November 1, 2021
October 31,2021

Handling Trail Spooks

Learn how to prevent a spook with Mark Bolender, A three-time National Champion and founder of the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association

Audrey Pavia

This is a spooky time of year for humans. Ghosts, goblins and ghouls are everywhere. Some may even come knocking at your door on Halloween night.

Unlike humans, horses aren’t limited to a certain time of year when it comes to being scared, especially on the trail. They can always find something to spook at, whether it’s a plastic bag blowing in the wind or a mattress dumped by the side of the road. In fact, if you ride your horse outside the arena, you are bound to deal with something scary at some point along the way.

​The key to dealing with spooky stuff on the trail is to be prepared, according to trail horse trainer Mark Bolender, owner of Bolender Horse Park in Silver Creek, Wash.

​“When it comes to dealing with scary stuff on the trail, lack of rider preparation leads to anxiety,” he says. “If you are properly prepared, you can face anything. So before you head out on the trail, back up and get prepared.”

​Being prepared means a few different things when it comes to trail riding, including learning how to calm yourself when you sense your horse is afraid.

​Bolender believes most people don’t realize that horses are superbly sensitive to sound, movement, vibration and tiny changes in their visual field.

“These are all survival adaptations,” he says. “And their sensitivity to these physical phenomena is astounding. While being ridden, the horse can feel the rider’s heartbeat. It knows when the rider is calm or stressed simply by changes in heart rhythm.”

​For this reason, it’s crucial that you stay relaxed when facing something scary on the trail.

“If you get uptight, your horse will feel your quick heartbeat, and will get even more nervous,” he says. “Don’t tighten your legs against him. Stay relaxed. If you are calm, the horse will feel it.”

​ Another way to be prepared to deal with spooky objects or situations on the trail is to anticipate the kinds of things you will run across, and then get your horse used to them in advance.

​“Mountain bikes, motor bikes and cars are common things horses have to deal with on trail rides, whether you are in a rural area or riding on urban trails,” says Bolender. “We have to share the trails, and even cars can show up in remote areas.”

​Before heading out, Bolender recommends getting your horse used to cars, bicycles and motorbikes. Ask a friend to help you slowly desensitize your horse to these moving objects.

​In his training business, Bolender has worked with horses that were terrified when faced with a bicycle on the trail. Using a system to slowly condition these horses to bikes, he was able to help them overcome their fear.

​“We often expect horses to be perfect and address everything they might come across without ever having taught them how,” he says.

Photo Courtesy of Bolender Horse Park

The Unexpected

Of course, we can’t desensitize our horses to everything they might come across on the trail in advance. Sometimes the unexpected shows up—like a tree full of goats Bolender once faced on a trail ride.

​In these situations, staying calm is crucial. Bolender recommends turning the horse to face the scary object and focus on keeping yourself relaxed. In the event you don’t feel like you have the ability to stay calm or have the skills to stay on if the horse spins or bolts, get off.

​“Get off if you have to,” he says. “The horse will usually calm down if you do.”

​The good news about spooky trail encounters is that any horse can learn how to deal with them, according to Bolender.

​“I’ve seen every breed imaginable on our mountain trails,” he says. “My wife’s warmblood is fantastic on trail now, but was a basket case before we worked on desensitizing.”

​Bolender’s program for desensitizing starts with the horse sans the rider, in an arena.

​“We begin in an indoor arena where everything is controlled, and then move to the outdoor arena,” he says. “Eventually, we get to the trail. The horse learns to handle obstacles first without the rider. The horse develops confidence on its own before the rider even gets on. The training goes quicker this way because this removes the human factor.”

​The challenges Bolender uses in the arena include various water obstacles, stationary and swinging bridges, logs and platforms. Horses need to learn to negotiate these obstacles calmly with the rider on the ground first, and then with the rider aboard.

“Once a horse can deal with taking a rider over a swinging bridge [a bridge with slack that bends under the horse’s weight], and becomes bold and confident in itself, it’s time to head out on the trail,” he says.

You can do trail desensitizing work at home with your horse, acclimating him to both moving objects and stationary obstacles he may encounter. Start on the ground and then work up to riding him through and past these challenges. This preparation will go a long way in helping your horse deal with spooky stuff on the trail.

To learn more about Mark Bolender, and his work, you can visit their website HERE 

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