Episode 93: When horses freak out at the idea of trail riding.

In this podcast, I list the three steps I use for building a horse’s confidence and discuss the words ‘composure’ and ‘pressure’. I also discuss a listener question, “How you go about getting your horse to trail ride alone? I’ve always wanted to disappear into the woods, have a blast, me and my horse… and all coming out safe and alive. But every time I try to go out, she freaks out…”

Transcript of podcast

Episode 93-When horses freak out at the idea of trail riding.mp3
Announcer: [00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:23] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy and successfully train your own horses. This is season 9 of the podcast and the focus is on trail riding. Today, I’m answering a question that came in and I’m wrapping up a concept that I started talking about in last week’s episode last week. I did a bit of a deep dive into the idea of confidence and where confidence comes from. And if you haven’t listened to it, it really complements this episode. So at the end of the episode, I did leave a cliffhanger. What I was doing was I was outlining the 3 steps that I use to teach my horses how to be confident. But I left the third step for this week because it’s a topic within itself and because it involves a word that’s not very popular. I’m going to share this unpopular word and its very popular counterpart right after we listen to this week’s listener question so that we can use it as part of the discussion.

Caller: [00:01:34] Hi, Stacy, it’s Christina from Virginia, and I was really inspired by your trail riding versus arena riding episode with Presto, and I am so curious how you go about getting your horse to trail ride alone. I have always wanted to just disappear into the woods behind our place, but any time I go to take my horse out alone, she freaks out and it’s a big fight and she wins that battle. And I was wondering if you could help me or offer some steps to move toward the goal of disappearing into the woods and having a blast with just me and my horse. And us all coming out safe and alive. Anyway, I appreciate you so much. I enjoy your podcast, and I look forward to it every week. Thank you so much.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:35] Thank you for the question, Christina. You just described one of my very favorite days. A day where I go out, jump on one of my horses, maybe with a saddle, maybe bareback, and I head off into the woods. At the end of the day, we’ve both had a blast. We’ve both come home safely. And I look forward to doing it again another day. OK, so enough with the cliffhangers, what we’re going to discuss are these two words: composure and pressure. Let’s start with composure, much more fun word. The definition of composure is this state or feeling of being calm and in control of oneself. An example given was, “she was struggling to regain her composure”. So I’d like you to imagine riding a horse that was able to keep its composure in any situation. You would be thinking about a horse that was really level headed. Maybe the word “unshakable” would be there. Basically, you would be picturing a horse that was calm under pressure. Basically, composure is like a steadiness of mind when under stress. So now let’s look at the other word. Let’s look at the word pressure. The definition of pressure is the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something. That’s not a pretty definition. Some other words that come up are coercion, force, constraint, oppression. OK, I am not even going to try to make the word pressure sound more appealing.

