Q: I have been trail riding my 12-year-old Standardbred mare for the past two years. She does not have any vices except backing up when she is afraid of something. When she shows fear on solo rides—snorting and starting to back up—I get off her and lead her past the scary thing.

When riding in groups, my mare generally does well as the lead horse. But sooner or later, she will suddenly stop and look at another horse as if to say, “Your turn to lead.” If I oblige her and let her follow, she is content, and after a while I can ask her to lead again. But if I instead insist that she stay in the lead, with voice, legs and seat, and eventually the reins, she will start to back up. If I can, I circle her immediately and just move her in any direction I can, but she continues to refuse to lead. 

My friends advise me to not make a big deal out of this, but my instinct tells me that if I let her have her way whenever she refuses, eventually she won’t respect my guidance at other times either. My horse is lovely in every other way and is usually calm and well mannered. But this backing up could really be potentially dangerous. How can I address
this problem? 
Heide Gerhardt; Los Angeles, California

A: As an owner of a fabulously talented but horrendously spooky Arabian endurance gelding, I am all too familiar with your problem. And I have learned firsthand over the years that when I have problems on the trail, it usually means I need to go back to the round pen and find a solution on the ground. About 13 years ago, I came across natural horsemanship methods, which changed my life with horses both professionally as a veterinarian and privately as an endurance rider. I have no favorite natural horsemanship “guru.” I think they all have something excellent to offer.

I suggest that you give up trail riding for a while and go back to the basics with your horse on the ground in the arena or round pen. Specifically, work on the lessons that teach you to have control of your horse’s feet, particularly disengaging of the hindquarters. Desensitizing (“sacking out”) exercises on the ground in a controlled environment will also go a long way toward helping your horse become more brave and sure of herself.

Once your mare is doing well with these exercises on the ground, you can begin to reapply that training under saddle, still in the arena or round pen. Be sure your mare responds to the “one-rein stop”—a maneuver often used in troubling situations in which you pull back on only one rein to disengage the hindquarters, regain the horse’s attention and bring her to an immediate stop. Tarps, barrels, tires and other objects can be brought in to simulate obstacles you might encounter on the trail.

Do not return to the trail until your mare is working well in the arena under saddle. If, once out, she again displays her backing response, return to your arena exercises. Quickly disengage her hindquarters and ask for the one-rein stop. Then do your circles to get her to listen to you.

If she really falls apart, get off (be prepared with a long lead tied to your saddle) and right there on the trail perform your ground-training exercises. Once she is calm and listening to you, get back on and try again. Keep at it as long as it takes for you to get your mare moving forward under your control.

Jeanette (Jay) Mero, DVM
Chair, American Endurance Ride
Conference Veterinary Committee
Mariposa Equine Services
Mariposa, California