Bolender's Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding

Bolender's Guide to Mastering Mountain and Extreme Trail Riding

by Mark Bolender

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462060740
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/20/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,035,198
File size: 176 MB
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About the Author

Mark Bolender is an expert in extreme trail, mountain trail, and competitive trail riding and has won three National Grand Championships. He has designed mountain trail and extreme trail courses across the United States, Canada, and Europe. He lives in Washington State where he owns and operates Bolender Horse Park.

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By Mark Bolender

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Mark Bolender
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-6073-3

Chapter One

The Ideal Trail Horse

What does ideal mean, anyway? Most people who love their horse will tell you that theirs is the ideal horse for them. I think this is because people get used to their animal and its behavior and vice versa. Also, the line between a working animal and a pet is often blurred. The sheer love for that animal may cause someone to overlook its technical shortcomings, making it unsuitable for trail. Such emotion is perfectly understandable, yet certain qualities undoubtedly make one horse better suited for trail than another. Similarly, there's no such thing as the ideal breed for a trail horse. I have seen great and poor trail horses in every breed. There's actually a greater difference within a breed than among breeds. In addition, each rider will have a different expectation of his or her ideal trail horse.

When it comes to general preferences, some riders favor a high energy horse in order to move down the trail quickly, while others favor a slow plodder so they can enjoy the scenery. Most people want something in between. All too often on trail rides, riders cannot tell you what they saw on the trail because they were either too busy concentrating on staying alive or were racing. And when a racer is riding along with a plodder, it's likely neither the riders nor the horses will have an enjoyable experience.

I compare this preference for a horse's character to favoring a sailboat or a power boat. In a sailboat, you're in the moment, but in a power boat, you're ready to go somewhere else. Similarly, a person needs to find a horse to fit his or her own personality, disposition, and what he or she wants to see or do while riding a horse down the trail. I personally prefer the sailboat, a horse that can move when I want and will stand quiet while I stop to enjoy a view. This all takes training and miles on the trail.

If you have a well-broke horse, you can expect several months of training (four to five days per week) to master the basics. Of course, some horses, like people, learn faster than others do, so your training time can vary greatly. But usually by a few months, the horse can begin entering Mountain Trail or Extreme Trail competitions, at least at the novice level. Obviously, more difficult and challenging obstacles require additional training time. Also, the "hot breed" horses (those that tend to be more high strung) tend to take a bit longer to train.


I like to see key characters or dispositions in a horse that, with training, will make it a great Mountain Trail and Extreme Trail horse. The horse must have these dispositions right off the bat because, in my experience, you cannot change a horse's personality any easier than you can change a person's. I've taken some tough horses and made good competitive show horses out of them. While it's rewarding when such horses turn out well, they take twice the amount of work, and I wouldn't call them great trail horses because they're never as relaxing to ride.

Boldness and Confidence: Training can enhance boldness and confidence, the most desirable dispositions, but the horse should show signs right from the start. That means the horse doesn't jump at every deer or bird it sees on the trail. Any horse of any breed or age can jump, but the odds of a well-trained, bold, and confident horse dumping a rider are much lower than with a horse that's less bold and confident. Boldness and confidence means the horse doesn't need to be micromanaged. It has the ability to think and act. With proper training, it will attempt anything for you, just to please you.

Joy of Working: The horse is clearly cheerful when asked to perform tasks and strives to please the handler. The animal is attentive and thinking with its ears forward on obstacles and shows a bright expression. This animal is happy to work and makes it a pleasure to train.

Enjoy Being with People: If the horse doesn't enjoy being with people, it can never be a great trail horse because it must see people as other animals (part of a herd) with the potential of one or more being its leader. It will be happy to work with you and show its enthusiasm as your partnership develops.

Training, Safety, and Matching

Much of what an ideal horse means to you begins with what's going on in the horse's own mind. Practically everybody who works with horses knows that what a horse shows on the outside is a reflection of what's going on inside. Generally speaking, if the trail horse is trained to walk forward in a relaxed manner while maintaining a nice, safe pace as it navigates any given obstacle or trail, then it's obtained the basic elements needed for an ideal horse. But getting to that point doesn't happen naturally in horses. Indeed, most prey animals cannot afford to serenely amble along in the forest. Achieving calm and determination takes the right kind of training, which doesn't happen overnight.

As an example of a hard-fought success story, in 2010, I won the open-aged National Mountain Trail open futurity on a Paso Fino and Curly cross, Princess. When Princess came to me for training and rehabilitation, she was strong-willed and spoiled. She had a very bad reputation for bucking when she got tired, scared, or angry; a dangerous combination for the sixty-seven-year-old owner who spent a week in the hospital because of Princess's disposition. Family and friends had advised the woman to get rid of Princess, but she would not. The horse had good looks and talent, and the customer wanted me to train the animal.

