Episode 94-Reducing anxiety during trail rides

A listener asks for some advice on how to reduce her horse’s anxiety…and hers…when out on the trails. The discussion includes riding reactively vs planning, analyzing your thought patterns, changing your muscle habits, and the idea that horses notice patterns.

Transcript of Podcast

Episode 94-Reducing anxiety during trail rides.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: [00:00:22] 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 from Lynn. Let’s take a listen.

Caller: [00:00:43] Hey, Stacy, this is Lynn from northeast Arkansas. I love your podcast, your website, your YouTube videos. Your training style really speaks to me and the training and teaching is what I’m just obsessed with. I love it. I love the concept. I’ve had this horse back that I have now for six years. I just got back into horses six years ago. My problem is not grandma rules. My problem is trail riding rules. A horse is great in the arena now. It used to be anxious, but he’s calm. Now we work on head down and we turn circles when he does the head tossing and all that. We get out on the trails. Now, though, we still have that anxiety in the beginning, whether with a small group or large group, I love trying. I would like to have a relaxing trail ride and we honestly battle the first half of the ride. And it’s so hard when you’re with other people and you can’t stop and do your circles or walk on your head down. And I do have limited time, so there’s only certain things I can do. But I realized something, anxiety might be in me because I’m probably expecting this fight. When I get out of the truck at the trail head, I could just use some advice on things to do to lessen his anxiety and mine. Thank you.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:09] I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying my multimedia experience. You seem to have found me across all platforms. So good job. Thank you for following. And it also sounds like you’re really accurate with your observation on trail rules versus arena rules. And for sure, this is a thing that happens with horses. And I love that you’re on to the fact that this could be happening with you. Also, I know that I grew up trail riding and then I went away to college for an equine program and spent quite a few years basically not trail riding. What was fascinating to me was that when I made the transition back to trail riding, I would have thought that years, literally years and years of being a professional and being at an equine college and training all of those years, you would have thought that those would have erased or at least changed my trail habits. But no, I went back to trail riding and had, boom, immediate return of the habits that I had grown up with when I hadn’t been trained. Now, what was interesting was it was kind of glaring because I could feel the difference in my body. So, for example, when I say that I reverted back like that, a big one for me that I noticed was that if I rode in a saddle, then I would notice that my knees hurt. And I thought, oh, this must be a problem with the saddle. But logically, that didn’t make any sense because there were lots of days when I would ride for eight hours in my arena in the same saddle and not have my knees hurt. But I couldn’t go on a one hour trail ride and not have my knees hurt. And what this led me to realize was that I was not actively riding. When I was out on the trail, I was more kind of sitting like a lump in the saddle, which had been my habit growing up if I rode with a saddle. Now, all of these habits changed or disappeared, modified when I went bareback. So growing up, my answer was always I better ride bareback. Saddles hurt my knees. I always thought it was a saddle problem. Turns out it was actually more of me just kind of letting the saddle do too much of the work. So when I say that years of training as a professional didn’t undo all of those things that I had for habits, that’s one example of a habit that instantly came back when I went out on the trail. So that just means that I also had trail rules versus arena rules. So back to your question. First of all, Lynn, it’s good news that you’ve made improvements in the arena with the issues. And I love that you can see the common thread between the arena problems and the trail problems. And it sounds like you had the issues in both places, arena and trail. And now it sounds like the arena issues are at least a lot smaller. I think there was the way that it was phrased, it made me wonder whether or not there were still some days or sometimes when the head tossing was still a little bit of an issue in the arena, but you had ways to handle it. So I was a little unclear there. But either way, it was clear that you’ve made progress there. So I have a few ideas for you to consider.

