I began riding in middle school taking weekly dressage lessons. To one who has ridden out on beautiful trails, galloped through an open field, or explored the open countryside, my first years of riding horses may not sound like much as a thrill. My lessons focused on grooming, picking hooves, and carefully examining the horse before mounting; taking up to an hour sometimes just to tack up for a ride. Then going straight from the mounting block to the arena to work on the fine details of dressage.
Dressage Shows to Trail Rides
I am so grateful that these lessons were the foundation of my understanding of horsemanship as I moved through different horse worlds. I understood the details of how a horse moves freely and under the saddle. I learned how to care for a horse in a way that gives them the most potential physically and mentally under saddle and in training. But I didn't truly understand horsemanship until I became a wrangler.
Inspired after leasing a dressage horse in college who loved trails, I applied for a job as a wrangler in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. A "wrangler" is a trail ride guide and cares for the small herd of 20 unique horses. My duties included barn chores, pasture chores, and guiding the trail rides. I began guiding one to two-hour walking trail rides with up to six guests riding behind me.
With 20 horses and two ponies to care for, I felt overwhelmed trying to give the same attention to all of them that I was used to giving to one horse. We had to tack up those 20 horses in 30 minutes. We didn’t work on cross-training any of the horses and most of the horses only knew how to walk in a line on the trail. Some barely had a "stop" to them, while others barely had a "go" in them. Despite the lack of training or attention to details, I fell in love with the little herd of 20 horses and began taking it upon myself to give them that extra training and grooming when I had time.
Here are the four things I learned when I became a horse wrangler that helped my horsemanship.
1. Trust the Horses and My Own Knowledge
Having to ride 20 horses from all different backgrounds taught me to trust that those horses would be able to perform what I would need them to do in the case of an emergency. I also had to trust my knowledge and judgment of each horse. Sometimes you have to trust that your horse will trust you to continue on or do what you need them to do, even when you see coyotes, bears, or in one case in Montana, a mountain lion!
You also have to trust that the horses you're putting complete beginners on, some never having ridden before and terrified, to safely walk on the trail and take care of their rider. Having the knowledge to know what horses you can trust and what you can trust your own guide horse to do is huge. And that seems to only come with experience, if not guidance from someone with experience!
After riding hundreds of horses at different ranches guiding trails, I've learned to not only trust my guide horses and the "dude horses," but also my co-workers and boss . . . they will probably tell you the truth if a horse is known to buck people off or not! This is for the safety of all and to set your expectations and patience right before you get on. Despite only riding at a walk for nearly six months every day at my first job as a wrangler, my riding improved more than I ever could have in the arena for a year because of this valuable lesson.
2. Loosen up and Relax a Little Bit
After this first job as a trail ride guide, spending up to 3 hours in the saddle a day, I had no choice but to loosen up and relax. I had to learn to let my guide horse be more independent instead of micromanaging each step because we simply had to focus more on the six people riding behind us, most scared of horses and total beginners.
I found peace and relaxation allowing the horse to have as many moments 'alone' as I could. This helped me and the horses to relax and be more independent about staying on a trail and keeping a good pace, something to this day I value as a great training tool . . . allowing your horse moments of independence to step up to tasks without you having to constantly supervise.
Over the next three years, I worked as a wrangler at different ranches guiding trail rides and caring for horse herds up to 120 horses - riding over 300 different horses in the past three years, feeling that thrill of excitement getting on each new horse. At these ranches, the horses come from all over the place. Some are rescued, some have been abused, others are green broke, and others are from the auction with minimal information about them.
3. Learn to "Read" and Bond With a New Horse Quickly
Every horse you get on, you can only trust what others say about that horse or what you have observed from the little time on the ground you’ve had with that horse. Observing the horse from the ground and doing ground work before stepping in the stirrups was incredibly important to me. Groundwork, or even just grooming and tacking up your own horse, gives you an opportunity to see how horses will react to pressure, gives them a chance to trust you before getting in the saddle, and always gives me a chance to trust them!
One horse in particular I remember was a late arrival in our summer season at Grand Teton Lodge Company. His name was Big Sky and he was a beautiful black and white paint gelding transferred from a different corral. I had been warned that he was spooky and a couple other wranglers had lost their seat while riding him.
I spent an extra 10 minutes grooming him every day and doing minor ground manner work before getting on him and it paid off. We developed a bond and he gained trust in me. By the end of the season, we were able to go on "wrangler rides" and walk-trot and canter on the trails.
4. Adapt to Each Horse, Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst
The variety of horses I was able to ride was a huge bonus of the job. Some of these wrangler horses came with behaviors such as bolting, biting, kicking, ghosts in the closet, or even rearing. Some simply ended up at the auctions being bought off by a dude ranch for being very lazy, being too high energy, being barn sour, or just not a good fit for the trails . . . which always revealed itself as an issue I could pinpoint.
As a wrangler, I enlisted myself to be able to adapt and develop the skills to every horse I get on; green horses needing more guidance and support, barn sour horses needing firm leadership, high energy horses needing direction, lazier horses needing more inspiration and spirit. After a summer or two working with the "wrangler horses" (horses that need more training) on the job, it was incredibly rewarding to see those horses eventually turn into guest favorites and the most popular horses.
Whatever horse I got on, I would take into account what I've learned about that horse from its history, what others say about it, and observation on the ground from groundwork, grooming, and tacking that horse up.
I was told a little grey mare named Blue would refuse to lead a trail ride and was spooky and fast. Therefore we couldn't really use her as a guide horse and couldn't put guests on her, so she was not being used at all. I always take those horses as a challenge. I like to ride any horse with confidence, setting expectations for them that are realistic to what you know about that horse, but also a challenge for them to meet. If you are confident in that expectation, most of the time I found they will meet you there.
However, not letting your guard down and always being prepared for anything is a huge tip to being safe and not getting injured, either the horse or the rider. Turns out after getting to know Blue and working with her, she is a leader; she was just green and hadn't had any training on the trails, hence a lack of confidence. After leading just three trail rides on her, instilling the confidence that she could go first through the aspen forest, she would boldly go anywhere I asked her and lead any ride! Sometimes still putting up a protest, but I now know I can expect a lot from her.
Becoming a wrangler taught me so much, from leading beginners on the trail to galloping through fields behind a herd of 100 horses. The beat of hundreds of hooves pounding on the ground will be in my heart forever. I’ve met some of the most incredible horses and find myself trying to take home my favorite horse after every ranch I work at. I can thank those 300 horses for training me on the trail to relax, adapt, and enjoy the ride! View photos taken on the trail at GloriaFord.com
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.