Foundation Horse Training

Training for the High Lonesome

To really understand the value of a good mountain horse, I need to paint you a picture. Life in the backcountry is something many people will not experience and therefore aren’t able to understand. For those of you who have been there, you know.

You are miles away from the nearest city (many times hours in the saddle just to get to your vehicle only to have to drive several hours to get near to civilization, let alone help) which can be torture when you or your horse is injured; many times you don’t see another human being for days; you are faced with a great variety of terrain from flat open meadows to steep rocky cliffs, brush encrusted forest, or horse-burying bog; you encounter many different species of wildlife, from deer and elk, to moose, bear and cougars; and you are at the mercy of mother nature 24/7, who, like a woman, likes to change her mind very frequently.

So…life in the mountains can be a matter of life or death. Contrary then, to popular belief, a mountain horse is not ‘just a trail horse.’  By true definition a mountain horse is much more remarkable than this.  A good mountain horse needs to be able to think. We call it ‘creating the thinking horse.’  He must be able to go against his instinctual desire to flee in the face of danger and to put total trust in his rider/companion, as well as his own abilities, regardless of the circumstances.

pack string

Horses in packstring must learn how to work together.

Also contrary to popular belief, the ‘pack horse’ may be your most important mount when in the wilderness, even over your riding horse. You can walk or hike to get where you’re going, but having an animal to carry all your gear through a myriad of terrain without breaking a thing, is sure a luxury!  One can survive days on only water, but food is sure nice! And so is clean clothes, lodging, and a sleeping bag!  If a packhorse goes lame or is injured, you may be sitting in camp for days, immobilized. So it is just as important that a pack horse is able to ‘think’ and not do something to jeopardize injury to himself, his teammates, or you.

Training a mountain horse begins from the ground up. Forming a trusting partnership doesn’t start once you get on their back. This is the least important aspect of training for me because by the time I get on their backs to ride, it is one of the easiest things I do. Those horses already know my body language and voice cues and have established trust and respect for me. Our first ride is usually just to get on and walk away.  The most important aspects of training happen before this. Just as a child’s initial learning is so crucial between 0 and 5 years, so is a horse’s first steps of training laying the foundation for everything that is to come.

Her horse, Stella, helps Brenda hang a highline in the backcountry.

Her horse, Stella, helps Brenda hang a highline in the backcountry.

Some key aspects to laying a good foundation are:


Developing a good mountain horse takes time. It’s not just about going riding or being on its back, it’s about spending time.


Establishing body language that you and your horse can understand. Understanding how a horse thinks and behaves is important. You need to be able to communicate clearly with your horse.

kelvin in roundpen

A clinic participant develops trust, respect and communication in the round pen.

Voice Commands

Especially in the backcountry, being able to communicate verbally to your horse is very important. Being on the side of a steep cliff on a nervous horse and calming him with your voice, or having a pack string of 11 horses and being able to talk to the 9th one in line is pretty cool!   It can also be a matter of life or death!


Decide who is Alpha. YOU need to be a leader to your horse.  A confident, clear and fair leader is someone that your horse is going to want to follow.  Being in a situation or terrain that is unfamiliar or even scary to the horse, the horse needs to look to you for direction instead of going back to his natural instinct to flee.

Respect and Trust

Create an environment for mutual respect and trust. Every situation you encounter will go back to …does your horse respect and trust you. Being able to communicated clearly to your horse and showing him/her that you are a responsible leader is the start of a good relationship.


Learning to work as an individual and as a team. A mountain horse must develop his skills operating on his own as well as be very aware of what’s going on around him.  Stimulate!

Introducing your horse to new things and situations and leading them through them safely and calmly will increase your horse’s confidence in himself and you.

A horse gets used to camp life.

A horse gets used to camp life.

In the backcountry we rely on our horses for survival as much as they rely on us. It is truly a unique partnership that is not forged elsewhere. Because of the exposure to so many different elements and experiences a true mountain horse is going to be a good, reliable mount whatever discipline you go into. With the phenomenal foundation that a mountain horse receives, their mind is balanced and they easily adapt to new surroundings, situations and requirements.

Article written by Brenda Murdock and featured in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 edition of the Canadian Cowboy Magazine.

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