The trail as a metaphor for life

I have ridden many miles of trail in my life. Years ago, I had the thought that the trail really is a metaphor for life, because we choose the trail according to the same basic criteria as we choose to embark on activities in life, except that no one is paying us to do it, usually!


The trail has a beginning and an end. It’s either a loop trail or a variation of a loop, or it is out and back. Your partner on this trail is your horse, whom you outfit to do the job – pommel bag, cantle bags, water, snacks, lunch, first aid kit, ties, jacket, etc. The horse has to want to do the job you do, so the beginning of the trail starts somewhere back in building your relationship with your horse.

I’ve been fortunate to have horses who wanted to do what I like to do. The trail as a metaphor for life is a journey they have enjoyed going on with me. I was telling a dear friend a story about my horses in the mountains and realized what an amazing experience it is to have horses who maintain such a strong working connection with a human. Their work ethic and connection to me is combined with good survival skills.

Once my mare Zuzka and I were on a mountain top with a friend and her horse, where we couldn’t find the trail back down because the rain had obliterated our hoofprints in the soft, mossy footing. Zuzka put her nose to the ground like a bloodhound and found the trail by the scent left by her hooves.Telluride 2004 June 14

Another time, my gelding Khami and I got lost on an endurance ride in Colorado. Someone had  taken down the trail ribbons so we couldn’t find the trail – once again on a mountain in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm. Suddenly, after riding back and forth looking for ribbons or tracks or any sign of trail, he got wind of the trail or sighted a ribbon in the distance, I don’t know which. He charged up the mountainside through a thickly wooded aspen forest, with me clutching a tuft of mane, nearly leaving my kneecaps behind since aspens grow pretty close together. I couldn’t expect my boy to think about my kneecaps since he was on an important mission.  But he was right – we topped out on a perfect trail with trail ribbons fluttering brightly through the leaves. To me these are examples of perfect working relationship.


Horses are not like us in some fundamental ways. One being that their nervous system is a flight or fight system – they get frightened and run and then their nervous system will adjust once the frightening stimulus is gone. Our nervous system is different – we do have fright and may run or fight, but we also have an intellect so we will mull over mistakes we’ve made and try to rewrite the past, hold regrets, hold grudges, emotional pain and other things that horses rarely hang onto unless they have received human intervention.

The parallels I draw between humans and horses are in ways that we are alike, in terms of social behavior – meeting someone, wanting to be with them, not wanting to be with them anymore.

When we first meet someone we might like to be friends with, we don’t immediately expect them to want to go on a hike with us. If they like to hike we might ask them to do that with us, or some other activity. If they don’t want to go, or are busy that day, then we wait for another opportunity when things seem right.IMG_1011

The same is really true with the horse, except that the horse has been used as a beast of burden in some people’s view, so it should just do what we want. The horse doesn’t think that at all, unless he has been trained to take on the view of such people. This isn’t the best deal for the horse because he is just doing things by rote and not really enjoying life. People who are good managers of livestock know that they must pay attention to the needs of the horse, including his health and preferances, and that a horse will give more than you expect when he feels that deep connection.

Even when we want to have a relationship with a horse, a lot of what we want is for the horse to do what we want. We want that in marriages, with our kids, with everything in life. We want what we want.

In order to form the relationship with horses we need to let go of what we want and learn what they want, what they like, what footing they like, what activities, what their favorite grasses are. We would do that with others that we want to have a relationship with. If you notice, a lot of conversations are comprised of people’s preferences.

Horses like and dislike others just as we do. Those preferences need to be taken into account. I have had horses who preferred one trail over another, and have named trails for those horses or for different things that have happened on those trails.

Once I have a horse’s buy-in on the idea of trail riding, going out with me and maybe another horse and rider team, then I can enjoy the surroundings. I can be in the moment, which is the most helpful way to be for a horse, because that’s how they approach life. They are taking in the quality of the air, the squeak of the tack, where the birds are, the rustle of a squirrel in the underbrush. Your senses should become heightened to these sounds and sights, as they do while you’re sitting with your horse or walking with her. It helps you understand the horse’s world better.

Sept_October 010In many ways, this experience is similar to sitting with your horse, except you are going somewhere while riding on the trail. I think one of the reasons the translation from one type of riding to trail riding may be difficult is that riding in a confined space is not the same generally. We have more stimuli on the trail.

