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Staying Safe on the Trails


By Allison A. Rehnborg

For horse-lovers, October brings more than pumpkins and Halloween candy. The month’s mellow sunlight, gentle breezes, and cool temperatures make prime trail-riding weather. Many riders look forward to hanging up their show clothes, brushing the arena dust from their boots, and hitting the trails. Aside from serving as great exercise for you and your horse, trail riding offers excellent opportunities to explore nature and bond with friends. With all the fun and recreation that trail-riding offers a horse and rider, it’s easy to relax your guard and forget about common trail-riding safety protocols. No matter where or why you ride, it is always a good idea to stay safe in the saddle. In this article are a few favorite tips and tricks for ensuring safe and happy trails this fall.

Never ride alone.Even if you only intend to be gone for ten minutes, it’s never a good idea to go trail riding alone. If you must ride alone, call a friend to alert them that you are riding solo, where you plan to go, and when you plan to return. Carry your cell phone with you, especially on a solo ride, and keep it turned on for the duration.

Wear the right stuff. No matter where you ride, always wear a properly-fitting riding helmet to protect your head. Trail riding often exposes your horse to new sights and sounds – including ones that might spook an otherwise “bombproof” horse. Ride in comfortable jeans or riding pants, and wear riding boots with enough heel to keep your foot from sliding through the stirrup. Wear long sleeves or a light jacket to protect your arms from sunburn, insect bites, or scratches from branches.

Be prepared. If you plan to be away from your barn or trailer for several hours, pack your saddlebags with a few essentials in case of an emergency. Devote one saddlebag to your needs: include a small first-aid kit, bottled water, a snack or two, a flashlight, a map of the trail and surrounding areas, a rain poncho, a pocket-knife, and your cell phone. Pack the other saddlebag with things for your horse: as an equine first-aid kit, a hoof-pick, fly spray, a fly mask, and a spare halter and lead rope. Even if you only plan to go on a short ride, carry your cell phone, a hoof pick, and some first-aid materials, for any emergency or accident that may occur.

Tiger Schultz, an experienced recreational trail rider from Birdseye, Indiana, also recommends packing tack repair materials. “Carry enough extra things to fix your tack if it breaks,” Schultz says. “I generally carry a multi-tool, some string, and maybe a couple of Chicago screws.”

Know your and your horse’s abilities. An experienced trail horse is worth its weight in gold, especially for a rider without a lot of trail riding experience. If you or your horse is new to trail riding, make sure you’re honest with yourself about your level of experience. Choose an experienced friend to accompany you for the first few rides to acclimate yourself and your horse to new trail experiences.

Regardless of your skill level, brush up your horse’s basic training before you hit the trails. Make sure your horse listens and responds to all your commands, especially when it comes to sudden stops. Practice simple maneuvers, such as bending and side-pass, as moving over on command will save you from scraping your knees on a narrow wooded trail.
One of the best tools in your trail-riding arsenal is the “one-rein stop,” the action to employ if your horse runs away with you. To perform a one-rein stop, first gain a secure seat in your saddle. Then slide your hand as far down one rein and as close to the horse’s mouth as possible, grip the rein tightly, and pull back as hard as you can towards your knee. This will pull your horse’s nose around and force the horse to turn circles, which will slow him down and enable you to regain control.

Learning an emergency dismount is another valuable tool, one that you should practice in a safe environment before you need to employ it.

“I was reminded just how important emergency stops and dismounts are while I was test riding a new horse,” says trail rider Marie Bing of Ripley, Tennessee. “A rein broke while we were gaiting, and the horse panicked when I tried to pull him into a one-rein stop. I was able to slow him to a reasonable speed to dismount, but not a stop. Practicing on my horse beforehand definitely made the situation less dangerous.”

Bing and her horse, SinWagon, a Walking Horse gelding, hit the trails at least three times a month. According to Bing, trail riders need to have a good sense of humor and a sense of self-preservation.

“Be aware of your surroundings, know your limitations, as well as your horse’s, and be prepared for anything,” Bing advises.

Maintain good trail riding etiquette. When you’re riding out with a group, position the most experienced horse and rider at the back, and place novice riders in the middle of the pack. Choose an experienced horse and rider to serve as “trail leaders” for the ride, a rider who either knows the area well or knows how to follow a map. Always maintain a respectful distance between your horse and the horse in front of you. Announce when you are going to accelerate or decelerate your pace, and always ask to make sure it’s okay to pass another horse on the trail. If you’re riding on a narrow trail through the woods, never grab a branch and then let it go, because it will likely strike the next rider or horse in the face.

Leave trails as you find them. Be good stewards of the land, especially if you’re riding on someone else’s land or on public lands. Carry your trash and litter out with you and make sure to leave trail markers undisturbed. If you are riding on public lands or in parks, follow the park’s guidelines about bringing in external hay or feed. Some parks have rules about introducing foreign plant life into a protected area.

Keep your head. If your horse panics, stay calm and level-headed. Secure your seat, secure your grip on the reins, and speak calmly to your horse until it is back under your control. If your horse bolts, remember to practice your emergency stop.

If another horse on the ride panics, bolts, or throws its rider, attend to your horse and your own safety first – then work to help your friend. It doesn’t help if everyone on the trail ride panics and loses control, adding to the confusion and possibly causing a bigger accident. If necessary, dismount from your horse and hold it by the reins or tie it securely to a fence or tree (using a lead rope) before attending to your companion.

Knowledge is power. Always ride with a trail map or ride with someone who knows the area and the trails. Getting lost is an uncomfortable and unpleasant way to end an otherwise fun day, so always keep an eye on your surroundings and know where you are at all times. Know what kinds of venomous snakes or dangerous animals may inhabit the area where you’re riding, and brush up on the best way to avoid or survive any encounters with them. Know poison ivy and poison oak look like, and, generally, do not to touch any suspicious-looking vines. During hunting season, wear bright colors, tie brightly-colored ribbons to your horse’s tack, and talk aloud as you ride, so that hunters (or anyone else sharing the woods) are aware of your presence.

Have fun. Relax and have a good time! Trail riding can be some of the best times with your horse!

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