[00:05:52] Let’s go ahead. It sounds like you’re a longtime listener and let’s go ahead and use the four square model to break this down. If you’re a new listener and the term four square model is new to you, I’ll describe it real quickly. The first four seasons of the podcast, I actually focus on each one of these four quadrants. So what I want you to do is I want you to picture in your mind a plus sign and how that would create four different corners or quadrants there. And when I look at a challenge with horses or, you know, some kind of an issue that a horse and rider are having, I like to look at it from four different angles. And those four different corners of this four square model are the horses mind and the horse’s body, the riders mind and the riders body. And I did a deep dive into each one of those topics in the first four seasons of the podcast. So great stuff to go back and listen to if you want to go deeper into one of those areas. I think that when we break it down into those four different places, it’s easier to see how they can be affecting each other. So, Lynn, it definitely sounds like you’re on to yourself and your thinking, which would be the rider’s mind quadrant. When you say that, you’re pretty sure you show up at the trail ride, you know, prepared for a fight, because if you show up prepared for a fight, there’s a good chance that you’re going to help create one. And I know that that’s definitely one of those topics.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:38] If you go back and listen to some of the podcasts where I was talking about spooking. It’s interesting because a lot of times when it feels like there’s something out of your control, like, for example, when I in some of those past episodes–when I talked about Presto spooking, that feels like something that you almost just have to, like, brace for or prepare for like that. And to some degree, you do have to prepare because that helps you stay out of trouble, but you have to make sure you don’t bring it on and that is a fine line to walk. So one way for the riders mind quadrant that I suggest doing this is that I suggest that you give your brain the assignment of finding something beneficial in the first half of the ride. So that might be when you get in the truck and trailer and you head to the ride, you’re driving there and you think today I’m going to notice my habits with my hands. And, you know, maybe you have a thought like, how is this behavior that my horse is doing on the first half of this trail? How is this similar to what he used to do in the arena? So this real subtle play of words or this giving your brain an assignment, like that can help shift you away from bracing for a fight. Now, when you give yourself an assignment like this, it’s like–say it’s something that you’re going to notice about you or it might be something you’re going to notice about him. Be mindful of the way that you phrase it. So either make it neutral or make it positive. So in my example I just gave I told you, like, the something to notice for you is I’m going to notice my habits with my hands today. But I want you to know that I didn’t say I’m going to see if I move my hands too fast today. Can you hear how one is more neutral? I’m going to notice my habits with my hands today versus almost setting yourself up to look for a problem, which would be I’m going to see if I move my hands too fast today. So play with a positive or at least a neutral phrasing of whatever assignment you give yourself. Same thing if your assignment is about him. So maybe instead of being like, I want to see what was causing him to throw his head, you know, instead of a negative phrasing like that, you look for something like how is this behavior similar to what he used to do in the arena? Because hidden inside of that is the implied success that you’ve had in the arena. And a lot of times, changing that phrasing in your mind will help soften your body.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:38] But let’s go ahead and look at the rider’s body quadrant. So something else you could do is you could give yourself a physical assignment to do so. One that I often suggest to people is to roll your shoulders back. So pick your shoulders up, lift them up toward your ears, put them back, roll them back until you feel your shoulder blades flat in your back. And, you know, a motion like that that would loosen you up is something that if, you know, you’re…like the phrasing that you use, like brace for a fight, or prepared for a fight, that usually indicates tension somewhere in your body. For me, if I have that thought, then I know the tension goes into my shoulders. So figure out if you just are sitting in your car right now or listening. Like literally think, I’m braced for a fight and like, brace yourself physically for the fight. However that–whatever that means for you, I’m sitting here doing that and I say it–when I say it, I’m like making a fist with my hands. And the first thing I feel is I feel that tension in my…actually I feel it mostly in my shoulder blade. What’s really interesting is when I say that and I make that fist, I actually feel my shoulder blade like pop out of my back because I rotate my arm like I’m getting ready to punch. And so it’s interesting how you can start to unravel the thought and how you think about it and what that causes in your body. Then you can take it a step further and give yourself an assignment to, like, roll your shoulder back. So here’s a tip that I definitely use for people at horse shows, but you can totally use it when you go on a trail ride, too. So back when I was coaching a lot of people at horse shows, I would notice, you know, when you go in to show in a reining pattern, you’re only going to be in there for like 4 minutes. Not even 4 minutes usually. So like 3 and a half minutes. And you’re doing a lot of different things. So on top of remembering the pattern that you’re supposed to be doing, you generally are trying to improve something. So what I found was that riders could remember about 3 things. This is on top of the pattern. So so I would try to find 3 things. And I did this to myself a lot, too. So I would pick 3. The first two were almost always a given. Breathe, look up, and then something else would be more specific. So some riders, maybe they needed to add more speed to their riding pattern. So it might be like, breathe, look up, faster, like go. And then or it might be somebody who tended to get quick with their hands. So instead of putting the thought into their mind, you know, don’t be quick with your hands, it would be like, breathe, look up, smooth. And then over and over again, you can just train yourself to be like, breathe, look up, smooth. OK, good spins, OK, breathe, look up, smooth, circles. And so that’s how it works in the show arena. Well, you can pick 3 different things that you’re going to kind of repeat over and over again as an assignment during a trail ride. And sometimes when I’m doing it, like I’ll even touch my first–I’ll touch my thumb to my first finger, my thumb to my second finger, my thumb to my third finger, and I’ll just go over and over again a little bit. And I usually pick 3 that are physical because they’ll also trigger the mental. So again, breathe, roll shoulders, smooth. And so if you make up 3 that you think would be really beneficial to you, it’s something that you can–you can repeat over and over again that’s actually going to tie together and help break some of those habits physically and mentally.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:39] So the next quadrant will be the rider’s, I mean, the horse’s mind. And this one’s kind of interesting because you can do some backwards looking and some forward looking because in the horse’s mind quadrant, you already saw your horse’s anxiety in both places in the arena and out on the trail. So what I want you to do is look back at the arena for clues on what he was anxious about. And so one thing that would make me, you know, look back and wonder like did he relax in the arena because he saw a pattern in the answers from you? And what I mean by that is that horses notice patterns. Like they’re really, really good at noticing patterns. And I’m wondering if when you were improving him in the arena, I’m wondering if he basically caught on to a pattern of the way that you made corrections, for example. So something you could ask yourself is like, was there a very habitual pattern? And is that what made him start to relax? Was it the way that I was riding that taught him that habit, that let him slow down and and relax a little bit more to lower his head? And how long does it take for me to start seeing those results? Because some of those answers will help, you know, how long it’s going to take to see more results out on the trail. So if it took you 6 months to improve him in the arena, and if you consider the arena to be a much more quiet environment than a group of horses out on the trail, then it would make sense that it would take longer to see the results out on the trail. So you start quizzing and saying like, what was it in the arena that helped quiet him? And you’ve already said it’s–part of it’s the circle, so then to me it’s like, what is that about circles that is improving him? And so that idea of riding circles, the first thing that I picture when somebody rides a circle is that it involves bend and bend requires contact. So the fact that your horse is relaxing when you do circles in the arena, to me sounds like a good thing because that means he’s relaxing while you’re making contact with the reins.

