Tag Archives: competitive trail riding

Help Your Horse Walk

Like many competitive trail riders, I find the walk to be my horses’ most important gait. It is an area that Sebastian and I have found challenging. I would like 4-6 mph at the walk. Sebastian, after the initial excitement of the ride dies down, would prefer a pace more suited to sightseeing and frequent stops to sample the local flora. Maybe 1 mph. In the video below, Sue Corrie will give you some tips on influencing your horse’s walk correctly. Much of Sue’s teachings is based on the work of Mary Wanless- very good stuff. The video focuses on the way the rider’s seat connects to the horse’s hind end in order to control the tempo of the walk. It allows for a bigger walk that comes from stronger engagement from the horse’s hind end, rather than dumping the horse onto his forehand.

Here Sue is warming up Sebastian at a show. She is both on a long rein and her seat is actively connected to his back. She is asking him to use his hind end while he walks along, relaxed.

Here Sue is warming up Sebastian at a show. She is both on a long rein and her seat is actively connected to his back. She is asking him to use his hind end while he walks along, relaxed.

Before thinking about the concepts from the video, be sure your basic body alignment follows the classic shoulder-hips-heels rule: if a plumb line were dropped down from the heavens, it should pass through all those body parts. A way to check this is to imagine if the horse were whisked out from under the rider; the rider should always land on her feet. This is a good image to have in mind in order to stay balanced on ascents and descents, as well.

Sue talks about your seat bones in the video. If you are having a hard time knowing where they are pointing, you can sit on your hands to get a feel for them. Alternately hollow and round your low back to feel how those “flashlights” shine backward and forward. Find the spot where they point straight down. In this position you have the best chances of “plugging in” to your horse’s back and influencing his movement properly.

A final thing to keep in mind is that the movements that Sue describes are probably not as big as you might imagine. Big movements with your seat are very uncomfortable for your horse. Imagine moving at some speed down a trail with a big, sloppy backpack moving all over your back. Ouch. Now instead imagine a tightly packed backpack that is well secured to your back. Ahhhh. Be the tight backpack! Riders who *look* relaxed on a horse are riders with very active core muscles that hold them still in relationship to the horse. They can influence their horses easily because they are not sending a million extra signals to the horse through meaningless floppy body movements. Pay attention to the change in Sebastian when Sue uses her seat to make bigger movements and shove him forward- not a happy boy.


Initially you may need a helper on the ground so you can figure out how to coordinate your seatbone going down and back when your horse’s hind leg on the same side is in motion. In order to speed up the walk you will actually feel like you are opposing the motion of the horse to some extent as you take the lead and tell the horse to put his hind leg down at a faster pace. Instead of letting the horse’s movement carry your seatbone at the current speed, think about your seat bone being connected directly to your horse’s hind hoof.  Tell that hoof to come down sooner with a faster down and back motion with your corresponding seat bone. Change the speed your seatbones are moving at but keep the movements small- no floppy backpacks! This feels opposite to what lots of us do instinctually to try to get our horses to walk bigger- exaggerate the way our hips move naturally at the walk. This exaggeration may cause your horse to take faster steps but it will also shove him onto the forehand, hollow his back and make his back end trail out behind him. Done correctly, Sue’s method will have your horse reaching farther under himself with his hind end. The increase in speed will be powerful and correct.

Good luck! Find the Big Walk!


Imagine Riding a Horse Through An Oven. For 7 Hours.

Sebastian is getting to know the signs of a pending NATRC ride: a bath with soap at 9 in the morning, silly looking braids for the forelock and tail, much awkward maneuvering of the truck and trailer around the paddock in order to get a hose to reach the water tank, etc. During this prep day I also convinced B to take a short work break to install the latest bit of awesome camping gear I have acquired. After the last ride I was talking up the overhead ties that lots of folks use to secure their ponies to the trailer. They allow the horse much more room to move and make them a little less likely to be tangled up with the trailer as they eat or lie down. After running through the pending holidays and realizing that nothing was coming up soon to use as an excuse to get me one of these things, B said “Hey, I want a HiTie for Father’s Day!” The man has not only been studying his Husband Handbook, he has added a few new pages. Turns out “short” is not the length of time needed to drill a set of two perfectly spaced, level holes through 3 layers of steel, but we got it done and it was worth it. Well, it was worth it to me and Sebastian (sheepish grin).

My dear friend Jill went early to the Round Valley camp site and saved us the exact same spot we had last year, including the exact same inconveniently placed bush that served as a marker of my poor horse trailer backing skills once again.

Here is Bastian enjoying the relative freedom of his fabulous HiTie. Yes, that’s the bush and its friend making bunny ears on the trailer.

Jill’s horse Pokani has the TieRite model.

