Many times when I’ve asked people about their horses they’ll say, almost apologetically, “oh, he’s just a trail horse”. It’s as though their horse isn’t important enough for those of us who made a career with show horses to acknowledge as being relevant. Or that it doesn’t require any special breeding or talent to be a trail horse.
Well, in the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we see equality in all horses, just as we do all sentient beings. They were given a life, just as we were, and all are subject to suffering, just as all humans are. Everyone deserves the same amount of compassion, no matter who or what they are, or what they do. Including trail horses :).
Recently I had the opportunity to spend time in one of my favourite places, Sedona, Arizona, on the back of a sweet, reliable trail horse who is as careful and kind as they come.
This is significant because my past experience with horses on trails has not always been so favourable. My first horse, White Cloud, was a ranch horse. When we moved to the suburbs of a large city, I had to ride along busy roadways to reach the trail system. I was only twelve at the time and didn’t know better. I thought that since the stocky white mare was so good on country trails, nothing would bother her on busier roads or trails either. How wrong I was!
I was lucky we weren’t hit by a car. We held up traffic a few times while Cloudy panicked at the sound of loud, fast vehicles passing and spooked by throwing herself into reverse. As the area we lived in was lined with large ditches, her behaviour was quite disconcerting, not to mention dangerous. Her tension translated into my tension and I was forever nervous about riding horses along busy roads after that. I’ve never really gotten over it.
When we moved again, Cloudy was sold to a rancher and lived out the remainder of her life in a happy place.
The next horse to come my way was a very young, barely broke (in fact, badly-broke) appaloosa filly. She was also born and raised on a large ranch and had no concept of behaving on multi-use trails or in traffic. I really tried to overcome my fears and hers as I still enjoyed a gallop across a hay field or a pleasant trail ride down to the river, which required some riding along roads to get there.
Miss Demeanor, appropriately named, was one “incident” after the other. I was still in my early teens and learning about training horses. Determined, I kept taking her on trail rides, hoping for improvement. One day she managed to thoroughly embarrass me on a group ride by running backwards down a steep hill until she finally backed into a tree, even with the reins thrown at her. Then she scared herself and scooted forwards, spooking some of the other horses who had gone ahead. I just seemed destined to not ever have a pleasant trail ride!
One day I was finally brave enough to ride “Missy” the few miles down to a beautiful spot by the river. I let her take a drink out of a creek that fed into the river and in the blink of an eye, she was down and rolling in the muddy bank with me still on her. I had to ride all the way back to the barn with one side of her plastered in mud so thick you couldn’t see her spots any longer. I never did get all the mud out of the carved leather of my western saddle either.
I was in awe of people who could simply saddle up on a nice day, head out on the trail, and return still smiling with a happy and relaxed horse. I had no idea why this “trail horse” thing was so elusive!
There was no problem in the show ring. Even my spooky filly could open gates, walk over teeter-totters and tarps, drag a tire or a cow-hide, and jump a small fence. Why didn’t that translate to the great outdoors?
Eventually I gave up on the idea of enjoyable trail riding, especially as my next horse was an appaloosa stallion, and confirmed “city boy”. The first time I led him down a little hill he had no clue how to navigate it and promptly squatted on his hind legs and sat there in a half-rear. I should have expected such things from my horses by now.
One day I was offered a beautiful big dappled gray warmblood gelding to ride on a charity trail event. He was a lesson horse at the show barn I was riding at and generally very quiet. Oh no, not on the trail however. He spooked at… invisible trolls? Maybe it was the shrubbery.
Finally I was married to a three-day eventing trainer and we were running a barn that was situated next to a cross-country course and thousands of acres of trails, accessible without riding along any roads. Surely this was to be trail-riding heaven!
Sigh. The appaloosa complained about the rocky footing. The thoroughbred gelding pranced sideways thinking he was still a field-hunter and wouldn’t settle until after a full-out gallop. The off-track mare spooked at the cattle. The part-Standardbred jumper bolted over the beaver-fall. Was there anybody out there who wanted to be a nice trail horse??!!
I was starting to resign myself to having to ride in an arena forever, or continue having unusually adventurous trail experiences. Gee, what was it like to have a safe, relaxing ride where I could drop the reins and enjoy the scenery?
The last barn I taught lessons at was a mix of many types of horses and riders, most of whom went on the rugged, rocky trails of Sedona on a regular basis. I was still more comfortable jumping fences than going on a trail ride and stayed in the arena.
Finally, having really retired this time (it took a few tries), I thought I’d attempt trail riding again.
I know those trails from having run them on foot. It’s very easy to twist an ankle or trip and there are many hazards on desert pathways. Sharp cactus plants await along every edge and the rocks can roll underfoot or be as slick as ice when worn smooth by eons of erosion. Deer or javelina can appear out of nowhere and in the warmer months there’s always the possibility of a rattlesnake coiling closely enough to do some damage.
Remembering to breathe, at first I guided Shadow, the pretty chestnut Arabian gelding, as I would in the arena, “helping” him negotiate the continually changing angles of the terrain and hoping he wouldn’t slip on any of the slick-rock. I worked as hard as he did, staying off his back on the uphills and shifting a little rearwards on the downhill, monitoring his balance and speed. Hoping not to annoy him, I tried to do as little as possible, telling myself he knew what he was doing.
He’d spent many more hours packing riders around these trails than I had spent riding horses on them.
Shadow was also lovely in the arena, and in fact very well bred to be a show horse too. His gentle disposition and good training seemed to add up to his ability to be an all-around great guy.
At the end of our 3-hour ride, my reins were loose and I was letting him pick his way home, carefully stepping over boulders and not tensing up when his shoes slid on the steep downhills. Yes, this little horse knew what he was doing alright.
What a happy day. Now I know what it’s like to have a genuinely pleasant trail ride, with no spooking at wildlife, cars, dogs, cyclists, or loud noises. What a special horse it takes to provide that kind of experience. I can’t believe I had to wait so many years to enjoy such a ride.
I can tell you for certain that nobody ever needs to apologetically refer to their horse as “just” a trail horse. They are a special breed unto themselves, no matter what their breeding or background, and they deserve every accolade that a top-notch show horse receives. Trail horses also deserve the same kind of mindful care, compassion, and healthy environments as the most expensive, highly bred animals in the show-ring. After all, horses don’t know how much we paid for them, or how much we pay for their training and board. All they know is how they are made to feel in our presence, and you really can’t place a dollar sign on that.