What exactly is a good trail horse? Well, it seems that there are quite a variety of opinions on that. From horses that couldn't cut it in the show ring, the green, untrained horse that just plods down the path at a slow ambling walk, that trail horses lack finesse and refinement of movement, have poor athletic ability or have some physical defect and could be 'just a trail horse'.
My opinion is that a quality trail horse needs to be quite athletic, sound, able to navigate a variety of terrain and able to perform anywhere you decide to ride.
An ideal trail outing for me is spending much of the time in a fast, snappy walk and varying speeds of trotting, loping and a good gallop thrown in. A horse that will stop exactly where told and stand still while taking nature photos along the way is also important. I'm focused on my horse and riding, practicing things like picking up leads, leg yielding, trot and canter departs, and a bunch of other things, depending on where the horse is at. The scenery is also enjoyable and much more pleasant than being in an arena.
While I know that's not for everyone, many prefer to stay at a walk and sometimes a little jogging while trail riding and prefer to socialize and gaze at the scenery while sitting on a horse, I do to sometimes, it's important that a trail horse be able to function at the level described on this page if asked. It's also important that the rider can RIDE.
Here is what I aim to achieve with a horse and person when preparing them for some fun times on the trails:
Go well in hand at all paces of going, slow walk, fast walk, trot and running-- in hand. Without balking or having to beg. You never know when you might have to run with your horse somewhere in an emergency and having to drag them behind you is, well, a drag.
Able to ground drive. And along with this, they should comfortable dragging things such as a log or sled along side and behind them. Hey, you never know when or if you'll need this, but it's nice to know that you will have the horse that can do it.
Move hind and fore quarters calmly, precisely and smoothly, in the saddle and on the ground.
Stand patiently, anywhere. In the barn, in the arena, tied to the trailer and in the trailer. With other horses or alone.
Getting in and out of the trailer-- loading is perfect and they will back out or come out front first and not crowd or run over you.
Stands still for tacking up.
Needs to get along with other horses. OR they behave around other horses when their handler is around. I've seen some horses who don't get along at all when left to their own devices but when being ridden together are all right. Alot of that depends on the handler and how much influence they have over their horse.
They look to their confident handler for support and guidance, they don't try to take over in stressful situations. I like horses to feel confident enough in me to ask if it's ok to investigate things or take a 2nd look. I have found that when allowed to be curious and investigative while one is providing a calming influence, overall confidence develops. And partnerships between rider and horse blossom. A spooky horse can become more curious and confident depending on how they are handled. Some horses do better if you just ride right on by something that could potentially cause a spook. Others do better taking a 2nd look. Depends on the horse. And if you have developed a partnership with your horse, you'll know how you should handle the situation to help your horse out. AND, each time might be different and require a judgement call.
The trail horse needs to willingly go where ever the rider is directing them to go. This means water crossings, bridges, up or down steep hills or ditches, to be able to back up a hill, to navigate their hooves between boulders or fallen logs and to sometimes trail blaze and plow through brush.
Side passing, backing up, being able to take a single step and stop. And to direct each hoof.
Ability to mount on both sides of the horse. Standing quietly next to a fence, stump, rock for mounting. Also want to note here, in fairness to the horse involved, that the rider has some responsibility regarding mounting. The rider needs to have prepared themselves and practiced efficiently, confidently and athletically getting on a horse be it from the block or ground. This means for example, using the stirrup as a fulcrum for their weight rather than a stepping stool for all their weight.
You want a forward, good paced, energetic walk and to be able to set the pace of the walk so they aren't lagging behind the horses in front of them and trotting every so often to catch up. I find it personally impossible to want to slow a horses walking speed down for any length of time, why would one want to discourage that? Yes they should be able to do a slow walk but I like an energetic, ground covering walk.
A good horse should respond to the lightest cue from the rider for any speed you wish to go. Imagine if you had to get away quickly and your horse wouldn't move off faster than a slow jog? Not good. And you don't want to have to sit there kicking or cropping them to get them going either.
The trail horses should also be light in the hands, soft on the bit and responsive to the varying speeds you'd like to go within each gait. If you haven't galloped your horse on some nice wide straight stretches through the woods, oh! you are missing out! And what a feeling to ride like that an know your horse is listening to you and that you are in control of the situation.
Able to step over things when asked or to jump over things when asked. They should be able to do both.
Needs to be able to lead a group, be in the middle, take up the rear and head out solo.
You also want them to be listening to you and not run away if someone else's horse decides to bolt back for the trailer. Walking or even loping away from the group, being left behind--and being quiet and comfortable with it, because they are with you.
The trail rider needs to have confidence and quality riding skills themselves. And part of the job of the trail rider, actually this goes for any kind of riding, is to keep your horse focused. Not to let them looky-loo off every direction but keep them with you and on the task at hand, no matter how simple the task is.
It takes consistency, practice and all parties involved will need to put in some time. This doesn't happen overnight.