Horseback Riding For Dummies
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Before you hit the horseback riding trail, you need to get ready. This prep work includes getting the right horse, knowing where you’re going, and sporting the proper gear.

Use the right horse

Just because a horse is easy to ride in the arena doesn’t mean he’ll be a good mount for the trail. From the horse’s perspective, trail riding is completely different from arena riding. Because it involves being out in the open, sometimes in unfamiliar territory, beginning trail riding requires a horse who’s calm, confident, and easygoing.

Good ground manners — or the way the horse behaves as you handle him when you’re not on his back — are an important quality in a trail horse. A horse with good ground manners stands quietly while he’s being groomed, doesn’t fuss or move around when you’re saddling and bridling him, and walks quietly alongside as you lead him.

Trail horses need to have good ground manners for a number of reasons, including the following:
  • With a trail horse, you never know what kind of situation you may find yourself in. Trail riding by its very nature requires that you be away from home base. The last thing you need is a horse you can’t control if you’re far from the stable.
  • Emergencies happen on trail rides, too. Horses become lame, get rocks embedded in their feet — just about anything can happen out there. If your horse has good ground manners, he’s more likely to cooperate in an emergency situation if you have to dismount.
  • You may find yourself in a situation where you need or want to get off your horse and walk beside him. If this happens, you’ll be happy to have a horse who behaves himself while you’re leading him.
  • Stopping along the trail for a bite to eat, a bathroom break, or just to stretch your legs means you need to get off your horse. A horse with good ground manners stands quietly when tied and is easy to mount.
The horse you ride on the trail should be obedient and sensitive to your commands. A good trail horse has a good work ethic, which means he knows he has a job to do in this world and is willing to do it. The best trail horses are also virtually unflappable. Not much scares them, and when they do become frightened, they don’t lose their minds but assess the situation before deciding to take off in mad flight.

If you’re a novice rider, you may want to choose an older, more mature mount for a beginning trail horse. Older horses tend to be quieter than younger horses. The horse needs to have extensive experience on the trail, too. Otherwise, he’s unlikely to be calm out there, no matter how old he is.

Deciding where to ride

In the old days, riders had only one kind of trail to explore: the wilderness trail. Horses either traveled through town on a dirt road or carried their riders through the deserts, through the woods, over the mountains, on game trails, or completely off-trail.

Things have obviously changed, and trails are quite different from what they were even 50 years ago. Nowadays, equestrians are faced with a variety of trail choices. They include the following:

  • Urban trails: A great many urban and suburban dwellers are limited to riding on urban trails. These types of trails are in city areas and suburban neighborhoods. Urban trails usually share all or part of their boundaries with a city street, which means traffic and pedestrians — and everything that comes with those two elements — are part of the mix.

Although most riders would rather be out in the wilderness, for many people, these trails are their only option. Urban trails can be a good substitute for a more rugged and untamed trail experience, and they often offer opportunities to see wildlife and breathe relatively fresh air.

  • Regional parks: Many urban and suburban dwellers, as well as some rural residents, take advantage of trails in nearby parks. Although most small city parks aren’t conducive to trail riding, many regional parks have extensive trails that can provide an enjoyable wilderness experience. These types of parks are accessible from areas where horses are kept, or they can be easily reached by horse trailer. Because regional parks get a lot of use and are managed by local municipalities, they’re often well marked and well maintained. Some even permit horse camping, and some connect to wilderness trails, which you can ride on all day without seeing anything that reminds you of civilization.
  • State parks: Managed by state government parks departments, state parks are often wonderful places for trail riders. Beautiful and often pristine wilderness areas make up the state parks system throughout the U.S. Many state park trail systems are open to equestrians, and they generally feature well maintained and well-marked trails.
  • National Forests: The National Forest system provides the greatest number of trails open to equestrians in the U.S. You can find National Forests throughout the country, and they encompass all kinds of terrain, from shoreline to deserts to mountains. Because National Forests are open to a wide variety of uses, equestrians are often welcome in these protected areas. National Forests are managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Horse camping is usually permitted in National Forests.
  • National Parks: The most beautiful and well-kept trails in the country are part of the National Parks system. Areas such as Yosemite National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are all examples of National Parks that allow equestrian use. Although not all National Parks allow horses, the ones that do can provide you with some spectacular trail riding. The U.S. government’s National Park Service manages the National Park system.
  • Designated wilderness areas: Several other types of designated wilderness areas are open to equestrians, including some national monuments and conservation areas. Many designated wilderness areas have wonderful trails that are little used.

Before you start your ride, stop off at a visitor center to pick up a trail map, talk to other riders for suggestions, and do a bit of research. Trail difficulty and length can vary, but you can find easy trails for beginners at all these places.

Check out the following figure to see some riders on a beautiful nature trail.

trail riding Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Trail riding is a great way to bond with your horse and fellow riders.