Stacy Westfall: [00:17:24] And I’m going to contrast that with what often happens on trail rides. So a lot of times on trail rides, the riders will allow the horse to be straight and, you know, following another horse or walking straight down a trail that’s kind of, you know, obvious. The horse has like a track. It gets on or, you know, stay in between the trees. It’s it’s just kind of able to see where it’s supposed to go. So the rider gives it a loose rein and is on no contact. And this is fine. I’m not criticizing that idea. It’s especially great if they’re relaxed and going where you want them to go. And it’s really, really good if their first response–when you pick up and take away the slack and make contact–if their first response is positive, useful, if it’s not resistant, then that loose rein to contact is something they can handle. And so you’re not setting them up for failure. But often, very, very, very often horses are initially resistant to that first contact. It’s not necessarily a resistant…it is resistance, but it’s more or less sometimes like a lack of experience and the fact that horses tend to get stiffer when they’re straight. So this goes back to I’ve mentioned in another podcast that if you look at a rodeo horse bucking, they’re going to be straight from pole to tail. And when we want to reduce bucking, we can add bend. So when we add bend, a lot of times we add like a softness, or less resistance. But when their horse–when the horse is straight and we pick up and make that first contact, eventually what we want is we want them to connect the dots that when we make that first contact, it’s…their first response should be to relax and prepare to bend. But in reality, a lot of times their first response, especially out on a trail, is more like a surprise because they were distracted and watching whatever is going on on the trail and they didn’t notice the slack coming out of the rein, as suddenly they’re surprised. And so ideally, the horse gets better and better at that first contact. But realistically, that’s a long game. That’s the game I’m playing right now with Presto. So if you go back and watch on the YouTube channel, on my YouTube channel or on my Facebook page, the video of Presto’s first trail ride–it’s also on my blog, it’s embedded on my blog or on my website–if you watch that video of Presto’s First Trail Ride, you’ll see that I’m asking for slight bend and that I keep him on contact, especially at the beginning, quite a bit. And that’s because that’s how I can bridge that idea between the fact that, yes, I still want to go straight down the trail, but also, yes, bend tends to make them relax and not brace as much.

