Late summer/early autumn has always been our favorite time of year to ride horses — in fact, much of our activities with horses center around trail riding. And with plenty of daylight hours, cooler temperatures and less biting insects to be bothersome, it’s a perfect time of year to get out and enjoy the trails.
In addition to being a fun experience that can improve the bond you have with your horse, trail riding can be an enjoyable training exercise and stress-reliever for performance horses, especially those that are used primarily in the arena. If trail riding is new for you or your horse, now is the time to do a little advanced preparation for a smoother transition.
Prepare your horse/Training tips
Remembering that you will be riding in a relatively unstructured environment, sometimes passing across meadows and fields (wide open spaces) or traveling through the woods or along a road, focus on sharpening up your horse’s basic riding skills before setting out: an easy response to “go” and riding at all gaits/speeds; an instant response to ‘Whoa!” and competence in backing and in turning both ways. You might encounter something unexpected; and being confident in your horse’s ability to slow his gait upon command or even stop and back up or turn will help ensure a positive experience.
Preparing ahead for those unexpected encounters involves ‘desensitizing’ your horse — and you can have fun setting up obstacles in a familiar setting such as an arena or turnout area. Surprisingly, the use of a plastic shopping bag can be helpful in this process — tie the bag onto one end of a riding crop or wand or yardstick and work on moving it (eventually shaking it) around your horse — starting from front to back — and then work up to touching her legs, sides, back, tail and finally head and ears until she’s comfortable that the bag isn’t going to hurt her.
Another simple teaching tool is a tarp — spread out on the ground to mimic a stream crossing — and practice walking the horse on and across to the other side. You can start by leading your horse, and work up to riding her across.
Round objects such as a culvert pipe opening or even the end of a log can be scary to some horses — the round hole or circle can resemble an ‘evil eye’ — and can cause your horse to fuss on a trail. Practicing walking your horse by an open ended pipe or round log face or stack of logs until she’s comfortable doing so from both sides can prove helpful when you’re on the trail or in the woods far from home.
Some trails will cross roads or pass nearby. Practice by exposing your horse to cars, trucks, lawn mowers and machinery while under saddle before you start out on the trail.
Be familiar with where your trail ride will take place — terrain, length of ride — and be sure your horse’s level of fitness is adequate enough.
Safety/Getting ready for the ride
As with any riding experience, be sure to wear a riding helmet and boots with a heel. Your tack should be in good condition and fit your horse well — a trail ride far from home is no place for a poorly fitting saddle or a bridle or girth that is ready to break or pull apart. You might even need a different saddle for trail riding than your regularly use in the arena, as there will probably be uneven ground, hills or mountains to traverse. Groom your horse well prior to saddling up, and then do a little warm up before starting out.
Make sure that you are in charge of your mount at all times. Never let a horse run ahead on her own or to keep up with the other horses unless you direct her to. If your horse tries to stop to eat grass along the way, keep her moving. If the horse ahead of you is moping along and your horse is anxious to pass, consider turning your horse left or right to ‘zigzag’ or walk her around the nearest tree or other obstacle to re-focus her mind on what you are asking — this will also eat up some time while you are waiting on the horse ahead to move along and keep your distance. Take your time when crossing a stream or approaching a slippery or muddy area on the trail, and give your horse adequate time to look the situation over. Make sure she knows you are her leader, and she will trust you to take care of her and ensure a pleasant ride.
Check the weather prior to setting out and bring along a rain jacket and sunscreen — it’s best to be prepared for any weather event. (You might want to practice putting your rain jacket on and taking it off while you are in a familiar environment, as some horses might be unnerved by the sound and sight of you doing so while being mounted and on the trail.) If you’ll be riding at dusk or dawn with limited light, be sure to wear reflective tape and bright colors… and if you’ll be riding near hunting areas, include blaze orange in your attire. Keep a first aid kit for both humans and horses in your horse trailer; you might want to bring along a few basic first aid items on your ride, as well as a flashlight.
If you have a cell phone, carry it with you — and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Bring along insect repellant for yourself and your horse, as well as a halter and lead for tie-out if the trail ride will include stops for snacks or meals; water and a hoof pick.
Most etiquette ‘rules’ for trail riding are primarily set up for safety’s sake. Keep the most experienced riders in the group at the head and tail of the bunch. If your horse is a ‘kicker’, tie a red ribbon around her tail to let others know — and be sure to keep at least a horse-length between you and the next horse to prevent being kicked (if you are trotting or moving faster, you’ll need at least two horse-lengths in between.)
Stay at the same pace as the rest of the group; if you decide you need to move along at a faster pace, ask your trail mates if they would mind; never rush along past unsuspecting riders, who may not be as experienced and whose horses may ‘take off’ to keep up. Along the same lines, wait for everyone to water their horses at a watering place before leaving; horses do not like being left alone, and drinking enough water is important while riding for longer periods of time. Think ahead when crossing a road to be sure no one is left alone on the other side. Be courteous to other riders, hikers, vehicle operators and anyone you encounter while on the trail. And when the ride is over, if you’ve trailered in to a parking area or trailhead, leave the place at least as clean you found it — remove any piles of manure your horse may have left and pick up litter — cans, gum wrappers, etc. if you’ve brought food or snacks.
After the ride
Slow your horse’s pace on the way back to a leisurely walk, especially the last part of the ride, to discourage rushing ‘back home’, and make sure she is adequately cooled down before trailering or turning her out. Give her fresh water to drink and do a thorough grooming — hosing off if necessary. Check your tack carefully and dry out saddle blankets/pads so that you are ready for your next trip. And Happy Trails!