 All went fine with the vetting in. Carol, the veterinarian judge, ordered no snakes at this ride so we didn’t see any of those. Last year there was a very generously sized rattle snake found in camp, so I was thankful. The best part of the vet check was when Carol said Sebastian’s body condition score (a measurement of how fat or thin a horse is, on a scale of 1-9) was a 6! We have had huge struggles in this department- last fall he was an 8 (fat). At home I do a lot of feeling for ribs and poking at the spongy fat pads at  the base of his tail, doggedly trying to measure the imperceptible day to day changes in his weight. Recently I have been hoping he was down to a 7 (fleshy), so when I heard 6 (moderately fleshy) I was so excited! Moderately fleshy! When I gushed to Carol about this later in the weekend she did backtrack a bit- apparently he is somewhere between a 6 and a 7, or perhaps a 6 for his body type. But who cares- anywhere close to merely “moderately fleshy” is a huge victory for my “air fern” (Carol’s expression for an easy keeper). In solidarity with my pony I gorged myself at the potluck before we got the low down for the ride. Rumors had it that the temps would get up to 104, so the open riders had a loop lopped off their ride. No such luck for the Novice and Competitive Pleasure riders. 24 miles it would be.
The night was another long series of randomly timed whooshes! and thumps! from Sebastian’s hearty eating habits. I tried to focus on how wonderful his gut sounds have consistently been at vet checks and not stress about the lack of sleep. Less trailer rocking happened with the new tie system. He did lie down for a couple of hours so we both got a bit of sleep.
The morning temperature was far too balmy for 5 am. By the time we left at about 7:15 it was continuing to warm. The start was a gentle up and down followed by another long flat. Lots of room for the ponies to be frisky, and Sebastian was no exception. Frustrated by my outrageous request to walk at the start of what was obviously a high stakes horse race, he had to let out a small but expressive buck. Made me wish for a nice big hill, but that was a few miles out. Fortunately Jill’s horse Pokani was being a total gentleman and setting a good example. Once we got to the floor of Round Valley we were able to do a long, fast trot to settle out some of the frisk. Pokani is 17 hands tall with a nice big stride (another leggy creature with a 6mph walk- swoon!), so Sebastian had his work cut out for him keeping up.  Soon we were on a several mile climb that looked like this:
It was steep and an excellent use for extra pony exuberance. Also it was beautiful.

Here I am with my stubby… um, compact and efficient at dispelling heat… pony.

