Hit the Trail!

By Pat Parelli

Photo by Coco / Firefly Fotos

Most people get either annoyed or scared by their horse’s spooky behavior, especially when it is compounded by prancing and pulling. I’ve heard a number of theories about why horses behave like this, and most of them come from a lack of knowledge about the prey animal psyche: “He’s competitive… he likes to lead… he just loves to run… he’s just stupid,”etc. If we are truly going to help our horses, the first step is understanding their perspective.

Horses are prey animals, and much of their focus is dedicated to making sure they are not going to be eaten. They are highly perceptive and are always alert. The farther they get from home, the less secure they feel, and spooking on the trail is a great example of how a prey animal acts when he senses danger.

I’ve conducted experiments where I’ve had the rider dismount their spooking, prancing horse and turn him loose. The first thing the horse does is head out front and try to get the other horses to follow. When they don’t, he runs back and tries again. This usually happens a few times before the horse finally realizes that he’s not in charge. Then he’ll calm down, settle in behind the lead horse (or horses), drop his head, and walk along quite relaxed — no more spooking or prancing! This tells you a lot about the prey animal and herd mentality. As long as they can depend on an alpha, they’ll settle right down.

I’m often asked, “What should I do when my horse spooks on the trail?” In response, I typically say something along the lines of this: “Maybe the question should be ‘What can I do to better prepare myself and my horse so he doesn’t spook on the trail?”

Now, here’s the secret: You have to become his alpha. Then he’ll never feel alone or afraid on the trail. If you are calm, he’ll be calm.

Horses play dominance games with each other every single day to maintain their “pecking order.” This is something you need to do whenever you are with your horse. Horses vote every day for their leader. Every day! If your leadership is not firmly established before you go out on the trail, you will lose the vote very easily that day. You can’t force your horse to accept you as his alpha. You have to earn it.


How can you and your horse be better prepared before you go out on the trail?

1. Don’t go out the gate until your horse is left-brained. That means he is thinking and calm.

2. Practice different exercises and simulations until your horse is left-brained and accepting your alpha position. Think of it as your pre-ride check, much like the pre-flight checks pilots perform before they take the plane off the ground. You can use a lot of “spooky” simulation situations, teaching your horse to get braver through repetition.

3. Make sure you can walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein, and can easily bend your horse to a stop. If you or your horse are out of sorts that day and you can’t ride on a loose rein, don’t go out on the trail.

4. Perform an emotional assessment of yourself: No matter how scared your horse got, could you remain totally cool, calm and collected? Most people “spook” worse than their horse — suddenly grabbing with their legs and hands, and getting tighter and tighter. This not only makes your horse spook worse, he continues to spook because he now doubts your confidence and leadership.

5. It’s critical to put your safety first. Being safe will help build your confidence. So if you think you should get off your horse, GET OFF! If you try to stay on (no promises that you WILL stay on!) you will most likely become scared stiff and have a bad experience, which will definitely make you lose confidence. If you lose the connection with your horse in the middle of a trail ride, don’t be too embarrassed to get off.

6. If you DO get off, get your horse left-brained on the ground (send your horse sideways and backwards; focus his energy on a task). Be provocative; don’t let your horse predict what you’re going to do. Teach your horse to handle unpredictable things, and stay on the ground until you reach your goal. Then it will be safe to get back on.

7. Finally, ride with people who will support you in practicing good horsemanship, and who are willing to assist you in being successful with your horse. With that group of people and a confident, prepared, left-brained horse, your trail rides will be far more successful – and fun – from here on out.


Pat4Many thanks to Pat Parelli for contributing this article for our riders and readers.  Learn more about Pat and Linda Parelli and their natural training series at their website:  http://www.parelli.com/


coverThis article was originally published in the March issue of the ACTHA Monthly Magazine.  To see this and more articles like it click to view this issue >>

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