Not just for Western Riders
Whether you call it hitting the trail, going down the road, or hacking out, it all means the same thing: getting the heck out of the ring. While most people picture a trail rider as a being in a western saddle, riders and horses in all disciplines can benefit from riding outside the ring.
Change of Scenery
There is a mental benefit to getting into a novel environment for you and your horse. Suppose you’re typically strictly focused on ring work; in that case, once you’re on the trail, you’ll instantly feel that you’re more aware of your surroundings and using your brain and your body in different ways. As you communicate with your horse about where you want them to go, indicate how forward or relaxed you want them to be as you both respond to your new surroundings. You’ll find that the more you ride outside in the world, the more your horse will become desensitized to the things you’ll encounter out there, which will help build confidence and result in more relaxed rides over time.
Any time you ride outside of the arena, your horse is forced to be conscious of where they place their feet. They will have to navigate the trail, as well as roots, rocks, and varied surfaces. This is good for proprioception, as well as strengthening the ligaments and tendons of the legs.
Strength and Flexibility
Riding up and down hills is a known way to help your hose build a stronger topline and allows you and your horse to work on balance. This is especially true if you encourage your horse to stretch while doing this type of work. Additionally, having to lift their legs to get over obstacles, such as fallen trees, can increase flexibility and strength in the stifles.
Riding through the water at various depths is not just a great way to cool off during a hot summer ride; water provides a gentle resistance that is great for building strength.
Unique Training Opportunities
While some riders prefer to use the trail as time for leisure, it can also be a good place to work on things like responsiveness to aids. Working on transitions between and within the gaits, asking for lateral movement, and encouraging your horse through obstacles can help sharpen your rides back in the ring. Ask your horse questions on the trail is also a great way to test and increase their ability to focus on you in the presence of distractions.
It’s easy to become hyper-focused on a goal. When you’re riding a lot and working toward something specific, like moving up the levels or preparing for a show, you might forget to make time for fun, too. Getting outside of the ring can be a great way to work on your relationship with your horse because it allows both of you to enjoy riding differently. You could bring a snack for yourself and treats for your horse and take a break along the way to rest. Hitting the trail can also be a social opportunity for you and your horse if you invite other folks from the barn to ride out with you. If your horse is spookier and less confident on the trail, bringing along someone with a more bomb-proof horse can help put your mount at ease. It’s also wise to bring someone familiar with the trails the first few times out so you don’t get lost or turned around.
You can make trail riding or hacking out a part of your performance horse’s well-rounded program. The physical and mental rewards are many, and you may find that over time, your efforts in the show ring benefit from the miles you’ve covered on the trail.