After many ups and downs we had the first horse fitness check. I was delighted that Sebastian came in at a 9 and 3 (pulse of 36 beats per minute and respirations of 12 per minute after 10 minutes rest). Apparently his upbringing in the mountains of Nevada had prepared him for the rising heat.
Shortly after we came upon a terrifying obstacle in the trail. Sebastian had not originally realized how dangerous the situation was, but Poki left the trail hurriedly to keep a safe distance.
Jill was laughing! That fool!
Look at this ROCK OF DOOM!
At this point Sebastian was starting to realize the dire position we were all in.
But summoned his deepest courage to snort at the rock from close range. My hero.
It must have been sleeping. Didn’t eat any of us.
The temps continued to climb. I was pleased that Sebastian got an 11 and 4 at his next pulse and reparation check (pulse of 44 beats per minute, respirations of 16 per minute). The volunteers were excellent about providing horse and human water at every opportunity and I was drinking like crazy to keep up. Unfortunately I didn’t have any electrolytes for myself, so Sebastian shared his paste. Eduramax tastes okay, in case you’ve ever wondered. From the looks of Carol’s concerned expression and the number of horses being attended to, this was the vet check where a lot of horses were found to be in trouble. The heat was really taking its toll and the number of pulled horses was rising (by the end of the day 6 or 7 out of 34 were not able to continue). Region 1 of NATRC focuses the judging of the horse on soundness, rather than creating obstacles to assess the horse’s manners on the trail. Carol commented on Friday that this kind of heat makes the veterinary judging straight forward. Any fitness, soundness or metabolic issues are very likely to show up under this amount of stress.
After the check we rode out onto a long, exposed ridge with conditions that B describes as “God’s Hairdryer.” The wind was warm and strong.
Sometime after this totally staged moment where Sebastian and I were in the lead (Pokani was the lead pony at all times), I suddenly found myself riding a terrified steed at a gallop, closing in fast on Pokani’s tail. After a second I realized that the wind had came up very strongly and at just the right angle to turn my penny into a flashing, rattling noisemaker that Sebastian was certain did not belong on his back. Nothing like figuring out that some part of you is what is scaring the daylights out of your horse. I was able to hold it down with one arm and ride with the other, but it made for a tense rest of the loooong ridge, dealing with passing horses and shortening and lengthening the reins with only one hand available.
I was so happy to eventually see the lunch break come into view. Given the heat, they held us an extra 15 minutes at lunch to help everyone recover. I sponged down Sebastian, who was looking like a Zebra with crusted, white tracks of salt all over his body. It was such a dry day that the sweat would dry almost immediately. It was spooky to reach down during the ride and feel an essentially dry horse neck in such heat. I also hosed myself down and choked down some sustenance- salted ham and cheese wraps.
Our third pulse and respiration check was a 10 and 2. I would have been very pleased with those numbers at a first check on a cool day. Phew! Good boy!
Not too many pictures were taken after this point in the ride. It felt a like sort of a frivolous use of energy. But here is Jill going down that long hill that we climbed in the morning. Or maybe it was a hill closer to the P & R. Things have blurred.
The long downhill at the end of the day was a challenge. Especially for the poky pony. Sebastian is, shall we say, careful going downhill and does not think it prudent to rush. Turns out he is not, however, against a small buck in protest when he loses his leggy partner around a blind corner. This was very effective human training on his part. I hollered to Jill and she very graciously made sure not to lose sight of us again. He is still a slow walker. Sigh.
I was so delighted to see the valley floor after that long descent. I was less delighted to ride into the dense, smothering heat that was rising from that floor. The air was still and for the first time all day the heat really felt oppressive. We needed to make up time and the ponies, strangely, had plenty of energy so we trotted through that oven. Turns out it was 108 or 109 at that point.
Definitely no pictures from the rest of the evening at camp. I felt like I was wading through soup. We tucked the horses into their meals and water and gave them thorough baths. Both of them ate and drank very well all day, thank goodness. Both Sebastian and I were less than perky at the final vet check, but we did okay. I had an exciting wave of nausea in the line to the Mexican dinner feast, but held it together and took in a very restorative mountain of food. The awards ceremony was especially nice because the Horsemanship judge, Jamie, was so positive and took the trouble to name several people individually and describe things they did very well on the trail. Sebastian won his Novice class and we got  Novice Sweepstakes again!!! I think we have to retire now. No way to keep up that streak.
I reconfigured hay nets again and we both slept pretty well that night, although I was still slick with sweat as I laid down to sleep at 10:30 pm.  In the morning the tough Open and Competitive pleasure riders were preparing for their day 2.
All I can say is wow.
Jill and I did the obligatory photo sessions with the awesome loot that we won.That’s a leather halter with engraved nameplate for the first place in Novice Horse to go with that beautiful cooler for Sweepstakes! So fancy!
Jill won a very cool ride time watch for her first in Novice Horsemanship and Pokani won second in Novice horse. Here Jill is circumventing the do-something-spastic-so-the-horse-puts-his-ears-forward routine that is usually the responsibility of the photographer. Thank you Jill!
In the end it was a really great weekend. A hard ride in heat like that was not what I would have chosen to do if I had control of the weather, but really it was a gift. It pushed our boundaries (I had no idea that we could do something like that!) and gave me some excellent perspective. I think the conditions of most other Novice rides will seem easy after that one. Knock on wood!

Slow Horse in the Winner’s Circle

Finally, the first weekend in May, the day came for me and Sebastian to attend our first competitive trail ride together. NATRC rides are long trail rides where the horse is judged on soundness, fitness and trail ability while the rider is judged on everything having to do with safe horse camping, horsemanship and good riding. It is the perfect sport for me and Sebastian for lots of reasons: it gives us a goal to work towards to keep him fit, it is something we can easily practice right from our house, it gives me an excuse to resurrect long lost grooming practices (like french braiding tails) from my teenage show days, Sebastian’s generally calm temperament gives us a fighting chance of completing these rides without serious bodily harm, and the folks at rides are so darn nice and welcoming. This is not the “A” circuit Hunter/Jumper world I was raised in.

The packing for these rides is really something. You would think we were going to the moon! Here is O, supervising the proceedings.

My friend Jill was good enough to save us a spot out at Mt. Diablo, so although I left late after tending to a zillion unexpected details I was able to camp right next to Jill and her neighbor Val. The first order of business at the ride was checking in and presenting Sebastian to the vet to be sure he was sound and ready for the ride. Sebastian was very well mannered for the vet. It called upon one of his most practiced skills- standing still. By contrast, at Annie’s first ride she unloaded from the trailer and immediately went into raging heat. She would spread her legs, throw her tail to the side and shoot urine when any creature got near her hindquarters. Any creature including the vet. So already I was finding this experience with Sebastian more relaxing.