Know the rules before you go. Before you can ride, some parks require proof of a negative Coggins test, which confirms that the horse is free from a contagious disease called equine infectious anemia (swamp fever). Also, if you plan to go horse camping, you may need to make reservations or get an overnight permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Gather important gear

In order to make the most of your trail riding experience, you want to have certain gear along on your ride, as I explain in the following sections.


In many Western riding circles, helmets are considered a nonentity. The original cowboys didn’t wear them, and in keeping with tradition, most Western riders don’t, either. Most English riders, on the other hand, always wear helmets. Helmets are also a staple for those who ride competitively on the trail. So should you wear a helmet when you trail ride? The decision of whether to wear a riding helmet is a personal one.

The benefit of wearing a helmet is a powerful one: In the event of a fall from your horse, a helmet can save your life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of serious injury for horseback riders is greater than that for motorcyclists and automobile racers. State medical examiner records from 27 states over an 11-year period identified head injuries as the cause of 60 percent of horseback riding-related deaths. Given the potential for serious head injury, the CDC suggests that all riders wear helmets approved by the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) for equestrian use.

The downside of helmets is that they can be mildly uncomfortable if you aren’t used to wearing one (although newer models are very lightweight and well ventilated), and they can really mess up your hair. If you care about fitting in with the crowd and you’re a Western rider, you’ll probably stick out among your Western buddies if you decide to protect your skull. (Although helmet manufacturers have started coming out with some well-designed Western style helmets that are beginning to catch on.)

Although you may have an image of yourself on horseback with your hair blowing in the wind, stop and think about what could happen to you if you fall from your horse and hit your head. The possibilities are horrific and hardly worth the risk. Do yourself and those who love you a favor and wear an ASTM/SEI-approved helmet when you trail ride.

Appropriate clothing

Check the weather before you head out and make sure you’re wearing the right apparel. If you’ll be out all day, you may need to wear layers so you can take them off as the day warms up. If rain or snow is a possibility, be sure to bring appropriate outerwear so you don’t get wet. Nothing is more miserable than trying to ride back home when you’re cold and soaked to the bone!

You should also wear proper, safe riding apparel when you trail ride.

Additional handy gear

In addition to a comfortable saddle that fits your horse well, a bridle that provides you with plenty of control, and important items necessary for your safety, you can also opt to add some of the following items to your trail-riding ensemble:
  • Saddle packs: If you plan to be out on the trail for many hours, you want to have a saddle pack attached to your saddle. Saddle packs are designed to fit on the back of the saddle or on the front, and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Almost all feature holders for sports bottles, and all have at least one large pouch where you can put your lunch, sunscreen, horse treats, or anything else you want to carry along.
  • Seat covers: Long hours on the trail can be tough on your hind end. Trail riders often equip their saddles with seat covers made from sheepskin (or fake sheepskin) or gel. Seat covers are designed for Western, English, and endurance saddles, and they come in a wide range of prices.
  • Water bottle holders: It’s always a good idea to take a bottle or two of water along when you trail ride. You’ll find different types of water bottle holders designed for riding, including those that clip onto one of the D-rings located on the front or back of most saddles.
  • Miscellaneous goodies: All kinds of other items designed to make the trail rider’s life easier are available. Foldaway water buckets for horses, portable corrals, straps to hang and attach to saddle packs, combination sponges and bags, folding hoof picks, portable water tanks — you name it, it’s out there.
The best sources for unique trail gear are catalogs and online retailers specializing in equine products.

Getting ready for a ride of any length

Trail riding is a pretty simple activity. You just locate a trail, saddle up your horse, mount up, and start riding. Trail rides can be as short as an hour or as long as an entire day. Some trail rides even stretch out over a week or more. You just have to decide how much trail riding you want to do and prepare accordingly. The following sections explain how ride lengths compare.

Warming up for short trips

Short rides don’t call for much preparation. Your tacked-up horse and an idea of where you’re going are all you really need. Assuming that trails are available in proximity to where you keep your horse, you can probably ride to the trail head (the place where the trail starts). Otherwise, you need to trailer your horse to get there.

After you reach the trail head, begin your ride at a walk and slowly increase the speed to a jog or trot and eventually to a lope or canter (if you’re ready to go that fast) as your horse warms up. This warm-up is especially important if you haven’t ridden your horse for a few days. On the way home, be sure to walk at least the last mile. You don’t want your horse to get in the habit of racing to get home. You also want him to be cooled off when you get back to the barn.

Conditioning for longer journeys

If you plan to take longer rides, be sure both you and your horse are conditioned for this kind of riding. The worst thing to do to a horse is let him stand in his stall all week and then get on him on a Saturday and ride him for four hours on the trail. He’ll be sore and miserable the next day and will be less than enthusiastic the next time you come to take him out.

To condition your horse for an upcoming long ride, ride your horse at least several days a week, for an hour at a time or more, gradually building up the time over a period of a few weeks.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

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