Riding Tips

Mission Possible: Teaching Your Horse to Trail Ride Alone

teaching horse to trail ride alone
Written by Sanne Westera

Have Fun Solo Strolling

One of the most incredible feelings in the world is to be out on horseback, exploring the world with your equine partner. Horses are herd animals, however, and usually don’t enjoy going out by themselves—if not taught properly.

The most important thing in reaching the goal of trail riding alone is to make you and your horse feel safe. If you can succeed at this, you’ll both be able to fully enjoy trail riding by yourselves.

In this blog post I will be going over the process of teaching a horse to trail ride alone—in peace and harmony!

When you’re ready for your first trail ride alone

To be totally confident and happy out on trail, you need to be fully confident in the arena and on the property first. If you and your horse are feeling good in the arena, you can easily check to see if your horse is ready for their first trail ride alone.

You can check on your progress by heading out within your property.

Of course, I don’t know how your barn looks, but you can even just head out into the field, or walk around the stables. If your horse stays relaxed (and you feel confident) moving slightly away from the other horses on the property, you may be ready for your first steps off property alone.

Small steps add up to long trail rides

When you’re both ready, it doesn’t mean you should immediately head out for hours on the trail. The last thing you want to do is to overface (i.e. overwhelm) an inexperienced horse. You want your horse to be excited about trail riding alone, and to be confident when something potentially spooky appears.

We’ve all ridden those ponies that are extremely slow away from home, but don’t have breaks on the way back. We don’t want our horses to show this type of behavior.

The most ideal behavior is a horse that trots out the gate, excited to go out, and whose behavior doesn’t change when you turn around to go back home.

I’ve trained my own horse in the way I am going to explain to you below, and she always trots out the gate, excited to see where we’re going today.

On the way home, she doesn’t speed up and still enjoys looking at everything around her. Occasionally she decides to walk past the barn on our way home, as she’s not ready to go home yet and wants to keep going on the trail!

first trail ride

Our first trail ride only lasted 2 minutes—and that’s OK!

How to make your horse excited to trail ride alone

For a horse to enjoy what they are doing, they need to feel safe, supported and protected. They should be rewarded for curiosity from the very start.

Your first solo trail ride should be extremely short, preferably between 5 and 10 minutes.

If your horse is very nervous, but has done a good job for only 2 minutes, however, it means it’s also time to go home. This will result in your horse wanting to go trail riding, as it’s such a good experience every time.

A horse that’s been on lots of competitions is likely to be less fazed by spooky stuff out on trail, while a horse that’s never been off property will have a look at everything you ride past.

In the beginning, stay close to the barn so your horse doesn’t feel completely alone and knows their friends are still nearby. This will help them build confidence.

If your horse is doing a great job, head on back to the barn and finish off with an arena ride and lots of cuddles afterwards. Doing these really short rides in the beginning will make your horse curious about all that’s out there.

If these keep going well for a few days, add a few minutes or head into another direction to see if your horse stays calm, curious and forward.

riding alone

Riding in a nearby field is a great step. (Chief Rookie Aside: Always wear a helmet!)

When your horse does stop to have a look at something, stay relaxed in the saddle, give them a pat and wait for them to walk on or go towards it. If you give them enough time they will become curious. If your horse does try to turn around, don’t get angry or push them on, but just calmly steer them back so they stand in front of it again.

When they continue on walking past it, give them lots of praise and head on back.

This will teach your horse that curiosity is rewarded with lots of pets, and with going back to the barn where they feel happy and confident.

Keep adding minutes to your ride, explore different areas and allow them to be curious about everything they see. This will result in your horse wanting to go trail riding as it’s such a good experience every time.

If you push your horse past scary things without letting them have a look and be curious, they will get more and more nervous and will end up wanting to turn back when their mental bucket overflows.

It will happen that your horse starts trotting after passing a spooky or new thing, and you should definitely let this happen and even encourage it.

If you need to pull the reins to get them back into a walk, it could make your horse stressed and they might have a fright at the next thing they see.

Allow them to get rid of that excess energy by encouraging them to trot for a while, until you can easily take your horse back into a walk.

happy trail horse

A horse that feels safe is a happy horse! Photo by ZB Fotografie (Chief Rookie Aside: Always wear a helmet!)

Food rewards on solo trail rides

Food rewards from the saddle can be a great way to help your horse gain confidence and excitement for trail riding alone. Often, horses get fed treats as soon as they arrive back at the barn, to reward them for doing so well on the trail.

Upon consideration, however, this only reinforces your horse’s unpleasant behavior of speeding up on the way home.
Your horse won’t see it as a reward for a good trail ride, but as a reward for coming back to the barn.

Food rewards are an amazing tool to teach trail riding alone though.

Places where you can give your horse a treat are when they are standing and looking at something scary, this is rewarding them for being curious. You can also reward them after passing the scary thing, and switch between the two timings every now and then.

Chewing also activates your horse’s parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your horse relax and feel safe.

Checking to see if your horse takes the treat is a good way of making sure your horse is truly relaxed. You can also give your horse a food reward a few minutes before turning back, but make sure you never reward them and then immediately turn around as they will learn that a treat means they have to go home.

Give them a reward, keep walking, and maybe do a short trot, then turn around to go back home. Another important place to give your horse a treat is if they ever continue on a trail that leads further away from home, this will teach them that leaving home or going further away is a lot of fun!

Nervous horses and riders trail riding alone

If you and/or your horse are nervous, that doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to hit the trails alone. It might just mean that you’ll have to take smaller steps and take it slow.

If you are a nervous rider, I would highly recommend learning about ways you can gain confidence in the saddle first.

Also, if you or your horse are a bit nervous out on trail, read about how you can stay confident in the saddle while trail riding. There are a few things you can do to make a nervous horse more relaxed on a trail ride alone.

First of all, don’t keep a tight grip on the reins, and encourage your horse if they move into a controlled trot or canter. This allows the nervous horse to get rid of excess energy and this way they will never end up exploding.

It also makes them realize they aren’t doing anything wrong, because if you punish them for speeding up they will only become more anxious.

teaching horse to trail ride alone

You’ve got this. (Chief Rookie Aside: Always wear a helmet!)

Your seat is the most important thing to make your horse feel safe on a trail ride, the reins basically shouldn’t be doing anything besides steering. If your horse gets incredibly nervous and starts to hop or dance around, pretend like nothing’s going on.

Melt into the saddle, maybe even get ridiculously loose in your shoulders and hips to the point of looking like a rag doll.

Don’t grab onto the reins to stop them, only to turn them to face the thing that’s making them anxious, and when they’ve had a good look, continue on.

If they keep dancing around, just keep pretending to be the most relaxed person on the planet, your horse will quickly realize that you aren’t scared of the same thing as they are and calm down.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips for setting your trail ride up for success!

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About the author


Sanne Westera

I'm a 22 year old travel fanatic, nature lover, and overall horse enthusiast. I’ve been riding ever since I was a kid and quickly became an avid dressage rider and went up all the national levels in the Netherlands with my previous horse Zappy. In 2015, I made a major switch, and have since been a horse trails guide in several countries in Europe and Africa. Read all about horse travel, working, and volunteering with horses on my website www.hoovesaroundtheworld.com.