Stacy Westfall: [00:04:31] The reason I want to bring up the word pressure is for two reasons. Number one, I’d like you to bring up your awareness to how you respond to the word pressure. This was actually a really good exercise for me because I always knew that I used the word pressure in places, but I always knew that there was an underlying icky feeling sometimes around the word. So just something as simple as looking up the definition really helped me have clarity about, oh, yeah, I can see why the word pressure might be bringing along with it some heavy feelings. But the reason I wanted to bring it up, number one, for your awareness and, number two, is because I do have a tendency to use it with the intention of it being for positive growth. So we’re going to discuss that, because even if you don’t like my word, the concept is here, and I think it’s the concept we’re after more than the word. So while I was preparing for this podcast, I was really trying to come up with other words and the image that pops into my head when I am trying to describe how to get to this end game of being able to go ride your horse on the trail and have this amazing day and the horse maintains composure, you maintain composure, you have fun–the image in my mind of how you get there always brings up some version of a movie scene in my head when I’m trying to think about how to describe it. Some type of movie where you have seen a coach preparing an athlete for competition. That tends to be what pops into my mind, because that’s the feeling I’m talking about. So when you see a movie–picture your favorite movie that does this–when you see the coach training the athlete…and so let’s do–I did an Internet search on this, too, so some of the top ones that came up were the movie Rocky or the movie The Karate Kid. And actually, before I even started this, the movie that popped into my mind before the searches, before I started searching Google, the one that popped into my mind was actually Dead Poets Society. So it’s interesting because for most of these, like we pick something like Rocky, you have like a coach that is training the athlete and we often see these images of the athlete being pushed both physically and mentally. And if you watch these amazing stories of, you know, come back, it can be anything, any of these movies, because they always involve kind of this arc where there’s this challenge that needs to be overcome. It’s always really interesting, especially in the ones that are on the athletic side, is you almost always see the physical push, but you also see that there’s a mental, hugely mental side to it. This is what I want you picturing in your mind. And I really almost went down a rabbit hole. I told my–my brain wanted to tell me that I needed to watch, like, ten of these movies before recording this podcast. But if I actually want to be able to publish it this week, I need to publish it from the memory. And so what I want you to be thinking of is that version of what a coach does. So another thing that I found was an article called The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Coaches. And a quote from the article, which I can link to over in the show notes is, “One of the habits is making training more challenging and more demanding than the competition your athletes are targeting.” I’m going to say that again, and then I’m going to go on. So the concept here is a great coach is able to make training more challenging and more demanding than the competition your athletes are targeting. So if you’re headed to the Olympics, you’ve got to be able to push to that level. So continuing on with the what I’m reading here, “Great coaches realized that competition is not the time to find out where your athletes physical and mental limits are. Training needs to be more challenging and more demanding physically, mentally, technically, tactically, emotionally than the competition your athletes are preparing for.”

Stacy Westfall: [00:09:15] Ok, this is Stacy speaking again. That sounds like pressure to me. Or it also sounds like preparation. So let’s bring this back to trail riding. In Christina’s voicemail, she mentioned, every time I go out, every time I try to go out, she freaks out–meaning her horse. When I picture this in my mind, I see a horse that is not maintaining its composure. And remember, composure is steadiness of mind under stress. And when I see this out on the trail, because I live behind a state park, I see this quite often when I go out and ride and see other riders struggling with this, what I see–this is where it gets kind of interesting. The horse…some horses view the trail as stress. So when I picture Christina trying to leave, it sounds like the horse is viewing leaving to head down the trail as stress. Now, the other concept is the horse can actually view the rider as stress. So the horse could be viewing the trail as stress, the horse could be viewing the rider as stress, or the horse could be viewing both as stress at the same time.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:36] So situations that tend to cause horses stress or put them under pressure, some really commonly discussed ones, are riding a horse away from home alone. So maybe Christina is trying to ride away from her house and go out alone. Riding a horse away from stablemates. A deer running across the trail. I’m even going to put the idea of a horse learning to walk up and down hills if they didn’t grow up in a really hilly pasture area and they know how to do that. And even if they did, they still need to learn how to balance with a rider on their back. That can actually cause stress or a form of pressure. Loud noises. That’s a popular one with horses. Or something I call the energy level in the room going up, which if you’re out on a trail, maybe you’re riding in an area and other horses go running by. So that could be you’re riding along and there’s a fence line. If you’ve ever ridden on a trail that shares a fence line with horses, that can always be an exciting moment waiting for the horses that live in the pasture to come running out. Or maybe you’ve been out trail riding and somebody in your group wanted to canter away or took off up a hill and you wanted your horse to go slow. That is an example of other horses running, you’re trying to keep your horse from running, and that situation can cause stress or pressure. So what’s interesting is that when I go out on the trail and I watch what’s happening. Oftentimes what’s happening to the riders that are struggling out there is that the first stress or pressure comes from something external. So let’s just say it’s another rider riding away from the group because it’s not one of your group riders–you get passed on the trail by another rider. That is an external stress that you didn’t really sign up for, but then often this is quickly followed by a secondary stress, which is the rider trying to communicate with the horse that they don’t want to go faster in this example. But the rider is communicating while the horse is in a heightened state of stress or under a different pressure. And oftentimes what happens is the rider needs to use their aides a little more strongly because the horse doesn’t understand the aides at a higher level.

