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Flatland horse on mountain trails

From: Al

Dear Jessica, I've been riding for almost eleven years and have owned a horse for four years now. He is a real nice horse, very quiet and behaves perfectly on trails. I trail ride him almost every weekend at a forest preserve near my home, and everybody who knows him agrees that he is an ideal trail horse. Now I have an invitation to ride in the mountains of Colorado this summer, and I would really enjoy riding my own horse on those mountain trails. He's in pretty good shape now and I can have him in even better shape by the time we would be traveling to Colorado (in July). The family that invited me to stay with them says that they have plenty of room for another horse but every time I talk to them, they suggest that I would have a better time if I just flew out there and rode their horses instead of driving out there with my horse. They don't seem to understand that we have plenty of trails in Indiana and that my horse and I enjoy riding trails all the time. We have a lot of experience. We see hikers on the trails all the time, a lot of dogs, mountain bikes, and sometimes some ATVs. My horse doesn't get upset about any of those things. These people are old friends of my mother's family and I don't want to offend them, but it's seriously starting to grate on me that they keep going on and on about how I should leave my horse here. The other suggestion they made sounded like they thought I was some kind of idiot - they said I could bring my horse out this summer and leave him here and then they could have him ready for me to ride in the mountains NEXT summer. Of course I said "NO" to that idea. So I'm turning to you for advice. Can you suggest some way I can make it clear that my horse and I are prepared for whatever kinds of trails they have, or else could you give me some ideas about what's on their minds? I don't understand why they seem to be ragging on me and my horse. I have never been to Colorado before or ridden in high mountainsf and would really like to explore those new trails with my own trusty horse.

Thanks - you are the best. Al

Hi Al! I've ridden in both Indiana and Colorado, and I think I know what's on the minds of your host family. They don't think that you're an idiot, and they're not ragging on you OR your horse. They're worried about you and your horse, and they don't think that either of you is ready for the kind of trail-riding that their part of Colorado has to offer. And I have to tell you, I think they're right.

You'll notice that I changed your subject line from "riding my own horse on mountain trails" to "flatland horse on mountain trails". You may believe that you're prepared for "whatever kinds of trails they have", but I've ridden in the mountains of Colorado, and I can promise you that none of the riding I did in the Midwest prepared me for those trails, and I was very grateful to be riding a horse that had a lot of mountain trails experience. I missed my own horses for the first twenty minutes of the ride, and after that... I was very, very happy that they were safe at home. No amount of preparation in the flatlands could have gotten them ready for the kinds of trails we were riding in the mountains.

In another HORSE-SENSE letter (I think the title was "Horses & High Altitude" - you can look in the archives), I discussed the issues of altitude changes and electrolytes, so I won't go into those subjects again here. But it sounds to me as though you have been invited to ride some serious mountain trails, and I tend to think that you will, indeed, have a better time if you leave your horse at home, fly out to Colorado, and borrow an experienced horse from your hosts.

You and your horse DO have experience on trails, but you're basically "weekend warriors", and your experiences have all been on Indiana forest preserve trails. Some of these can be a little bit rocky or a little bit steep, but by and large, they are wide and soft - especially when compared to narrow, hard, rocky Colorado mountain trails. I think that your horse would be uncomfortable, sore, and constantly worried about the footing and about his balance, and I think that you would be uncomfortable, sore, and constantly worried about your horse.

I've stepped across a few fallen trees in the woods in Indiana, but the trail was a fairly wide one, and made of dirt. I'm not at all certain that the horse I was riding - a good trail horse by local standards - would have been able to step over similar trees lying across a narrow, rocky path. I've crossed noisy, airy wooden bridges in Indiana and elsewhere, and the horse - again, a good trail horse - never paused or even shortened his stride, but the bridges were sturdy, stable, and WIDE. I wouldn't have wanted to ask that good horse to tackle the kinds of bridges I've seen in the mountains. Some of those bridges are very narrow - and some of them are SUSPENSION bridges. That is, not only are they noisy and airy and narrow, but they MOVE.

Your horse is used to coping with ATVs, mountain bikes, hikers, etc. - that's great. Good for him, and good for you. He tolerates dogs - good again. I saw plenty of deer when I rode in Indiana, and I'm sure you've seen deer on the trails, so I'm guessing that your horse probably doesn't have a fit about deer, either. But how do you think he would react to something bigger and stranger-looking than a deer? Some horses have learned to accept deer, but are shocked at the sight of their first elk. You don't want your horse to meet his first elk when he's doing his best to keep both of you upright and alive whilst walking a narrow rock path winding around the side of a mountain... And even if he's okay with elk, how do you think he would react to a bear? You and I both know that we don't see so very many of those on our Midwestern trails. ;-)

What it comes down to - and the reason they made the suggestion about leaving your horse there for a year - is that your horse will need to learn new skills to travel safely on rocky mountain trails. It takes time to learn new skills, to understand what you need to do, and to build the muscles to back up your understanding. Nobody is saying that your horse can't learn to cope with those trails, but what your friends are telling you is that your horse will NOT be able to come out to Colorado and start right in. He'll need to build his skills, balance, and muscles. That requires time and practice over time - and they offered to provide your horse with BOTH of those things. That's what they meant by suggesting that you might want to bring your horse out this year and ride him in the mountains next year. It was actually a very wise suggestion, and a very kind one.

I understand that you love your horse, enjoy riding the Indiana trails together, and would like to enjoy sharing your Colorado experience with him. But why not take your hosts' advice? Leave your own horse at home this year, fly to Colorado, enjoy the company and the scenery, and get acquainted with the trails and with the skills that trail horses and their riders need in the mountains. When you go home again, you can begin to work towardd building those skills. You can even start looking for specific trails - I can think of a few in Tennessee, for example - that will enable you to do some training on mountains and over rocky terrain. At that point, if you still want to ride your own horse on those Colorado mountain trails, you may want to consider taking your friends up on their generous offer to keep your horse for a year and prepare him for the challenges he'll encounter when you return to ride him on those trails the following summer. ;-)

My advice to you is that, THIS summer at least, you should fly to Colorado, ride someone else's well-trained, mountain-bred trail horse, and enjoy the experience and the absolutely spectacular scenery. I'm sure that you will miss your horse, but I'm also absolutely sure that you will be glad you didn't bring him along this time.


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