Now that we are enjoying these warmer months of spring, many thoughts turn toward summer pursuits — and a favorite on the list of many horse owners is trail riding. What better way to enjoy your horse than getting out in the fresh air and enjoying the beauty of nature! And in most instances, your horse will appreciate that time spent out on the trails just as much.
However, to ensure a safe and pleasurable ride for both horse and rider — if your horse has spent most of the winter and spring lazing around, or riding strictly in a controlled area such as an arena; or for a new horse that you haven’t spent much time riding, preparation work should be done in advance of your first trail ride. And fortunately, you can easily work with your horse be-forehand to get him in shape and prepare for the ride — as some of the most important things to keep in mind when embarking on a season’s worth of trail riding are safety and trail etiquette.
A good trail horse is a safe horse, one that obeys your commands and directions readily. You can work on the basics of “Whoa” and “Go” in the comfort of a paddock or arena. The cue for “Stop,” whether is “Ho!” or “Whoa” or whatever, should be firmly engrained in your horse’s vocabulary. Riding trails can often bring unforeseen circumstances, such as poor footing, deep mud, a tree or obstacle across the trail, a loose or unfriendly animal, traffic, and the like — and an immediate response to your cue for “Stop” will help to keep you safe on your ride. And whether your cue for “Go” is verbal, such as “Get Up” or “Walk On;” or a squeeze, click or other aid, make sure that your horse responds instantly. The key to successful training is being consistent with your cues — the same word or aid, the same response every time.
Your horse should stand quietly for you to mount, as you might need to dismount while on the trail. In addition, he should be able to stand without pulling back when tied, and you should be able to lead him easily. There are times when you might need to tie your horse to a tree, for example, when assisting another rider or taking a lunch break.
There are so many unusual occurrences that can happen during a trail ride that may cause a horse to spook — from a branch falling to a gust of wind blowing a piece of debris to seeing someone put on a rain jacket or using a rope. Take some time working with your horse in familiar surroundings to help get rid of the jitters. A good lesson to help desensitize a spooky horse involves the use of a plastic grocery bag tied on the end of a crop. Starting with the bag on the ground near your horse’s front end, slowly move it up and down each leg and, judging from your horse’s response, generate a little more energy as she gets used to it — eventually working it up the shoulder, across the back and down the tail — and finally working up the front leg to the shoulder, neck and head. Start slowly and end each lesson on a positive note; it might take sever-al sessions before your horse will tolerate your shaking the bag near her head or moving it back and forth across her back and sides.
There may be water crossings on the trail; if you’ve not ridden your horse across a stream or waterway it’s a good idea to practice before heading out on the trail. A good substitute is to lead, and then ride your horse across a tarp that has been laid on the ground. A spooky or jittery horse is one that is lacking confidence; spending time working with your horse will go a long way in having a good respectful relationship with him – and if your horse respects you, he will be responsive to your commands and will have more confidence overall. A safe horse is a confident horse, one that obeys your commands without question.
Also important before embarking on your first trail ride of the season is to remember your (and your horse’s!) manners — and to be well versed in Trail Riding Etiquette. Most likely you will be riding with others, and in order to have a safe and successful ride it’s important to use common sense and think ahead. Here are some guidelines that will help ensure a good trail riding experience:
- Keep at least one horse length behind other horses; do not crowd.
- Station a confident or bold horse at the lead.
- Station riders with less experience in the middle of the group.
- If your horse is a kicker, keep him toward the back; the universal sign for a kicker is a red ribbon attached to the tail. And if you have a kicker in your group, be sure to give it plenty of space.
- Place a horse unfamiliar with water crossings behind a horse that is familiar with water and in front of one that is familiar with water. Oftentimes the ‘group effort’ will pay off.
- Do not leave a horse and rider that has stopped or has difficulty without notifying the trail leader.
- Do not pass other riders at a different speed than the gait you are traveling at — in other words, refrain from galloping by other horses if they are walking or traveling at a slower speed.
- Let others know when you are passing, and what side you will pass on; choose an area with plenty of room.
- Refrain from bringing a mare that is in heat on a trail ride.
- Stallions, if allowed along, should be ridden in front and by a person experienced in rid-ing/handling stallions.
- The lead horse should be well-trained, confident, safe and responsive.
- The lead rider should be experienced and know the trail, with first aid and safety training.
- If you need to stop for any reason, let the lead rider know.
- The lead rider should block the trail with their mount if in a safety situation or for tack adjustment while the backup rider attends to situation.
- The lead rider is responsible for alerting other riders to gait transition, stops, wildlife, hazards on the trail.
- The lead rider should cross roads or waterways first, wait until last rider and horse are finished crossing before continuing on the trail.
By working with your horse prior to starting out on the trails and using good common sense and trail etiquette, you will be well on your way to a safe and enjoyable trail-riding season.