Stacy Westfall: [00:20:36] So for me, the way that I bridge that, which helps with being able to keep up with people when you’re going down the trail instead of having to stop and circle, is it I start to get to where I can ask for that bend left or right, while still keeping the shoulders going straight down the trail. And basically what that means is that the horse is moving to a higher level of training when I’m able to do that. And just for a little moment here, I just want to say that when I was getting Presto ready for that first trail ride, you know, I spent basically a year in the arena riding him. And he was really interesting because he’s a very big horse and his balance and softness was noticeably better on any version of a circle to the point where loping, cantering straight lines around the arena, meaning it’s a big rectangular arena. So 70 feet wide, 200 feet long. I was really comfortable making big circles and traveling down, up and down the arena, but going in those straight lines from one end to the other, I could feel the difference in his balance and the fact that as he had a balance issue there, he was also more likely to be more resistant in his face. That makes sense. Like if he’s having trouble balancing his own body weight as he goes in a straight line because he really doesn’t practice that out in the pasture, by the way. Like he kind of just like makes random zigzag lines and doesn’t maintain it. So it’s not like he’s practicing this a lot. So it was harder for him to do, which also makes it more likely that he’s going to be resistant. So I talked about Episode 93 of the podcast, there’s a bunch of places where horses tend to view things as stress. Well, one of the ones I listed was going up and down hills because sometimes when they’re navigating hills or the different terrain, when we make contact with our hands, sometimes they feel a little bit like. This is really bad timing for you to be asking me for this, because I really need to balance and realistically there’s some truth to it, but they also generally can stretch their comfort zone. But it’s good for you to be aware of what’s going on there, because these pieces of…for the horse that horses, you know, the horses mind and the horse’s body…that’s how those two are tied together. So, one thing that I really wanted to do after I had been out riding for a while was I really wanted to go back to the arena. Because I could feel that I needed to go back to the arena and make some more deposits in my training bank account. So when I was in the arena riding and training, Presto, it felt like I was making deposits in my bank account of Presto. So that when I was out on the trail, I was able to make some withdrawals at times and the more well-trained he gets, the less it will feel like a deposit and withdrawal game. It can become more like a deposit in both areas. But to me, that happens more once you get into the upper levels of high school.

Stacy Westfall: [00:24:13] So. One last thought to wrap this up, and that is the idea that kind of came up when you were describing your horse beginning to relax after the first half of the ride, or you actually kind of said it the other way, like you really would fight the first half of the ride. So I have one more thought around that, and that is that this is fairly common. So sometimes it happens because the horses start to get a little bit tired and so they start to relax a little bit more. Or we could at least say they at least get a little less fresh. Well often on that second half of the trail ride, the horses will begin to relax and the riders can loosen up on the reins. And that’s great. But what I want you to watch for is I want you to watch for the idea that when the horse gets tight, the rider gets tight, and when the horse gets loose, the rider gets loose. Because what I’m describing there is a rider who is reacting to the horse, not a rider that’s planning ahead and controlling the results. And so a place you might be able to make some interesting observations would be in that second half of the ride. So let’s say that you kind of reach the halfway point of the ride. It’s getting better. Maybe go ahead and let it be better for that next quarter of the ride. And then in that last quarter of the ride, you say, oh, well, what will happen if I pick up an ask for a little bit of bend here or what will happen if I ask you to slow down a little bit here or what will ask what will happen if I ask you to speed up a little bit here? And so sometimes in those little opportunities where the horse is relaxed, when you pick up, you can start to notice some different things because odds are you’re accurate in your observation that the first half the energy is just kind of amped up, because that’s one of the things out on the trail, especially in the group ride you’re just–you’re describing is that, again, it goes back to what I was talking about Episode 93, where the energy level on the trail, the external factors, sometimes those will become louder than your cue system. And that’s where the idea of training at a higher level of energy in the arena is helpful. So one thing for you to notice is that you already know the energy level that your horse goes to out on the trail. So when your horse is doing whatever he’s doing, when he gets excited on the trail, go ahead and put a number on that. So if your ideal trail ride is him going down the trail at a 2 or 3, is he going to a level 6 or 7? How would you label that energy level when he’s being resistant and what you don’t like compared to what you do like in the arena? And then the challenge becomes, how can you proactively instead of re-actively–how can you proactively bring that level of riding up to that number–the energy level number in the arena? So let’s just say that he goes up to a level 6 out on the trail. But you wish he was at a level 3 and you’re happy because in the arena he’s at a level 3 a lot. You actually need to figure out a way to proactively take his energy level up to a level 6 in the arena so that you can practice bringing him back down to a 3. So some of the ways that you can do that would be to ask for a quicker response time in some of your transitions in the arena, so maybe you start practicing a halt to trot transition or a trot to halt transition. So that would be going from the halt up to the trot, trotting a couple laps around the arena, going from the trot immediately to the halt to trying to eliminate the walk. And so a lot of times when you start trying to increase the response, like make that quicker response time, a lot of times that kind of turns up the energy level because you’re asking for that precision. And that would be interesting to see how he responds to that. And can you train that and improve that then? Another thought is to maintain the longer…like figure out how to set up a longer maintenance time in the arena. And what I mean by that is that, like I said at the beginning, something about the way that you phrased part of the question, I interpreted it that there were still some days in the arena where the head tossing was an issue. It just sounded like it was a lot less than before.

