When I bought Heidi, she had a lot of problems. The one place she seemed to relax was on the trail. She lost her mind in the arena, but she was cool as a cucumber once she got in the woods. She wasn’t spooky, she crossed water, she stepped over logs; she was basically a jam up trail horse. Except for one thing… she felt unbalanced.
If you’ve ever ridden an out of shape, unbalanced horse, you know what I mean. They trip. They stumble. They feel like they’re tottering instead of blazing through the trail. In less than ideal footing like mud or rocks, it becomes even more pronounced. You feel like they might actually slip and fall and take you down with them.
That’s how Heidi was when I got her. She was very fat and had no topline. She had a big, pendulous belly and the beginnings of a sway back. She didn’t look like much, and she felt awful to ride. She would drag herself up hills instead of charging up. If I asked for a trot, she would trot two or three steps and then stop. I think she would have gone into cardiac arrest if I had asked for a canter. She was that out of shape.
I spent a whole lot of time lunging her for the first 6 or 7 months. I tried to give her a foundation in classical dressage, meaning simply that I taught her how to carry herself correctly. I trail rode once a week for about 45 minutes, but the rest of our workouts were on the lunge or in hand because I didn’t want to add my weight to the equation until she was in better shape.
Now we’re 10 months into training and my work and patience are paying off. She is starting to trot up hills with some enthusiasm instead of hauling herself up like an 80 year old woman. I can ask for a trot and it lasts more than three strides. Carrying me doesn’t feel like such a burden anymore. The dressage stuff made her a better athlete and better able to navigate the trail.
She still needs work with her surefootedness, but we’re getting there. I still feel like she doesn’t always choose the best path or the safest place to put her feet, but she does feel more balanced overall, especially in crappy footing. I don’t feel like she’s going to slip and fall anymore.
I know people who never trail ride. They prefer the perfect footing and predictability of the arena. They ride expensive, specialized horses and they’re protecting their investment. I get that. Horses are dangerous and accident prone enough as it is without adding the unknowns that come with riding out in the open.
But I think trail riding is so good for horses both physically and mentally. It gives them a change of scenery and teaches them to be aware of their own feet. My trail horse definitely benefits from dressage, but I think many a dressage horse would benefit from some time in the woods.
I’m hoping endurance will be a way for me to combine these two things. I would like a horse that works correctly over her back so that she can keep me safe out on the trail. A balanced, athletic, surefooted horse is safer and more fun to ride.