You want a horse that will willingly go where you point it — into the herd, over jumps, through rough terrain — wherever your discipline or path may lead. It’s not just a matter a safety, it’s the foundation of strong working partnership.
But building that level of trust requires us to literally adopt a herd mentality, according to three-time National Extreme Trail Champion, clinician and author Mark Bolender. To do that, we have to appreciate the power of equine instincts, he said.
“(My) philosophy in a nutshell means that we as trainers humble ourselves, step into their world and recognize the fact that they’re just different,” Bolender said. “We train under their rules, not as an animal that is inferior or superior, just different.”
Those instincts are fairly predictable. As prey animals, their first response is typically to try and avoid anything they don’t understand, Bolender said.
“So now the first thing they’re going to do is move into you,” he said. “Because then you will move and the obstacle goes away. So what you have to do is step into their world, and you’re going to imitate an alpha mare.”
That means when a horse invades your space without permission, you respond with immediate, emotionless discipline. An alpha mare would offer a swift kick or bite, Bolender said. Humans often try to explain or reason with a horse, which just confuses the horse, he said.
“We don’t understand the (horse’s) language, so we try to train them in our language, our value system, which they don’t understand,” Bolender said. “They understand a kick or a bite, in and out, no emotion. They understand a horse opening its mouth and showing its teeth. But they don’t understand, ‘Oh no, sweetie, please, please step into this log scramble.’”
When riders learn how to use equine instincts to their advantage, they develop a relationship with their horse similar to that of an alpha mare and a subordinate, Bolender said.
“An alpha mare, when she’s chosen as leader, an instinctual response will kick in and she will put her life on the line for the herd,” he said. “The instinct will kick into the herd and they’ll follow the mare to their death. Instinct will say ‘Follow and try to please.’ Those instincts override the fear and the desire to avoid that which is unknown.”
Once your horse sees you as alpha, it will literally do anything for you, Bolender said.
“You have to prove yourself worthy of a leadership role,” he said. “Be firm, focused, never have emotion. That’s when you see the magic begin.”
How to train as an alpha mare
Training your horse over trail obstacles is a great way to build that alpha bond, which will benefit both of you regardless of your discipline or long-term training goals, Bolender said. He breaks training down into three progressive steps starting on the ground with a long line. When Bolender introduces a horse to a new obstacle or challenge, the first phase is all about getting the horse to think.
“They will never be disciplined as long as they think,” he said. “We always reward a try even if it’s wrong.”
At this point, Bolender doesn’t mind if a horse comes out of the obstacle, as long as it’s mentally engaged. He allows the horse to paw, sniff, chew, look, rush through — any kind of investigative behavior.
For the second phase, the horse learns it must go through the obstacle.
“Now we teach,” he said. “I don’t want you to run through this obstacle, I want you to stick your nose down and pick your way through it.”
The third phase can take hours, weeks or months depending on your horse.
“At this point, we begin to show them exactly what we want; we guide them now to perfection,” he said. “You have to be very, very careful you don’t accelerate this. At each stage, you want the horse to maintain its dignity and pride of being successful. If you rush this phase and you try to go too fast and too detailed at first, you’ll take their boldness and confidence away.”
It’s up to the trainer to find the balance between encouraging progress and letting the horse process what you’re asking of it, Bolender said.
“If you put too much pressure, they’ll jump through it,” he said. “If you don’t put enough pressure, they’ll come out the side or go out the back. (You get it) just right and they will continue to go through with the head down and beautiful forward movement.”
Each of the three phases requires confident expectation from the trainer to build that boldness in the horse, he said.
“You have to be very careful at each one of these phases that you don’t overly talk and praise your horse — do not get excited and emotional,” he said. “I don’t get excited because this is just an expectation. I’m not amazed this horse walks through a course without touching anything. The horse can feel that intent and they will rise or fall to your expectations.”
Build Boldness at Your Barn
You likely have the makings of good trail training obstacles in and around your barn. A dozen or so logs or stones, cavaletti or other poles, tarps and water are handy, cost-effective tools to build boldness at home, Bolender said. Drive the horse; don’t lead. Bolender says a horse will never learn boldness or confidence if they’re always following you. Keep that alpha mare mindset once you settle into the saddle for mounted success.
He recommends wrapping your horse’s legs and starting on the ground with a long line for the following obstacles.
■ Log or stone scramble — A simple scramble is a great way to teach a horse to trust your leadership and be mindful of its feet. By scattering a dozen or so logs or rocks in an uneven pattern on the ground, your horse has a safe challenge to think its way through.
■ Crossed poles — Poles, sticks or cavaletti can be set up in multiple ways to create new obstacles. Bolender suggest you start by crossing a series of poles 30 inches apart in between a raised surface (other logs, jumps, etc.). Do not use PVC or other material that can break into sharp edges.
■ Tarps — Tarps are inexpensive, portable, noisy and colorful, so they’re great training tools for building your horse’s confidence, Bolender said. Start with it folded up as a square on the ground and allow the horse to walk past it. Then unfold it and drive the horse alongside you as you walk across it. On the next pass, drive the horse to the tarp and ask it to start thinking. Follow the three training phases above to get your horse walking over the tarp.
■ Water — It’s a basic point of safety to have a horse that will cross water. Bolender says clients often sign up for his clinics specifically to conquer their water fears. It’s a learned behavior on the horse’s part, he says, because a less confident rider’s attempts to cajole a mount through a stream or puddle teaches the horse how to avoid water. A clear expectation of the horse crossing the water, appropriate discipline when a horse refuses to try and allowing the horse to investigate the water will break that bad habit. Like the other exercises, try this one on the ground with a long line first. Bolender says horses often end up lying down and rolling in the water as part of that initial investigation. ❖