Riding Your Horse Safely on Trails

Basic horseriding skills are just as necessary on the trail as they are in a riding arena. Out in the wilderness, you may find yourself in situations where you must turn your horse, back him up, and, of course, ask him to stop and go forward.

In addition to using your basic skills, you also need to use your head out on the trail. Stick to these trail basics to ensure the safety of your horse, other riders, and yourself:

  • Walk up and down hills. Although your horse may want to, don't gallop downhill. Avoid the urge to trot uphill, too, if you can. The faster you go up or down a hill, the more dangerous it is. Riding faster up or down also is bad for your horse's legs, and it's a difficult habit to break after the horse is used to doing it.
    Lean forward in the saddle when going uphill and lean back when going downhill. This helps your horse by shifting your weight off the end of the horse that is bearing most of the animal's (and your) weight.
  • Negotiate obstacles. Sooner or later, you and your horse are going to come across an obstacle on the trail that your horse won't want to deal with. It may be a fallen tree trunk, a mud puddle, or a big rock. Chances are, the obstacle will be running water because many horses are afraid to cross creeks and streams. You can't allow your horse to successfully avoid the obstacle, or your horse soon figures out that he can dodge things he doesn't like rather than listening to you.
    If your horse refuses to cross an obstacle, first make sure it's safe enough to do so. Then get off and lead the horse through or over the obstacle. If that doesn't work, ask your trail buddy to take her horse over the obstacle. Chances are, your horse will follow. If not, don't risk your safety by engaging in a huge battle with your horse. Continue your ride in another direction, and when you get home to the stable, find an experienced horse person or trainer who can take your horse back on the trail to get him over his fear of that particular object.
  • Don't allow jigging. Jigging, a cross between a walk and a trot, is something horses do when they're anxious to get home and don't want to walk. If your horse starts jigging and gets away with it, you soon have a chronic jigger on your hands. If your horse starts jigging, insist that the horse walk. If he won't walk, turn him around in a continuous figure eight every time he starts to jig.
  • No eating! Imagine you're a horse on a trail ride. Everywhere you look, you see all kinds of grasses, flowers, and shrubbery, just waiting to be eaten. Walking on the trail must the equine equivalent of strolling through a bakery.
    Horses being horses, they're inclined to temptation and will reach out and try to snag a nibble at the first opportunity. However, as mean as it sounds, don't let your horse have anything to eat on the trail, for three reasons: First, many poisonous plants exist out there. Even one mouthful of the wrong thing can make your horse very sick. Second, if you let your horse eat on the trail whenever the mood strikes, pretty soon your entire ride will be spent sitting on top of a grazing horse. And third, if your horse has a bit in his mouth, some of the roughage may get caught in his windpipe, causing breathing issues.
  • Warn other riders. If you have a horse that is particularly nasty to other horses — especially the ones that approach from behind — tie a red ribbon at the base of his tail as a warning to other riders that your horse might kick.
  • Walk him at the end of the ride. Don't trot or canter during the last third of your journey home. Otherwise, your horse will think that rushing home is okay, and you'll soon have trouble controlling the horse when you turn toward the stable.
  • Be safe at night. When riding at dusk or at night, wear reflective clothing (a vest is best) so that drivers can see you.
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