Training The Trail Horse – Part 2

Riding the high country



What Makes a Good Trail Horse?


Today I’m going to talk about the characteristics that make for a really good trail horse.  Some horses have what it takes “by nature”.  But on the other hand, some horses, just don’t have enough, of what it takes, to make a good trail horse.  Sure you can train for good trail qualities, but there’s only so much that you can train a horse to do, if he doesn’t have the natural ability to begin with.

The first thing I’m going to do, is give you a list of what I believe, are the most important qualities that a good trail horse should have.  I’m going to begin with my top four characteristics, and then I will explain them, and break them down into smaller categories.



Top Four Qualities Needed For A Good Trail Horse


#1.  A Good Mind.   #2.  A Smooth Gait   #3.  Surefootedness    #4.  The Right Size


Top 4I’m going to take each of these qualities, and explain what characteristics contribute to creating these qualities.  Can you ride a horse on the trails if he doesn’t possess these qualities, or if he doesn’t excel at them?  Of course you can.  But I want you to see how these are what I think makes for a “good” trial horse, and even the “best” trail horse.  So here we go, let’s examine each quality…





#1.  A good trail horse needs to have a good mind. 


thinkThere are several attributes that make up “a good mind”, and the more of these attributes that your horse has, the better he’ll be as a trail horse.  This really holds true for any horse, in any particular discipline you choose.  If a horse is going to be “good” at something, he has to have the mental ability to be able to do, what he is expected to do.  Horses can be bred to have the qualities needed for any particular type of use, and that includes horses used for trail riding.  Some people think that if a horse doesn’t have the ability to excel at some particular activity, he can still always be used as trail horse.  Well, I guess that’s true up to a point.  But sometimes, horses don’t do well at what they’re originally trained for because they lack the mental ability to “safely” do what you want him to do.  Generally, if a horse is unsafe for one riding discipline, they’ll be unsafe at other disciplines as well.



Let me give you an example. 


Consider a “spooky” horse.  Yes, spooky horses can be trained to not be so spooky.  I even have an article on the website here, on “Training The Nervous Horse”.  You may want to take a look at it.  But you can just as well substitute the term “a spooky horse” for a “nervous horse”.  Because nervousness will cause a horse to spook.  You can train a horse to not be so nervous, and to not be so spooky, up to a point.  But if that is a trait that is bred into them, you will never completely get rid of it.  You can “work around it”, and lessen the chances of the horse spooking, but it will always be a part of that horse, and it will definitely detract from him reaching a high level of success at anything.   Your expectations and your demands from such a horse simply cannot be as high as they would be for other horses.


What makes for a “Good Mind” ? 


There are several traits that make for a good mind.  Surely some horses are “smarter” than others, but it would be very difficult, to actually “rate” a horse’s intelligence.  What’s much easier though,  is to list the traits, that contribute to a “good mind”.  And so if a particular horse has these qualities, he is going to act, “smarter”.


#1.  A Calm Disposition


imagesOZGNSBZ4This of course would be in contrast to a nervous horse or a spooky horse.  A good mind is one that is calm by nature.  It’s a mind that can look at something, and process some thoughts about what it sees.  Does what I see look dangerous?  Should I be afraid of it?  Or maybe does it warrant a close look?  A horse with a calm nature will be more inquisitive, than afraid of new things.


Does a startling noise cause the horse to “run now”, and “think later”?  Or does it cause him to give all his attention to the noise and watch for a moment to see if there is any danger? 

When the horse encounters something he’s never seen before, does he freeze in his tracks, or does he seem to want to investigate a bit? 



#2.  An Inquisitive Nature


Of course this goes hand in hand with the calm disposition, but this “inquisitiveness” will make the horse much less spooky, no matter what happens on the trail.  And there’s a lot of unexpected things could happen when you’re out away from familiar ground.


Here’s an example


imagesSP86WC61Here’s something that I would have never thought to prepare for, before I actually ran across this on the trail.  Many, many years ago, my wife and I were riding in an area of the mountains where there were a lot of hikers.  And some of the hikers were “backpacking” probably to spend the night somewhere in the mountains.  Well, a lot of backpacks are quite tall, and extend up, quite a bit above the persons head, and evidently this must look very strange to a horse that’s never seen it before.  I had several horses that really got spooked the first few times they saw a backpacker with this big, tall “thing” extending up over their heads.  And then again, I’ve had horses that would walk right up to the backpacker like there was nothing out of the ordinary at all.


