There’s nothing that can replace getting on your horse and hitting the trail. For new riders — young and old — it teaches a valuable set of skills that can’t be replicated in the arena.
One of the coolest things about being the parent of young children is watching them grow and develop as riders. From their first pony rides to learning to post on the correct diagonal and get their leads, seeing them become competent horsepeople is pretty rad. Quick aside: video those early days when they’re learning to post. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t document my youngest’s lessons when she was first learning to post. The closest I can come to recreating it is this:
Don’t think I’m a horrible parent for saying that. You have to find humor in those early rides. And she’s much less flying monkey-like now. But I digress.
As my kids become fairly confident and competent in the ring, I enjoy watching them compete and progress. But there’s something about riding outside of the ring that really helps turn them into riders. Not just small people who can look good on a horse, but actual riders.
This isn’t just true for kids. It’s true for all riders. Especially the newer riders who, as they build their confidence in the ring, are in need of an expanded skill set.
Here are five skills new riders develop when they get out on the ring and onto the trail:
1. Problem solving. But on horseback. Trail riding encourages — and actually demands that — new riders think through situations in a different way than they would in an arena. Oh. There’s a low-hanging branch? How do I navigate this? Do I get off my horse and walk under it? Do I duck? Do I lay down against my horse’s neck and hope that I have enough clearance and my horse has enough sense not to act like a giraffe right now? (I always opt for the latter, by the way.) The same sort of approach can be used when navigating one’s way over obstacles or up or down hills. These are all things that, generally speaking, are not encountered when all of one’s time is spent in the arena.
2. Calm in the face of a storm. This can be a literal storm or the proverbial $h!t storm that sometimes occurs when you have a group of horses and riders of varying abilities in a group together. A dog is running at my horse’s legs and barking. What do I do? A cyclist is flying down the trail with no intention of stopping. What do I do? Flicka, two horses behind me, is throwing an absolute fit. What do I do? Being able to take a deep breath, keep one’s own horse calm (or at least de-escalate a horse that is beginning to ramp up) is another skill no matter where you’re riding.
3. A good seat. Sure. A good seat comes from time, good equitation, and — often — quality instruction. But it also comes from experience and varied terrain. The going up and down hills, over obstacles, through tight spaces, and staying on (hopefully) when your horse spooks at the random deer, turkey (can you tell I live in Western Pennsylvania?), plastic bag, or cyclist, all help to build a more balanced rider.
4. Independence. Don’t get me wrong. Lessons are invaluable. My children take lessons multiple times a week. I take lessons. Clearly the money I pour into riding demonstrates the value I see in instructional time in an arena. BUT there is something to be said for riding a horse without being told what to do at every step that allows the rider to figure out what to do for themselves. Generally speaking, a trainer isn’t always going to be present to help you work through how to ride in a new situation. Trail riding helps build that independence in a way that a lot of other experiences can’t.
5. Confidence. Being out on the trail builds confidence in a way that staying in the arena can’t. All of the other skills that trail riding offers helps make for a more confident and independent rider. I see it in my own kids as well as my friends when we go out riding. The same can be said for the horses we’re on.
I’ll offer one big caveat to this article. All this skills can only be developed when a rider and a horse are well matched. Putting a new rider on an overly reactive or green horse that can’t take things in stride (for the most part) is a great way to break down the rider’s confidence in themselves and their skillsets.