Spring is made for trail riding. It's not too hot yet. The mosquitoes are still sluggish. And if you're like me, after a long winter you are itching to leave the arena - just you and your favorite equine, off to see some country. But does your horse share that desire?
To be successful and stay safe trail riding solo requires the horse be good at two things: accepting temporary social isolation, and having solid basic training. For the purposes of this article we are going to focus on the former. Many horses can learn how to be comfortable with this social isolation, if they are properly prepared. Part of this preparation involves first seeing an event like solo trail riding from the horse's perspective. Horses are highly social animals, who rely on others. They are rarely out of eyesight with one another, and if this occurs they will vocalize loudly. Loud vocalizations aren’t used that frequently by horses, likely in part because doing so draws attention to their location. This gives us an indication of how important being with others is, if they would risk a predator's attention in order to regroup.
In light of this, it is important we consider that horses need to be taught how to calmly accept social isolation which occurs on a solo trail ride. It is not something that comes naturally to horses, and taking the wrong approach can even make them more fearful of such isolation in the long-term. Learning to ride calmly solo on the trails will be more easily accomplished by some horses than others. Factors that can affect the horse's comfort level with this training can include: the early attachment history with their dam, if they were weaned prematurely (4-6 months of age), the weaning method used, any early learning experiences related to social isolation, if they have been previously punished for showing anxiety or fear, social isolation which resulted in unpleasant experiences – e.g. shows, vet, moving to new barn etc. In light of this, it's important to remember that not every horse is a good candidate for solo trail rides, and we need to consider each individual horse when we make these decisions.
The techniques I use to teach accepting social isolation around the barn can also be applied to solo trail riding. They include:
Shaping – breaking the end goal down into small steps you reinforce along the way. Gradually changing criteria such as distance, duration, distractions etc. (e.g. ride alone to the front gate, return home; ride alone ten feet past the front gate, return home; ride alone thirty feet past the front gate, return home)
Desensitization - gradually exposing the horse to that which might cause fear (social isolation), in increments that don't trigger fear. Fear is counter-productive to learning.
Counter-conditioning - adding something pleasant (food, scratches etc.) alongside desensitization. If you do use food to train, beware if your horse snatches quickly at the food. This could indicate the horse is anxious, and over threshold. Make the level of exposure smaller for the horse (e.g. decrease the distance away from the other horses or home)
Using a functional reward of returning to the other horses, to reinforce leaving the other horses - e.g. walk away from the other horses until you reach a point where your horse starts to display mild apprehension about going any further. Stop there, give them a scratch or a treat, wait a moment or two until they relax, and then turn to go back to the horses. Repeat. Note: This is a VERY effective technique, but it does require good horse behavior observation skills on your part.
A number of popular training techniques can make the horse more anxious about being socially isolated, and should be avoided. They include:
Taking the horse too far away, or away for too long. You want to aim for multiple positive experiences, and build from there vs. taking a 'sink or swim' approach. Frequent short but positive training sessions are better than long, less frequently occurring training sessions.
Making the time away from other horses unpleasant: ‘Showing’ them they will be safe with you solo by forcing them; ‘making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy’ or ‘moving their feet to get respect’
Punishing any signs of fear or anxiety
Once you are out on the trails, try and always make it a positive experience for your horse. Stop and graze periodically, or bring treats. Take rest and water breaks. And should your horse become unsure about something encountered on the trail, don't be afraid to get off to help them approach it. It doesn't matter to your horse whether your are on the ground or in the saddle - what matters most is that you are able to help the horse in that moment. Happy trails to you and your horse.