It’s spring, and many riders anticipate the first trail ride of the season. While some riders make it a point to keep both themselves and their horses in shape year-round, many haven’t been on a trail ride since last fall.
Riders expect that they might be a little stiff or sore after the first ride of the season, but what about the horse?
“Walking around in a pasture all day isn’t the same as conditioning,” said Cindy Bryan, equine nutritionist and avid trail rider. “And when you add tack and a rider, it changes even more. A western saddle weighs about 30 pounds, and that’s added to the weight of the rider. The horse has to use a different set of muscles when there’s a rider, and is moving differently with a rider, with more purpose and intent, than when he’s just casually strolling through the pasture and grazing.”
The key is to allow enough time to prepare both you and your horse, starting with a thorough grooming. Go slowly, and cover over every inch of the horse’s body to make sure there are no sore spots, injuries or swollen areas.
It’s also important to check tack before using it. “Before you start to ride, clean your tack really well,” said Cindy. “Take it apart and look at every piece to make sure nothing is about to break. If it’s questionable, replace it.” Check the horse carefully after riding to make sure that there are no rubs or sore areas that may have been caused by tack.
Saddle fit can change any time a horse changes, which can be over winter as well as throughout the season. Cindy noted that it’s especially important to check the fit of a breast collar since many horses tend to build muscle in the front end during conditioning.
If the horse has been without shoes all winter or need a reset before the trail riding season, make sure that the blacksmith comes at least two weeks before the first ride. “If you put shoes on a few days before a ride, you’re setting yourself up for trouble,” said Cindy.
For those who use boots instead of shoes, remember that boot fit can change based on the amount of time between trims. “Fit for boots has come a long way,” said Cindy, “and if you have a blacksmith who is familiar with boots, they can help get the fit just right. The boot companies will also work with you to get the right fit.
The hoof should maintain a good shape without a flare.”
When it’s time to start riding, begin at home with short walks around the ring, pasture or even up and down a driveway. Check the horse for signs of swelling or soreness after each ride, paying extra attention to areas covered or touched by tack. After several weeks (not days) of slow and steady work, both you and your horse should be developing some stamina.
If you plan to haul your horse to trails, remember that standing in the trailer takes more muscle than standing in a stall or pasture. Although a horse might load and unload easily and appear to be simply standing still throughout a trailering trip, it takes muscle and stamina for the horse to balance itself during trailering.
“If they aren’t in shape to begin with, to throw them on the trailer for an hour to get somewhere before you actually ride is unfair,” said Cindy. “If I’m going to haul my horse any distance, he needs to be in shape before I go, and if I’m going to haul him and then ride, I really want him to be in shape. Any type of work that helps build muscle will help them balance in the trailer.” Although trailers have improved and provide a smoother ride than older trailers, hauling should still be considered when conditioning the horse.
Once you’re ready to hit the trail, think about the items that are important to have with you during a ride. Cindy listed several items to carry in a saddle or pommel bag, including zip ties in several sizes, leather punch, leather pieces, shoelaces, leatherman tool, duct tape and vet wrap. “You have to think ahead about what might go wrong,” said Cindy. “Chicago screws and conchos can come apart, and you might need a temporary repair.” Riders should also carry a lead rope long enough to tie up with, and a rope halter either under the bridle or in a saddlebag.
It’s a good idea to carry some basic first aid items and banamine, depending on trail accessibility and how long you plan to be out. Additional options include a lightweight poncho folded in a pouch and an emergency survival blanket. Many riders keep more first aid supplies in their trailer, depending on how far from home they travel and accessibility to medical and/or veterinary help.
Almost every rider carries a cell phone and many also carry EpiPens to treat allergic reactions to bee stings while trail riding, but it’s important to carry these essential items on your body, perhaps in a sleeve made for such use, rather than in a saddle or pommel bag.
There are several phone apps available that can provide guidance on the trail. One is Road ID, which can help someone at home track you to a specific GPS coordinate. Other apps show trails and can track paths of travel and changes in elevation. A more expensive option, but worth the investment for those who ride in remote areas, is a handheld GPS unit that has a satellite transmitter that can relay information from any area. “It’s worth it because you might get help two or three hours sooner,” said Cindy.
If you‘re going to dismount and tie your horse during a break, make sure the horse is tied securely to something that cannot break. There are numerous cases of horses breaking away when tied, and in some instances, those horses were either found dead or never found at all.
For those who participate in large group rides that include unfamiliar horses and riders, it’s wise to find someone who shares your safety standards. During the ride, keep your distance but always be prepared for the inexperienced riders who may not ride safely.
“There are a lot of things to think about,” said Cindy. “It’s a matter of being as safe as you can be and not putting yourself at risk.”