Trail Riding 101 ~ Get Started The Right Way
By Bethany Videto
Thinking of introducing a young horse to trail riding? Or maybe you want to give your older horse something to do that will be a bit easier on his body, and will also stimulate him or her mentally? Here are a few tips to help you have safe, productive fun on the trail with your steed.
1.) Before going anywhere, make sure you have good brakes. If your horse has a tendency to bolt or ignore your halt commands, going out on the trail will exacerbate this habit. You don’t need an animal that is perfect at all gaits and stops on a dime, but you will want to be able to stop him if he spooks. So work on really breaking down your “whoa.” Sit deep, breath out, and then ask with your hands. Train this way in the safety of your home space, slowly, until it is second nature for you both.
2.) There will be bugs! Research what bug sprays are getting the best reviews and invest in an ample supply. You will also want some for yourself. Your horse will attract the flies, but they aren’t picky, you’ll do just as well for lunch as your equine friend.
3.) Depending on where you live, avoiding traffic may not be an option for you. If this is the case, start small. Take your horse out for small rides, and never go alone. Having an inexperienced horse out on trail by itself is just asking for trouble. Go out in small loops, gradually extending the length of your trail ride. This way it is not too overwhelming for you horse. He’ll begin to realize that those big, growling metal animals aren’t as scary as they once seemed.
4.) Do not let another rider pressure you into doing something you are not comfortable with. Just because your friend and her horse are old pros, and they are comfortable running through fields, crossing busy roads, going over bridges, and fording through lakes, it doesn’t mean your horse is there yet. If you are currently working on walking around calmly and not jumping over puddles, that is fine. Walking on the trail is good for you both; it is relaxing and gives your mount time to take in and process their surroundings. If you gallop around a bend and there is one of those scary puddles awaiting you before he is ready, you may end up wet and muddy.
4a.) In addition, if you are the experienced rider, respect the intuition of your fellow trail-mates. They know their horses and their personal boundaries better than you do. There is nothing wrong with slowing it down and taking in the sights.
5.) Prepare for the worst. Pack a saddle bag with water, a snack, a lead rope, and a first aid kit. If either of you end up injured or (god forbid) lost, you will wish you had these things. Carry a cell phone, but keep it on you rather than pack it on your horse. If you fall and your horse takes off, it won’t do either of you any good in the saddle bag.
6.) Safety first means wearing a helmet and bright colors. You may not love neon, but you also won’t love being struck by a car or a bullet. Being visible is something that gets ignored far too often by riders. It can be due to complacency, lack of awareness, or just not owning any bright colored clothing. Invest in a long life: Invest in a good helmet and visit a thrift store for some fun colors.
7.) Never leave anyone behind, for any reason. If you are at a road crossing, a stream or a bridge, think logically. Don’t leave one horse on the other side of the road, separated by traffic. This is a good way to get someone hurt or killed. If your group stops to drink water, wait for all the horses to drink before walking away. If one horse is separated, he may fear being left behind and not drink even though he needs it.
8.) Everyone talks about desensitizing your horse to go trail riding. Isn’t that a rather general sounding piece of advice? The common issues horses and riders run into on trail are not always easy to reproduce in an arena. Who doesn’t love when their horse gets over their fear of tarps, plastic bags and baby pools? But the real test here isn’t how willing your horse is to approach scary objects. It is how well they trust you to lead them through scary situations. Trail riding is bond building-- that is one of the reasons we love it! Your horse might not have seen a dirt bike or a quad before, and there is no way that walking through a tarp is ever going to prepare them for one, but if you have taken the time to teach them to trust you, your horse will believe you when you tell them it’s ok. So bring on the all the tarps, pool noodles and ground poles you can find, the more they learn to follow you, the more capable you will be to lead them.
9.) While on the trail, your horse is literally riding through a smorgasbord of his favorite foods! He is going to try to take a nibble here and there, and depending on how you correct him, this may someday turn into diving his head to the ground with all the strength of an iron bending strong man. When your horse goes for food, pull his head away rather than playing tug of war to get his nose out of the dirt. Pulling straight back will leave you with sore arms and shoulders and a bad mood at the end of the day. Open your rein and guide your horse’s nose away from the foliage while urging him to take a step with your leg. It is similar to pushing them into the outside rein, it urges the horse to move its shoulders. The more you catch him before he even gets to take a bite, the less he will try to eat.
10.) Your horse is already carrying you, your tack and possibly a pack as well. He is doing a lot of work just walking around on flat trails, let alone hilly, rocky ones. Help him out by leaning forward up hill to get your weight on his shoulders so that he isn’t dragging you, but carrying you up the hill. Going down, lean back. Horses sink into their hind ends when they are going downhill, and they will be able to balance better if you lean back. Try to stay centered. Have you ever carried a squirming child? It isn’t easy.
11.) In the arena you may wrap your horse’s legs with polo wraps to protect him. On the trail you will want something a bit sturdier. Research sport and performance boots and find the ones that meet the needs of your terrain. Read reviews and make sure they are durable. Your horse can cut his leg on a rock just as easily as you can.
12.) Most horses try to pick up the pace both uphill and on the way home. Don’t let these become habits. You choose the pace up at all times. It is likely when you are headed home that he may take on the pace of a competitive speed walker. When this happens, redirect his attention. Try taking small side trails or do some serpentines. Do not circle or turn around and walk back the way you came for a few feet just to turn back toward home again. Circling will lead to other behavioral issues, such as using the circle to wind up like a top. Going back just to turn around will stress your horse and encourage bolting and arguing. Just remain relax and distract him until he starts to slow down. This is will be a repetitive exercise, so be patient.
13.) Lastly, if you trailer to your trail rides remember to bring brushes, water and hay for your horse (an equine first aid kit in the truck doesn’t hurt either). Your horse just did the majority of the work for you both. They deserve a snack and some refreshing water. Don’t worry if they choose not to drink it, you just want the option available to them; it’s better to have it and not need it than to have a hot thirsty horse that relates trail riding with being uncomfortable and dehydrated.