I found Princess to be a decidedly frustrated and bored animal because she was worked hard for many years. Then suddenly she was forced to be relatively dormant, being turned out for only a couple hours a week. From her more fulfilling days of riding and freedom in the pasture, Princess now lacked purpose. Being turned out for more hours per week was simply not the cure for her. Everyone prior to my intervention had tried to treat the symptoms of Princess's bad behavior, but nobody ever addressed the actual cause.

So instead of trying to directly control this energetic horse, I gave her a job to do to direct her energy. I focused the horse's vigor on negotiating obstacles, easy ones at first and then, slowly, more challenging ones. In just a few weeks, Princess was doing very well, and the more difficult the obstacle, the more motivated she became in order to negotiate it.

Princess was doing quite well, and she impressed me with such a special drive that it made me smile to watch her work. I decided to enter her in a show to demonstrate to the customer and my students how she had transformed. I was so pleased when Princess marched in and took control of an exceptionally difficult trail course with high energy and drive. She negotiated every obstacle almost perfectly, and she was obviously pleased with herself. That was a truly rewarding experience for the customer and me. And while Princess was great for certain events and tasks, her boundless energy made her a less-than-ideal trail horse for that customer. Simply put, a horse must be right for the rider and vice versa.

I often tell my students that, if you're going to trail ride or compete in trail shows, spending the extra money for a good horse and proper training is a lot cheaper than time in the hospital. Fortunately, a common thread among all riders is that they do want to be safe while they ride. And who can blame them? Approximately 30 million Americans ride on horseback each year. The Journal of Family Practice says that about twenty-three hundred riders under age twenty-five are hospitalized due to injuries annually. That statistic is across the whole of horseback riding, not just trail riding. Overall, trail riding is a more dangerous activity than ordinary horseback riding, and no doubt, it sees a greater proportion of injuries than other riding activities.

When riding with a group, the group must consider safety as a whole. For example, the weakest rider or greenest horse should set the riding pace. It's far easier for experienced horses and riders to adjust their pace to the less experienced ones. When the horses are moving in synchrony, then the ride will be enjoyable. Otherwise, everyone is either being held back or trying to keep up. Nothing takes the safety and fun out of the trail ride more than that. Also, while training young horses, it's general practice to take the green horse on the trail along with a seasoned horse. These horses normally would not be matched in their gait or mind, so the experience is usually a trying one.

Many times, matching riders is just as important as matching horses. I know from firsthand experience that most accidents occur in groups where one or more riders feel the need to impress everybody else with their superior skills. They will take the group on trails that are beyond the ability of other horses and riders. If this ever occurs, you should respectfully bow out of a trail you're not comfortable with.

Riders wanting to canter down the trail while a weaker rider is left behind also cause a number of riding accidents. Since horses have a strong herd instinct, the weaker horse will take off to catch up, and the less skilled rider can get dismounted.

Overall, if you have trouble finding a good riding partner, then you're in the majority. Finding the right partner requires that both horses are matched in natural gait and both riders have the same goals. And that's not something you find every day. It's just a matter of looking around and keeping your eyes open for a potentially good partner.

Finally, I want to emphasize that it's not fair to ride a horse once a year and expect it to do what you want it to do. In fact, most horse-related accidents happen on weekends, highlighting why it's important to get regular riding lessons and training for your horse. Consistency and familiarity with your horse is paramount, and this comes down to having regular training and riding sessions. Depending on the horse and rider, I usually suggest training no fewer than twice per week, and normally I have four sessions. As for riding, you should ride your horse daily, but at a minimum, at least an hour twice per week to keep you and your horse physically conditioned as well as to reinforce the trust and partnership you are developing.

Horsemanship Truism

Spending extra money for quality equipment is the best investment in comfort and safety.

Chapter Two

The Proper Equipment

As with any sport, using the proper equipment is essential to being successful, and participating in Mountain Trail or Extreme Trail is no exception. Proper equipment is the foundation upon which everything else you learn is built, so make your choices carefully. The two key factors you should always consider for obtaining and using the proper equipment is safety and comfort for you and your horse. There are many options for equipment today, so carefully weigh each one. And always remember that expensive doesn't mean better, and inexpensive doesn't mean poorer.

My intent here is not to describe each piece of equipment in detail or to compare the pros and cons of different brands. Plenty of trail riding books are devoted to that subject, and most of the recommended trail riding equipment is appropriate for Mountain Trail and Extreme Trail. If you're uncomfortable making decisions about proper equipment, please consult experienced and knowledgeable trail riders in deciding on which pieces of equipment you need. You should not make this most critical step rashly or without being well informed.


