The uses for the arena are endless. It is generally the first place we go when we learn to ride, and the place we continue to go back to to build on these skills. It is also thought of as a space to train horses and build their muscles in various ways. Trail rides are not usually associated with these things, however, they can be invaluable for each and every one of them.
Please note that this article’s aim is not to say that arena work is unimportant, but to highlight the difference that trail riding can make to both horse and rider.
Trail Riding: the Teacher of Balance and Confidence
Of course, balance is very important for the well-being of the horse, as well as our own safety. This means that we should already know how to stay balanced when riding and not rely solely on trail rides to teach us this. However, trail rides can allow you to put this into practice as you traverse over different terrain and encounter obstacles. It can make a remarkable difference to how effectively you can keep your balance during a spook or when going at a faster pace. When I cantered for the first time in a year, having been doing walk and trot trail rides during that year, I found that the balance I had came far more naturally than when I had cantered before. As mentioned, instruction is important, but it was easier from the starting point as a result of having done the trail rides.
From experience passing other horses, bikes, cars, or dogs to simply being in a new area, trails also offer horses a wealth of confidence-building opportunities for both you and your horse.
That being said, if you feel unsure about how your horse might react to these things and feel uncomfortable doing this as a result, I feel it is important to honour this. You might consider doing some confidence-building activities with your horse at home first to prepare them or speak to an instructor/trainer about going with you on the trail.
The terrain opportunities - bridges, hills, streams - also teach horses awareness of where they are stepping. This can allow for more sure-footedness when it comes to other scenarios; stepping on and off of a trailer for example. This terrain, particularly hill work, is highly effective in muscle-building and strengthening horses as well, although it, like any muscle-building activity, should not be overdone.
Trail rides bring us into nature and can be very soothing, but this is not their only use. Trail rides, along with instruction/lessons, can up our riding level significantly and have the potential to do a lot for both us and our horses.