Stacy Westfall: [00:13:16] And so because the rider feels the need, let’s keep illustrating this example, let’s say that a rider that is not in your group passes you and then trots off rather quickly or canters off away. And let’s say that the horse you’re riding in tends to follow it and you want to stay with your group and go solo. Oftentimes the stress of you as the rider trying to slow the horse down and communicate, no, don’t take off and go. Oftentimes when that horse doesn’t understand the aides at the higher level, then the rider becomes a secondary source of stress. So we had stress number 1, horse that rode by, stress number 2, rider trying to control their own horse. That is when the snowball, the bad snowball starts happening. A lot of times in this case, the horses will start tossing their heads, throwing their heads. Maybe the rider tries turning them. So the horse is now spinning in a circle very quickly. The horse is doing…maybe the horse starts threatening to rear. And so there’s all these different things because the horse doesn’t understand the rider’s aides at this higher level. So. How in the world do you teach this? Well, first of all, I want to go back and say that when I’m talking about pressure, so in this example, if a rider passes and let’s say I’m out on the trail and I’m riding on one of my horses–so let’s say that a group of horses pass me and say I’m riding alone and a group of two or three horses pass me. And when they’re 30 feet past me, they all decide to open up the trail. And if that were to happen and my horse was a little bit excited about the idea, I would be able to do the hug. Now, what’s interesting is when I do the hug, because I’ve done so much training in the arena, I don’t have to hug with 100% of my physical strength.

Stacy Westfall: [00:15:37] In this discussion, I want to clarify that pressure. The way I’ve been talking about it all the way up to here has been more of this like emotional pressure. And now I’m going to start sprinkling in the idea that the aides have a certain amount of contact. So to try to keep it more clear, the pressure of like, let’s say, pulling on the reins with 1 ounce versus 12 ounces of pressure, let’s call that a heavier contact just for the–for this conversation. But I for sure all the time use the word pressure, which is why we’re having this conversation. So if riders go past me and they blast off and my horse, thinks about getting excited…because I’ve done a lot of work in the arena, my aides don’t have to go to a super high level of contact. I don’t have to pull on the reins with all my strength to keep my horse from taking off. So the ironic thing is, because I’ve practiced putting my horse under a certain amount of pressure or contact in my exercises at home in my arena, because I’ve been OK with working that range up to….let’s give it a number. So sometimes people think they want their horse crazy, really, really light, really, really light. Like they respond to the lightest touch on the reins and they respond to the lightest touch on their sides. So then what happens is when you go out there and something external causes the horse to want to react. A lot of times when the rider pulls with…let’s go back to the ounces. So let’s say their horse has been responding off from 1 ounce of leg pressure and 1 ounce of rein pressure. Now, when another horse goes cantering off and their horse wants to go, when that horse feels two ounces of pressure, that horse a lot of times will begin to react re-actively, throwing their heads. Now, much, much more often, I see horses out there where the riders are legitimately pulling almost at their full strength. So they’re pulling with, if you can lift a 50 pound grain bag. Like they’re pulling with a lot of pressure. And again, the horse is really reactive because the horse doesn’t understand what is needed here. They don’t understand the pressure. I am not implying that when horses go cantering beyond me that I need 50 pounds of pressure. I’m saying that because I’ve trained it in a more medium range at home where I wanted to be able to apply more pressure than one ounce, that I’m OK with the idea of applying. Like I–for sure, if you picture holding your bridle with no horse involved, you’re just standing on your own two feet. You pick up the bridle off the ground, but you just grab the reins, you pick up the bridle off the ground. There’s some weight there. I want contact. I want my horses to make contact with me. I want to be able to hug with my legs. I want to be able to hug with my hands. I want them to understand that this is part of the balanced aide system and this is going to be how I’m going to be able to control you. But what’s so interesting is that my hug doesn’t have to get very strong because the horse understands the correct response.