The single-most important piece of equipment for trail riding is the saddle. And the most critical feature of a trail saddle is that it fits the horse and rider. Paying a high price or buying a big name does not mean that the saddle will fit or be the saddle that's right for you. Many reining, English, and trail saddles are great for riding the trails. You should review the following tips before selecting a saddle:

• Make sure your saddle is of good quality and broken in.

• Make sure that time is spent prior to riding to have the saddle well oiled. Certain saddles are pre-oiled and ready to ride.

• Look for a lightweight saddle. To a horse, a light saddle may not seem important for the first ten miles but will seem like everything in the last ten miles.

In short, not every saddle is designed for the job. An equitation saddle may be great in the show ring but can become uncomfortable in the first mile of the trail.

Saddle Pad

The next important piece of equipment is a good saddle pad. The rider may feel great on the horse, but the horse's comfort is also crucial. I see this scenario play out all the time. Somebody goes on a weeklong riding vacation, but the horse is too sore to ride after the second day due to poor equipment, usually worn-out pads. The vacation quickly decays into a worried rider and a cranky horse sitting in the camp for the remaining five days while the others happily ride. You should make sure the saddle pad can breathe or else the horse may get blisters.

A good fleece or felt saddle pad are good investments because they breathe well. However, newer multilayered pads distribute pressure better while also allowing good breathing. Both how the horse is built and the kind of endurance I'm looking for determine the type and shape of my saddle pad. If I'm at a show, I may use a different saddle pad than I will on a weekend mountain trail ride. I'm a firm believer in buying quality that will last and bring comfort to the horse. We ask for their best so we should give them our best.


Cinches need to be good quality, so trying to save a few dollars here is a big mistake. Spend the extra money and get a good, breathable cinch. Some horses do fine with neoprene, but most do best with a good quality wool cinch. Also, a wider cinch is less irritating to the horse. Be sure the cinch is in the proper position to prevent sores that can irritate and hurt during the ride. You should purchase a neoprene cinch for short rides and wool cinch for longer rides.

Splint Boots

Splint boots are great for preventing leg injuries. On a trail, you can never tell when something will jump out or fly up and cause the horse to jump. And when the horse jumps, you can never know where its hooves will land. Having the horse scrape its leg on a rock or tree is bad news on a trail, and it's no place to put the horse at risk. Obtain reasonably priced, well-made splint boots that fully protect the horse.

Bell Boots

Bell boots are great for trails that are particularly rocky. Washed-away materials, such as rocks from higher elevations, can fill some mountain trails, and that makes negotiating the trail tougher. Bell boots will prevent the repeated hits from loose rocks.


I prefer to ride with a snaffle bit, no matter how well broke the horse might be. A snaffle is a mild bit that is broken in the center, making it less irritating for the horse. If anything goes wrong, a rider is not pulling back on the horse's mouth in a harmful manner. My horse, Checkers, is an exception, where I ride him bridleless. Like humans, horses have likes and dislikes. You should find a bit that your horse likes. This will happen only by trial and error. A satisfied horse will not be chomping on the bit and shaking its head.


I prefer to ride with a good quality, working bridle. You should buy equipment that's made of good quality leather. It should be soft and ready to use. If you put yourself in the horse's place, I'm sure you'd also want a light, soft headstall.


I usually ride with the halter under the bridle, and I tie the end of the lead rope to the saddle horn. You should make sure the halter is in good shape and of good quality. You never know when the horse needs to be tied, so it's better to be ready. I prefer a very light, thin, and good quality nylon halter that fits well.


Excerpted from BOLENDER'S GUIDE TO MASTERING MOUNTAIN AND EXTREME TRAIL RIDING by Mark Bolender Copyright © 2012 by Mark Bolender. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Preface ix

Warning xi

Introduction xv

Chapter 1 The Ideal Trail Horse 1

Chapter 2 The Proper Equipment 9

Chapter 3 Into the Horse's Mind 15

Chapter 4 Earning and Building Trust 31

Chapter 5 Basic Trail Riding Skills 41

Chapter 6 Training for the Trail 55

Chapter 7 General Approach to Trail Obstacles 67

Chapter 8 Trail Obstacles: Poles and Logs 79

Chapter 9 Trail Obstacles: Rocks 97

Chapter 10 Trail Obstacles: Step-ups, Step-downs, and Washouts 107

Chapter 11 Trail Obstacles: Trenches 123

Chapter 12 Trail Obstacles: Water 131

Chapter 13 Trail Obstacles: Gates 145

Chapter 14 Trail Obstacles: Bridges and Teeter-Totter 155

Chapter 15 Trail Obstacles: Brush 171

Chapter 16 Trail Obstacles: Campsites, Fires, and Fog 179

Chapter 17 Trail Obstacles: Animals, People, and Machinery 185

Chapter 18 Judging Mountain Trail and Extreme Trail 193

Conclusion 201

About the Author 203

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