Fitness & Horsemanship
-by Pat Parelli
This article was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
Growing up in the East Bay area of California, I was able to ride from the stables to my house, which was over 7 miles. And we even had stables at my school, so I would ride there too. For a 10-year-old to be able to use his horse for transportation was great; I thought, “This is better than a bicycle!”
That was my first experience with that sort of riding. I wouldn’t call it “trail riding” per se, but it was a start. Then I met a man named Freddie Feriera, who was involved in an organization called NATRC, or the North American Trail Riding Conference. We would join these trail riding competitions, where you sort of had to stay in this zone for 25-50 miles. If you went too fast or too slow, you were penalized, and you were judged crossing creeks and things like that.
To prepare for these competitions, Freddie would take us up in the Diablo Mountains for up to two weeks at a time. He taught us everything we needed to know — how to keep the horses safe, fed properly, how to keep them from running away. Every five minutes, he had a new trail tip for us. He was one of those guys whose passion was trail riding, without a doubt.
Freddie Feriera was the man who really got me interested in trail riding, and I take a lot of pride in being able to share what he taught me, because trail riding is a wonderful experience if you take the necessary steps.
It’s easy to see what draws people to trail riding. It’s a really romantic image, actually: just you and your horse, out in the wilderness, in a place that you can only get to by walking. There’s just a wonderful feeling of freedom out there. Of course, you can get yourself into trouble if you focus so much on the idea of it that you forget some preparation.
Actually, I did something like that just the other day. I went out on a trail ride with a few friends, and I forgot to bring a saw. Not really something you’d usually think about, but it still would have been a big help. We were out there, trying to blaze trails around trees that had fallen, and all we needed was a darn saw. It would have made the ride a lot safer and a lot more fun.
Basically, you need to think it through — be prepared for anything you think there’s a chance you’ll encounter. There are a few things that are essential on any trail ride: a raincoat, a way to tie your horse up, and a good sense of direction. If you don’t have a good sense of direction, bring a map and a compass. GPS and phones are great, but you’re never guaranteed to have service out there. With all that in mind, my best advice is to ride in a group.
I consider a group to be two or more people. Whenever you go out into the wilderness, it’s best to have at least one other person with you. You’ll have one more brain, one more mind, to solve problems. Safety is obviously a huge plus, and you’ll have some camaraderie as well. If you’re out there appreciating nature’s beauty, you might as well share it with someone.
Another thing to consider before you head out on the trail is the type of horse you’ll be riding. If you’re still looking for the right horse, breed preference is up to you, but keep the horse’s spirit level and Horsenality™ in mind. In general, Left-Brain Introverts are the easiest to work with on the trail, while Right-Brain Extroverts tend to present the most difficulty. Obviously, nothing is certain, but rightbrain horses are more likely to spook out on the trail.
At Parelli, we stress the importance of never-ending self-improvement; along with that comes being open to learning and adjusting your outlook. Over the years, I’ve certainly come to understand how skills translate across disciplines. The more I’ve learned about performance horses — jumping, dressage, racing, reining, cow horses — and what they do, the more I’ve realized how the skills they use in an arena also apply on the trail.
The more I’ve learned about performance horses and what they do, the more I’ve realized how the skills they use in an arena also apply on the trail.
For example, horses that need to know how to perform a slide stop can be great out on the trail. We’ve got this mountain behind the ranch here in Colorado. It has a lot of this loose shale rock on it, which can be pretty treacherous if you’re not prepared. We practice halts when we’re coming down the really steep parts of the mountain, and we use the same basic maneuver as a slide stop — get the horse’s back up and his hindquarters under him.
Also, performance horses really need to be aware of their surroundings and very perceptive of where their feet are.These are the types of traits to look for in a good trail horse, and I found them in performance horses!
Trail riding requires a combination of horsemanship and fitness. Our program teaches horsemanship, the habits and skills you need to become a partner with your horse. Fitness is something you and your horse need to develop throughout your partnership.
You can develop physical fitness by preparing your horse for the elements — as much as you can — in a controlled environment. Increase his endurance by playing at a higher intensity level for longer periods of time. In preparation for NATRC events, we’d be out there three or four times a week, getting acclimated to the elements. I’m not suggesting you should do that, particularly if you’re just starting, but it’s all about preparation.
Mental and emotional fitness are just as important. If your horse is next to a horse trotting faster than he is, your horse might want to race. Play the Seven Games and condition him to things that might spook him on the trail.
As long as you’ve prepared yourself and your horse, trail riding can be one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences you share. Just keep “prior and proper preparation” in mind.
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