Stacy Westfall: [00:19:15] This is where last week’s episode ties into this week’s episode. Last week I said I started building out this list. I said that to build a horse’s confidence, I do three things. Number 1, I start by using a consistent cue system that teaches the horse how to respond appropriately. Number 2, I hard wire my body to use that cue system in all scenarios. And number 3, that secret ingredient is that I’m adding pressure. How do I add pressure without just being mean? Well, first of all, you do need to at some point sit down and honestly, really think about your concept of pressure and fair and unfair. And this doesn’t even have to involve your horse. That could involve the idea that your boss at work is asking you to do things and you think this is a certain amount of pressure. And where is your line on fair or unfair? Because interestingly, every single individual decides what is stress or what is pressure. One person’s idea of stress is not necessarily stress for another person, the same thing goes for horses. But what’s interesting, especially if we go back to the movie example, we know we have a capacity to stretch our comfort zone and learn to handle more stress because that’s where composure comes from. And I would also propose that’s where confidence comes from. So what I do is I don’t go out there and just try to be really hard on my horses in a way that feels mean to me, I do it in a way that I think I’m advancing and refining that horse. That training and that refinement involves a level of pressure. Let me explain, for example, if I’m riding on a horse and I want to train the horse to be able to go from a walk straight into a lope or a canter, so there’s no trot in between, that involves an increased level of communication and increased level of refinement in that communication. But during the training process and even when it’s done, it involves a certain level of pressure, a pressure with a cue system that the horse understands with it hardwired into my body. So for this example, what that means for me is if I’m riding on a horse and I want to teach it to go from a walk and step straight into the canter or the lope, what that means is I need to be able to do a slight hugging with all my aides. So I kind of close my hand aides and I close my leg aides and my leg aides might even have a little bit of a energetic little…oh vibration almost in them. Like there’s going to be like a tension that’s almost got a vibration in my legs because I want it to feel like I’m shaking up a pop can. Like if you I don’t know what part of the world you’re listening from…soda, pop, carbonated beverage…if you shake one of those up, it doesn’t take a lot of shaking, shake it a few times. If you pop the top, there’s going to be some kind of reaction. That’s what I want my lead departure from a walk into the canter to feel like. So I close all my aides and I have that little like vibration in my leg, that tension in my leg. And I’m shaking up the pop can. It says to the horse, wait for it, but gather yourself, but wait for it, gather yourself, but wait for it. And then on my timing, because remember, we’re still walking on my timing, I decide when to give the cue to let the horse step up into that canter. But that moment where I am holding everything in that—that pop can shook up kind of feeling where I’m gathering all that horse’s energy so the horse can step straight up in and then the horse steps up into a canter–that’s terribly exciting for some horses. Think about this. Now, if I want to come back down from that canter down to the walk, I’m going to do a hugging motion again where I’m going to hug and I’m going to gather all of that energy up because I don’t want the horse to just fall down through a trot, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-blah, and drizzle out into a walk. I want the horse to gather itself up, collect itself, and step down into the first step of walk. And that involves a hugging of all the aides and it involves this subtle timing of the release. So can you hear how advancing a horse from elementary school up into high school and then on into college involves teaching that horse how to handle pressure?