And the horses that would spook, were not at all what I would have called “spooky” horses.  The big tall backpack, was just something that appeared very strange to the horse.  You just never know what is going to appear strange to your horse until he’s confronted with it.  So the more “inquisitive” a horse is, the better off you’ll both be on the trail.



A “Side Note”


Just as a little “side note”, a lot of the places you might go trail riding, will be off somewhere away from other people.  At least that’s the way it is in the mountains.  Off by yourself somewhere, is not the place that you want to be having a wreck, even if you’re with a friend or two.  You can simply be too far away from medical help if your horse does something stupid, and you get hurt.  I’ve seen people get hurt in the mountains, and it’s not good.



#3.  A Willing Disposition


WillingA willing disposition is obviously the opposite of being stubborn.  Some horse really do have a stubborn streak in them.  They just don’t want to do things.  Maybe in some cases it’s the result of the way they were trained initially, but again, I’ve had horses that were trained exactly the same as all the others, but they were just not “willing partners”.  A lot of horse that are stubborn, also tend to get “angry”.  When a horse gets angry, he usually rebels.





Another “Side Note”


When you’re training a horse, especially a young horse, make your lessons fairly short.  By keeping them short, there’s much less chance that your horse will get “tired” of what you’re doing with him, and become somewhat angry and rebel against the training.  Maybe this is why some horses end up being “unwilling”.  Maybe they were pushed too hard early on.  Just don’t ask more than your horse can handle comfortably.



Back To the Top Four Qualities


#2.  A Smooth Gait


imagesXWB24OI8If you’ve been reading very many of my articles, you know that I raised “Gaited” horses for many years.  Missouri Foxtrotters specifically.  And of course the reason is the smooth gait.  There’s lots of gaited horse breeds out there.  We just simply got started with Foxtrotters, and stayed with them until we got finally got some Icelandic horses in later years.





A nice smooth travelling horse, with a bit of speed to their gait is so much more enjoyable, than a horse that just “plugs along”.  Even a nice brisk walk, is so much more enjoyable, than a slow “am I ever going to get there” kind of a gait.


Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting down all the nice “non-gaited” breeds at all.  But it’s just so much more enjoyable to at least have a horse with an nice energetic, and brisk walk.  Nobody wants to be “plugging along”, especially on a hot summer day.  My wife and I really came to enjoy the gaited horses, because the intermediate gaits, really seemed to add something to our riding.  But that’s just a matter of personal preference.

Once again, a smooth gait can be simply a nice brisk walk.  That’s all it takes to make the ride that much more fun.



#3.  Surefootedness



rocky trailHave you ever had a horse stumble a fall with you while you were riding?  I have, several times.  And I don’t like it.  Surefootedness is a real plus for a good trail horse.  It’s especially important when you ride rough trails, such as a lot of mountain trails are.   Trails that are rocky, with very uneven footing can be downright dangerous with a “stumbly” horse.






If you have read “Training The Trail Horse – Lesson 1”, you heard me talk about “Jolly”, the best trail horse we ever had.  One of Jolly’s habits, was to carry his head fairly low, watching the trail as he went.  And especially if we were on uneven ground, or rough ground, Jolly’s would have his nose down almost “smelling” the ground.  I don’t know if he had acquired that habit, or that “trait”, because he had so much experience on mountain trails, or if it was just a “natural” trait that he always had.  We didn’t get him ’till he was 12, and by then he had been used in the mountains for years already.




images1MZ35LTLWhatever the case may be, I don’t ever remember that horse stumbling.  I don’t know how much you know about gaited horses, but “in general”, I have come to believe that they perhaps are not as surefooted as non-gaited breeds.  It of course varies with the individual, but I have ridden a lot of gaited horses, of various breeds, over a 25 year period, and I have seen that a lot of them can have the tendency to “daydream” a bit as they travel along.





I’m not sure why this is.  I’ve thought that maybe it’s because they get to gaiting along, and it’s kind of like they’re legs get to going in this very comfortable rhythm, and it’s just so natural to them, that they quit thinking about where their feet are going, and they tend to not pay attention, and stumble.  Now I’m not saying that they’re all like that, but I’ve seen it a lot.




#4.  The Right Size


Some people may not think of a horse’s size, as being of any consideration at all, when it comes to a trail horse, but I think it makes a difference.  Obviously, you can have any size horse at all, and if he’s big enough to carry you, and not so big, that you can’t get on, he can be a trail horse.  But I’m just saying that in my estimation, there is a “good” size for a trial horse, and there is a “not so good” size.

