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Sharing the trail with horses: understanding their instincts

From the Summer 2003 issue of Trail Tracks, the national newsletter of American Trails.

By Judi Daly

The comic strip "Born Loser" one day had a strip that I've never forgotten. A man was walking down the street was thinking something like, "My great-grandfather loved horses but was afraid of trains. My grandfather was loved trains but was afraid of cars. My father loved cars but was afraid of airplanes. I love airplanes, but I'm afraid of horses."

photo: OHV and horse on the trail
Photo courtesy of Clark Collins

It has stuck in my head for years, and I'm reminded of it whenever I am riding on the trail and someone reacts to my horse in an inappropriate way. At one time, the average person knew basically how horses behave, but these days most people think horses are oversized dogs that can be ridden.

Put in a nutshell-- horses are afraid of everything. Wild horses stayed alive by running first and asking questions later. If they are trapped, they will fight.

With patient training, we help our horses overcome their natural tendencies, but we can never fully desensitize them to everything. I train my horses not to be afraid of deer by allowing them to watch the deer and even follow them if possible. They treat deer with curiosity or indifference when they see them, but if a deer should suddenly leap out in front of them, it can mean trouble.

The same applies to bikes, hikers, dog walkers, joggers, and all other sorts of human trail users. We do our best to train our horses that there is nothing to be afraid of, but if a human does something unpredictable, our horses may act in a predictably horse-like manner-- run.

"Other trail users can help us by acting in a predictable and non-threatening way."

Other trail users can help us by acting in a predictable and non-threatening way. If possible, when you see a horse and rider coming, step off to the side of the trail to allow them to pass. Don't hide. To a horse, someone hiding behind a tree is suspicious behavior. Say, "Hello." As silly as this sounds, it helps a lot. If a horse is confused as to what you are doing, hearing your voice will help.

Be extra careful on hills. If you can, position yourself so you are below the horse instead of above him. Remember, a frightened horse will run away from what is scaring him. Running down a hill is far, far worse than running up a hill.

Dogs are another potential fright. Hold your dog closely, and try to keep him quiet and still. Once a loose dog ran at one of my horse's hind feet as I was leading him. Since I wouldn't let my horse run away from the dog, naturally he kicked out. His heels did make contact with the dog, who fortunately wasn't seriously hurt. Keeping your dog on a leash around horses is smart for another reason: a dog that has never seen a horse may panic and run away. I've seen this happen.

Bikes can also be very frightening to horses because they are so quiet, yet move very fast. Never pass a horse from behind. Call out that you want to pass, so the rider can turn the horse around to face the bike. Then the bike can pass safely. If the horse is facing the "monster," there is no place to run. If there is a horse coming towards you, it is best to just stop your bike and allow the horse to pass you. Don't forget to say "hello."

Motorized vehicle riders should stop their vehicle, turn off the engine and let the horse go by. Let him get way down the trail before you start back up, as a sudden engine noise has spooked many a horse. If you want to pass a horse up that you are approaching from behind, do the same as suggested for bicyclists.

Horses, like people, each have their own personality. Some are naturally calmer than others regardless of their training. One day, as I was riding my Paint, Mingo, a bike came up the trail from behind. Mingo stopped, turned his head, and simply watched the bike go by. The rider didn't say a word or slow down at all. The cyclist was lucky. If I was on my Morab, Cruiser, he might have dashed forward to get out of the way. And if he had done the same to my sister when she was riding her horse, Ranger, the cyclist would have seen a pair of heels flying towards him.

We know what we need to do with our individual horses. I don't worry when I ride Mingo, I turn Cruiser to face anyone approaching us so he won't bolt, and my sister positions Ranger so he won't hit anyone if he kicks. Equestrians want to help all of us on the trails know how to act in a safe and predictable manner-- not only is it much less likely someone will get hurt, but you might make a new friend.

Judi Daly is the author of Trail Training for the Horse and Rider. Visit Judi's website at http://trailtraining.bigstep.com.

August 2003

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