real-life encounters, some objects approach the horse head-on while others sneak up from behind, so you should also include these elements in the training setups.
“Approach conditioning”1 is a desensitization technique for this purpose. For example, the rider or handler might encourage the horse to follow and approach a bicycle that is moving away from it. The “approach” behavior is reinforced when the bicycle retreats, and because it poses no threat, the horse will remain calm and get closer to the bicycle across sessions.
Generalization training is a final step; it involves repeating the exposure and desensitization exercises in several locations, at different times of day, and with a variety people. By doing this, the calm reaction you worked so hard to achieve is more likely to generalize to other contexts, including trail rides.
With increasing regularity, horses are sharing the trail with more people, including hikers, cyclists, and dirt-bike and ATV riders. Concerns raised by horseback riders have prompted me to add new elements to our local Trail Obstacle Challenge event, including a stroller, bicycle, and miniature horse and cart, all of which are frequently encountered on the trails where I ride. The desensitization and generalization training steps outlined in this commentary can help prepare your horse for chance encounters with these obstacles.
1McLean, A.N. and Christensen, J.W. (2017). The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190, 18–27
For all those folk, like me, who are unable to do desensitisation work owing to isolation or lack of assistants, I have found organic cider vinegar, dosed at an eggcup full in a tasty feed one hour before setting off, is a very effective calmative for at least some reactive horses. It won’t work for all horses, nothing does, but it changed my horse from a risky ride , going from a quiet field straight onto a busy bendy road to a laid back sensible ride.
Bicycle riders in forest parks should be warned with signs not to race round bends- they make no warning sounds.. Two horse riders from a busy livery/farm yard, on a local forest trail were thrown when their horses bolted as bicycle riders charged round a high bend down a steep narrow track. Silent bike riders approaching behind horses are also a real hazard.