When I compare the two, the riding in an arena or enclosed space is more intellectual to me, while riding on the trail is more sensory. As I have been doing a lot of schooling lately, I have begun to miss the trail. I began to realize that getting out on the trail at least once a week really blows out my pipes and gives me more breathing room for the rest of my week. I used to ride on the trail two to three times a week, long rides, 7-20 miles, and now my world has changed to accommodate the work I do and the goals I am wanting to achieve in training my horses and my work.

I need to be in touch with the nature found in open space — when the cacti are blooming, whether the land is greening up or staying a dustbowl, what water holes are available for the horses to drink out of. I need to feel the quality of the wild air, the whisper of the wind through my horse’s mane, and other aspects of being out, away from humanity and infrastructure.cropped-zuzka_dance01.png

Sitting out with my horses when it’s quiet is also a way to be on a trail ride without going anywhere. I also began to bring the trail to arena work, the part where I listen to the various sounds as I know my horse is listening – the wind sighing through the pinons, the different cars going by, the birdsong.

That communion is what is important – the trail gives us a beginning and an end, with all that goes on in between. It gives you the deepening connection with your horse, and your trust that goes with each mile, knowing that if you lose your way, or have a problem, your horse will stick with you as much as possible, finding the way home, or out of trouble.


(copyright: Susan Smith, OrthoHorse)

Services: Bodywork (Ortho-Bionomy for people, Equine Ortho-Bionomy): private sessions,  tutorials, phone consultations, distance healing communication and gift certificates

Some Don’t Like it Hot – These Liberty Coaching clinics will take place in the cooler morning hours over the summer. If you want to host a clinic in your area, contact me to make arrangements. Prices will vary according to location and travel. 505-501-2478

Liberty Coaching: clinics, mini-clinics, workshops, private and semi-private sessions, tutorials, consultations: by appointment:  505.501.2478 or emailing  Scheduling now. Contact me for details.

I conducted a free Liberty Coaching Call on March 12. If you did not have a chance to listen, here is the link:

On the schedule for 2014:

June 14th – Trail Riding Clinic

Where: Headquarters Well, Caja Del Rio, Santa Fe

Time: 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Limited to 4 riders.
Cost: $75

Do you have questions or difficulties riding on the trail with your horse? What would you like to know to make your ride more enjoyable?

Trail riding is not just about “controlling” your horse, it is about establishing a “centaur relationship” that can carry you through all kinds of challenges.

Come learn from a seasoned endurance rider the following tips:

  • Trail etiquette
  •  How to be safe
  • How to get your horse ready for a trail ride
  • What to bring with you
  • Training

When we ask a horse to listen to us when we’re on a trail with other horses, we’re asking her to engage with us instead of with the other horses and the distractions that can occur on the trail. In this way, trail riding exposes what is not working in the arena and it exposes where your relationship with your horse needs strengthening. Find out some similarities between liberty training and trail riding.

In this clinic we will talk first about preparation and then work on some ways to manage situations on the trail, while in the saddle. We will take a short trail ride.

• Snacks
• Water for you and your horse
• Hay if you want it
• Helmet
• Tack (saddle & some sort of horse headgear required)

This clinic is full but there is a waiting list. Please get on it! Contact me for enrollment & liability forms and Payment information. PayPal & checks accepted.

Combining cumulative knowledge from over 18 years of endurance riding, Liberty Horsemanship and Ortho-Bionomy bodywork practice, Susan Smith brings a unique perspective to getting a horse and rider ready for the trail – in mind, body and spirit.

Liberty Foundation work is destined to deepen your trail experience.

Contact Susan Smith@ or 505-501-2478.

September 27-28 – Spirit Horse Ranch Two-Day Liberty Foundations Clinic, Oklahoma City, OklahomaEngaging the Hearts and Minds of Horses. Susan Smith and Ruella Yates, co-teaching. Contact me or Ruella at 405-771-4274 (

December 13-14 – Horses at Liberty Weekend Clinic, DeLand, Florida Bring your Horse into Deep Working Connection with Liberty Horsemanship. Instructor: Susan Smith. Contact Anne Daimler (386-822-4564) Susan at (505-983-2128 or cell 505-501-2478) 9:00-4:30 p.m.



2 thoughts on “The trail as a metaphor for life

  1. Beautiful blog, with much love and respect for horses. That shines through in your writing. Looking forward to our clinic here, and teaching together again!
    Ruella Yates
    Spirit Horse Ranch Liberty Foundations

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