Stacy Westfall: [00:29:24] So if I’m wrong and you were just phrasing that differently, asked by this and somebody else will learn from it. But if I’m correct in the way that I think I interpreted it, that sounds like there might still be–like let’s just say there’s 2 or 3 days a month in the arena where the head tossing is an issue. And so that would be a lot less than what it was before in my made up world. My question is, maybe you could ask, what would it take to make that go to zero, like you’ve come this far? What does it take to make that go all the way to zero? And inside of that, what that’ll get you to do is track the pattern of the better days or the worse days. And that is worth noting, because I’ll tell you this, a lot of times a bad day, if you proactively ride through or if you proactively even almost create a bad day or worse day–because if you if you’ve never worked on walk to trot, I mean a halt to trot or trot to halt. The first day that you practice that might feel like a bad day, but a lot of times those days are the days where you’re getting the most work done or you’re making deposits, and then you’ll notice that the horse, after a couple of those days, really comes out really nice and and it feels like there’s deposits there. So that would be something for you to notice as habits. Again, you know, I think that you’re on to a lot of different things here, Lynn, so that’s a great sign. You probably do have habits that are adding to things on the trail. I know I did. And I still have to play around with being aware of them. It’s super common for people to not be aware of what their hands are doing when they’re trail riding. One of my videos that I made last year was about that. And you could go back on my YouTube channel and find that in the middle of the trail to the World Show Western Dressage Series, I know I did one on–on that and I just showed how I’ll park my hand intentionally on the saddle horn to make sure that I’m not, like, randomly pulling on my horse’s reins without, you know, a clear plan, because that could be really annoying if you look at it from your horse’s point of view. So the best part is, you mentioned you don’t have a lot of extra time and a lot of us are in that situation. So the best part is that as your methods get better, as you get more effective at noticing your habits, as you get smoother with your hand, as you see how your habits can be created in the arena, and then you can take those habits and effectively carry them over, like, let’s just say the bend on the circle was working and now you can bend more in that straight line like I show on that trail riding video with Presto…as you’re–as that method gets better, it doesn’t require extra time. So that might be the best news. And then even better, it’s just that awareness really is what opens the door to all of this. So good job turning up your awareness. I hope some of those tips help. And I’d like to thank you all for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:33:03] 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:

Episode 93

Presto’s first trail ride


  1. Margine Henry on December 17, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    I could learn so much riding with you! Currently own 22yo & 6yo QH’s.

  2. Courtney Thompson on December 17, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    This episode was super helpful- I work a lot with rescue horses, many of whom have anxiety for various reasons that we may not even know. Definitely took notes on this one to put into practice! I also enjoyed the video of Presto’s first trail ride! We were cheering him on!

  3. Melissa Meade on October 14, 2020 at 11:06 am

    Hi Stacy! Thank you so much for these podcasts! My reliable trail horse started acting up on the trail 2 years ago. There is a lot that was going on at that time; me recovering from a major surgery and cancer…I got into a bad habit of not riding intentionally. Just a couple of weeks ago, I made an attempt to go back to the trail. Unfortunately, my Scooter B blew up at the exact same spot as he did previously. Needless to say, I left that trip in tears. I have been listening to your podcast off and on for the past year or so. I am so happy to discover that you have a whole series on trail riding. You can be assured that I am like a sponge listening to this series. I can so relate to some of your listeners who have emailed in their questions to you regarding trail issues. Already, you are helping me know how to approach my ride in the arena. Honestly, as disappointing as a bad trail ride can be, it’s been such a growing time for me and has got me back in the saddle riding with intention. My horse appreciates it too. Thank you for being so down to earth and so easy to understand. I listen to your podcast while cleaning my barn, I feel like a friend is with me coaching me through my personal challenges. Thank you!!

  4. Patricia Woodruff on September 2, 2020 at 6:36 am

    You have come such a long way with sweet Presto! He seems like he needed a lot of patience!

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