Here’s one “for instance”.  If a horse is so tall that it’s simply a chore to get up on him, that won’t be very enjoyable on perhaps an all day trail ride, where you may get on and off several times.  Here’s another “for instance”.  I’ve been on a lot of trials where tree branches overhung the trail.  A very tall horse can be a problem there.



WithersCan a horse be too short?  I guess only if your feet drag on the ground.  Many years ago I might have said that a good trial horse should be at least 14.2 hands tall.  For those who do not know, a horse’s height is measured at the withers.  The withers is the “rounded” bone at the top of the shoulders where the neck and shoulders meet.  A “hand” is four inches, typically the span of a person’s hand measured across the palm, right where your fingers are.




My opinion as to what the height of a good trial horse should be, changed when I experienced Icelandic horse.  Jolly, our horse that we believe was at least half Icelandic, was about 14.1 hands tall.  This is on the large side for a purebred Icelandic.  The last two Icelandics that we have had, were 13.2 and 13.3 hands tall.  But these horse are strong enough to carry most men.



Jan and her Icelandic horse, Brunie


It is SO easy to get on a smaller horse.  Unless you have a “pride” issue, a shorter horse is the way to go.  Some men seem to think that they have to have a “big” horse.  But unless you’re a really big man, a big horse is just that much harder to get on.




images6LKV5TZMA horse that’s 15.2 hands, is actually a pretty big horse.  When you get up to 16 hands and above, I think they’re just too big for a trail horse.  If you happen to be into show jumping, especially “open jumping”, you want a tall horse.  You wouldn’t ask a four foot tall horse to jump a six foot tall jump would you?  But if your horse is six foot tall, well that’s different.  A lot of open jumpers are 17 hand horses, which is 68 inches at the withers.  That’s almost six feet tall.  That’s a big horse.  I’ve ridden a couple of jumpers that were 16.2, and that felt really big to me.  I can’t ever remember being on a 17 hand horse.




A Good Mind, A Smooth Gait, Surefootedness, And The right Size. 


Put them all together, and you’ve got a pretty good trail horse.  With a little “How To” Horse Training that is.


Thanks for visiting and listening to my opinions on trail horses.  I’d love to hear about your horses, and your riding experiences.  Please be sure to leave your comments in the area below.  And if you’ve got any questions, feel free to ask.  I’ll be sure to get back to you.  Thanks again, and “Happy Horse Training”, and “Happy Trial Riding”, Jim.




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6 thoughts on “Training The Trail Horse – Part 2

  1. Hey Jim, I really enjoyed to subject matter of this article, however, and please don’t take this the wrong way, spelling is very important! “Brake them down” should be “break.” Again, please don’t take this the wrong way. I love horseback riding, and I have been learning to train for the last year, so the subject matter is awesome to me.

    Good luck, and thank you!

    1. Hello Nancy. No I don’t mind at all if you found a misspelled word. You know I try and try to proof-read, but sometimes something just gets past you. It’s funny what your fingers will do when your not watching close enough. But I’m sure glad that you enjoy horses too. Best of luck with your training efforts. Tell me about what you’ve learned so far. Maybe you can give me some tips too. Thanks again, Jim.

  2. I have been riding horses from an early age and never thought that there was actually a right sized horse for trail riding. I am from Amarillo Texas and we use to go horseback riding in Palo Duro Canyon State Park and also Sunday Canyon. The horses in the State Park were not good to ride. I am assuming that was because all of the untrained tourist that rode the horses. I loved the horses we rode at Six-gun city riding down inside Sunday Canyon. The horses were never lazy, always obeying every command. My memories of trail riding are forever implanted into my being as I only wish my children could have had as pleasurable memories as I.

    1. I’m glad to hear that you have such fond memories. I’ll never forget the good times that my wife and I have had. The size of the horse is really my personal preference. I was trying to describe the “perfect trail horse”. I realize not everyone will agree, but those are my thoughts. But I’m interested in those places you rode in down in Texas. Tell me about the state parks down there please. Thanks for visiting and for commenting, Jim.

  3. Thank you for your article on what makes a good trail horse!

    I love riding horses and never knew what all went in to finding the perfect trail riding horse!

    Way more complicated than I had imagined!

    I now know some of the qualities to look in to when I travel and go horseback riding!

    Thanks so much for all of this useful information!

    1. Thank you for your comments. Like I said in the article, you can take just about any horse trail riding, but when you ride a lot, you come to appreciate the horses with all the right qualities. I’d sure never want to discourage anyone from taking their horse riding just because he’s not “perfect”. Will there ever be a perfect horse? I know which ones that I’ve enjoyed more, but they’re all fun. I just like to ride. Thanks again.

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