This would be Sebastian’s first night tied to a trailer, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Annie’s first night tied to a trailer she paced alllllllll night long, rasping the metal clip on her lead rope on the back corner of the trailer with every pass and rattling the metal of her bucket handle against the side of the trailer occasionally for good measure. All the while I was attempting to sleep in the gooseneck of the trailer. Both of us did that Round Valley NATRC ride on zero hours of sleep. This time with Sebastian I thought I was a little smarter with my camp set up- at least set up to avoid any metal on metal. Of course with Annie the trouble would be constant movement, with Sebastian the lack of sleep ended up being caused by something he likes to do best.

Very vigorous eating.

He would grab the small mesh hay net with his teeth and really have at it, rocking the entire trailer and causing a moderately loud WHOMP every time the net was pulled out and flopped back onto the trailer. As it was slightly less grating than metal on metal, I think we may have gotten a few hours of sleep between chow sessions.

Sebastian started the morning a little excited, but it was nothing compared to the bouncing agitation of my companions’ horses. Jill’s horse Pokani has been just excellent at rides in the past, a total gentleman. That day he was just not having it, making Jill ride every step of the 22 miles to keep them both safe and within the timing of the ride (the rides are not races, you are required to complete within a window of the ideal time- going too fast is not acceptable). Val’s horse Jac had not been on an outing like this for a long time and was felling quite full of himself as well. Fortunately both riders were excellent and had many skills to handle the situation. All three of us train with Susan Dockter of Proactive Horsemanship, so it was nice to be in a crowd of riders handling difficult situations with good natural horsemanship skills.

Me, Jill, Val. Pre-ride and feeling fresh.

Not as fresh as some of our horses, however.

Throughout, Sebastian was sort of an island of calm in a river of horse friskiness. I was so proud of him because these types of horse emotions are very contagious, especially when you’re on an inexperienced horse. Could be that Sebastian thought it would just be too much energy to waste. Eventually Jac and Val split off in order to cut down on the amount of concentrated naughty pony energy. Later we absorbed Sara and Tuscany, whose ride partners Barbara and Smokey had had to cancel at the last minute. They were a great addition- Sara was excellent company and Tuscany set a good pace with his giant walk. As a 22 year old horse, Tuscany was all business and did his job very well.

The ride was not too hot, but very up and down. It highlighted my ever present desire for the Big Walk. Uphill and on the flat Sebastian can hustle up to the big walking horses with a little trot (I know, I know. I need to make him walk bigger and not let him trot. We will get there!) On the long downhills, however, this was not as doable. Of course he would be ambling along, unconcerned that his buddies were walking farther and farther away from him until their butts would go out of sight around a corner. Only then would the urgency register- Crisis! Trot down this ridiculously steep grade! The lions will eat me if I am left alone in this wilderness! Whinnies of desperation and tense, quick steps would follow until the butts were again within view and the casual ambling would resume.

At the lunch break we walked though the mine field of small animal dens to reach the water trough at the top of this gorgeous pasture and found just across the fence the exact spot where my friends Jasper and Suzanne were married last year! Small world of beautiful places in the East Bay. Here we are after some refreshments. Sebastian still had not shed out his slimming stars- the pattern I shaved onto his hindquarters last fall when he had gotten so fat that I felt sad and guilty every time I looked at him. Having the stars to distract me as I got him into shape was very helpful, if not actually slimming in the traditional sense.

This next picture is of Jill and the lovely Pokani. Jill was doing a great job on this ride. Pokani lives at Jill’s ranch, horse heaven on earth. With something like 500 acres of hills to play on, he has an incredible base of fitness. When he feels lively there is only small hope of physical tiredness helping a gal out.

The vet checks and judged obstacles along the trail went great. I had been unsure of Sebastian’s fitness since this was our first go, but pleased to see that his pulse and respirations dropped right down at each vet check. At the end of the day we were both tired and happy to rest. Sebastian tucked into his hay and I sort of wandered around in a daze, grooming him up for the final vet inspection. I was worried he would be a super slug at the final trot out (you jog your horse out in hand, then have them travel a circle around you both ways, then jog back together to check for soundness) but he managed to get up to average speed with some brisk encouragement.

At the awards ceremony we had a delicious tri-tip dinner. Consequently, I nearly passed out on the table during the raffle portion of the evening. In the end Sebastian won his class with 99 out of 100 points on his vet card! I was already over the moon, then I found out that he also won the Sweepstakes prize (meaning that he had the highest score out of all the Novice horses in each of the 3 divisions). I was so happy I was in tears! They somehow managed to print and frame this big picture of us climbing a steep hill in a pose not unlike the rider and horse on the NATRC logo. Very cool prize! Pretty darn good for my little range Mustang.

That night we both slept hard, with Sebastian even lying down while tied to the trailer- pretty advanced camping pony maneuver. By morning I was already planning our next ride!