Stacy Westfall: [00:24:47] It might not seem like teaching a horse to do a walk to canter departure would help you on your trail ride. But I’m telling you, it does. And let’s go back to the idea of super light aides for a minute. What is really interesting to me is that I love to start colts. I love to train horses from the first ride all the way to bridleless. And what I can tell you is that in that process, there is always even when you watch people that use no no tack at all during the entire process, they still have methods inside there that teach the horses how to respond to pressure. Because that pressure is going to be a piece of the teaching. And for me, what’s fascinating here, let’s go back to that light aids, focus Stacy, light aides. A lot of times people want really, really light aides when they’re in elementary school and the horses become virtually untouchable. They actually get more reactive because they’re more likely to throw their heads and they’re more reactive in that age. But that doesn’t mean just because I’m allowing and wanting and encouraging my horse to be OK with contact of my aides,,,it doesn’t mean that they’re always heavy. It does not at all mean that they’re out of balance. And it does not at all mean that you can’t go beyond that. Because that’s how I got to the bareback and bridleless. When the horse understands the concept of pressure, which is in the middle of this. This is like, I always–you should see me. I’m sitting here recording this, knowing you can’t see me. And I’ve got my right arm horizontally and I keep making this parking motion with my hand like a rainbow because I’m trying to help you, trying to help you understand this concept that the beginning stages of training, there’s this big arc through the middle and then we get over to the other side of this rainbow, and that’s where all the gold is. That’s where that ability to ride bareback and bridleless comes from. And whether you teach it with traditional methods that look more like dressage or whether you teach it with some more natural horsemanship techniques, whether you go, well, cowboys aren’t doing this out on a ranch. Yes. Yes, they are. When you go out to ride that many hours down a trail that many hours checking fence line, that many hours driving cattle, there is a level of pressure. This is happening in places. And the only place this is not happening is when you try to stay in a really, really controlled environment inside of like one arena and you try to reduce the world to less and less stimulation. I for sure do that in the beginning when I’m starting a colt. I don’t necessarily want to do with everything under the sun. At the same time I did at Road to the Horse. I know it can be done. But at home I much prefer nice, quiet building of the cue system. So if you have a better word to describe what I’m talking about here than pressure, feel free to leave a comment over on the blog and let me know. I think that it’s a concept more than a single word. And that’s why I went into so much detail with the movie idea. I hope, Christine, this helps you. If any of you have questions, you can call in over on my website. Look for the orange tab on the right hand side. It’ll pop up on your phone or if you’re on a computer, it’s there too. Thank you so much for listening. And I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Stacy Westfall: [00:28:33] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com For articles, videos and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Coaching article Stacy quoted: https://wgcoaching.com/ten-habits-highly-effective-coaches/

Demonstration of balanced aids at a halt: Episode 3- Teach your horse a stand still cue


  1. Christie on December 20, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    This episode was so helpful with my plus horse. I implemented the rider relaxation techniques (roll shoulders, the hug, move around, breathe) you discuss and how to be mindful of changes in myself in different situations. It is already helping my horse relax more and build his confidence! Thank you for all of your free advice!

  2. Sheryl on August 26, 2020 at 11:34 am

    Hi Stacy, I can relate to some of Christina’s question to you, so I wanted to share a tiny bit of my experience and hope it is in some small way helpful. Me and my mare both struggled with the ‘pressure’ at first, the unknowns, and we both had to grow our confidence, in ourselves and in each other, building trust matters (and is something we always work on building to be stronger and lasting). It was (and still is) a process. At first the idea of going out on the trail just the two of us was a dream and seemed very far out of reach, but like pretty much every part of our journey together, we take one step at a time (literally and figuratively). We started out going on trail rides with others, that was a great way for us both to gain some experience and confidence, but I do want to note here that was also a process of learning which riders and horses were a good match for us, energy, compatibility, etc are very important. We were lucky to have some very good friends (human and equine) to ride with. I also spent a lot of time on the ground, just the two of us, hand-walking the trails, to help her build confidence in me, with me, I am a firm believer of from the ground up in training, whether you’re in the ring or on the trails. I feel it builds trust that matters so much when you are riding. Our first trail ride alone was very short, quality not quantity makes for lasting successes for us. We go out all the time now by ourselves and it’s amazing, can’t put to words how it feels to be out there with my awesome mare, exploring, learning, experiencing new pressures and challenges (deer, chipmunks, turkeys, bike riders, hikers, hikers with dogs, other horses) some of these present more pressure than others, some we’re still working on and have only limited experiences with, there’s so much we’re still working on in fact, but we are doing it together. I also want to add that getting to this point where we can trail ride alone is truly a gift I cherish and appreciate, and it’s also really helped our ring/western dressage work so much, and vice versa actually. Thanks for all that you share and thanks for listening!

    • Stacy Westfall on August 26, 2020 at 6:42 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I think it helps to hear from many people who have been down this path.
      I totally agree about the groundwork!!!

  3. Christina on August 26, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Thank you Stacy! Confidence is on the other side of the arch or “rainbow” of pressure for both me & my horse! Thank you for answering my question! This podcast is so amazingly helpful in my journey to understanding my horses. I am grateful for your time and commitment to helping others!

    • Stacy Westfall on August 26, 2020 at 6:42 pm

      Thanks for listening and for leaving your question!

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