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Article #6:  Basic Trail Sense and Safety

by Wil & Beverly Howe

Equestrian Connection, 1988


   Now that summer is just around the corner, a lot of weekend riders will be out on horseback. Trail riding or riding outside is altogether different from riding in the comfort of a controlled environment in an enclosed arena. When you venture out, much is expected from your horse. He must be attentive and submissive to the rider and controllable in the midst of strange and unpredictable circumstances. Many accidents happen that could have been prevented. Knowing horse psychology and good riding and safety habits will help avoid them. In this article we will present some basic information and preventative steps to take so you may trail ride more safely.

   First of all, remember that a horse’s perspective and the way he sees objects and situations are different then the way we do. We must learn to think like a horse and predict what a horse might do next when presented with different circumstances. You must always be alert and one step ahead of your horse. An unusual object or situation might represent danger to a horse, and their instinctive reaction to fear is to run, buck, or both. In the throes of panic, a horse could care less about its passenger, and that is why we as riders must become more than just a passenger. We must be a pilot in charge and in control of our animal. Keeping your horse’s attention at all times is most important when trail riding.

  • Before and after you ride, it is good to saddle and tie your horse up for awhile. This helps to gain their respect and attention and also helps prevent a barn sour horse.

  • If your horse has not been ridden for a period of time, don’t go out and throw a saddle on ‘ole sorrely, kick him in his belly and head down the road cold turkey and expect him to behave perfectly. Give your horse a chance to get the kinks out first rather than taking the risk of getting dumped. No matter how broke your horse supposedly is, turn him out first prior to riding, especially if he has been stalled or cooped up. Let him run off some of that extra energy, as extra energy usually turns into some form of resistance. Free lunge your horse in a round corral, even bridled and saddled, to allow him to get adjusted to his tack again. Taking some wind out of your horse will get him thinking more about work and paying attention to you rather than doing his own thing. Remember, a horse is more likely to act up on cold, wet, or windy days, especially out trail riding, where every moving object becomes a "spook" to your horse.

  • Check tack. Make sure all your tack is in good condition and properly adjusted. Too often people are out riding with dangerously inferior equipment and bridles where the bit hangs so low in the horse’s mouth that not only are they ineffective but also extremely irritating to the horse.

  • The bridle with a curb bit should fit and the bit be up in the mouth till one to two wrinkles are seen in the corner of the mouth. If using a snaffle, make sure it is adjusted at least a half-inch below the corner of the mouth. If you are using a curb type bit, the curb strap (chain or leather) is adjusted to be effective when pressure is applied. Usually you want two fingers to fit between the chin and strap.

  • The cinch should be tightened a little bit at a time. Do not cut your horse in half when cinching up your horse in half at first. A cinch too tight, too soon, will make a horse "cinchy" and cranky and can cause even a well-broke horse to buck. We do not want to promote problems, we want to prevent them. When ready to ride, having cinched up tighter, always un-track (lead your horse a step or two) before mounting. Always recheck your cinch later during the ride and cinch up more if necessary. If you are doing a lot of uphill riding, a good breast collar is recommended to keep your saddle in its proper position and then you don't need to cinch up quite as tight.

  • When trail riding, stay one horse length behind the horse in front of you if riding single file. This allows your horse to see where he is going and not fall asleep with his nose in the behind of the next horse. Also, keeping a space can prevent an accident if the lead horse gets disgusted and decides to kick. Regardless of the reason, if your horse does kick at another while you are riding, reprimand him immediately. Bad manners, like kicking, can be very dangerous and will only get worse.

  • Never run or jog your horse towards home; this creates a prancy barn-sour horse. A good aid for prevention is to leave your horse saddled and tied for at least a half hour or more after a ride. This helps instill in the horse’s mind that home (security and food) is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that you the handler are in control of his comfort zone.

  • Never race your horse on the trails or with other horses. You will create an unmanageable and anxious horse who can become impossibly chargey and no fun to ride.

  • When riding uphill, lean forward in the saddle to help balance your horse. Go easy, one step at a time on steep grades (both up and down). Never let your horse trot or run down hill; they can easily trip and fall.

  • Practice riding correctly in a relaxed position. Sit down and heels down! Be sure you know how to quickly gather or shorten your reins for control in case of an emergency. Basic riding instructions should be a must for the novice rider. It is very important that you know how to stop a horse and ride confidently with balance.

  • When a horse shies or bolts, program yourself and your horse through practice so you can pull his head around to get his attention. Do not pull steady and just hang onto your reins, this only deadens your horse’s mouth and teaches him to resist. The signals must always be pull and release to be effective.

  • When overcoming obstacles on the trail, always face whatever it is that your horse is afraid of. As long as you maintain control and keep him faced up, he will be less likely to twirl and bolt. Approach the obstacle with confidence. Use your legs to guide your horse forward. Let your horse investigate, but you stay in control. Be sure to reward your horse with a pat on the neck or rump when he tries to cooperate and advances. If you are riding with an older, more experienced horse, have that horse go on ahead and let your horse follow to build his confidence. To develop a good seasoned trail horse, you must expose them to different situations in a positive controlled manner.

   Here we can only give you brief details in tips to help you and your horse get along better. Remember, prevention is always better than the cure. If you have a problem horse, professional help is much cheaper than trying to deal with a horse whose handling is beyond your capabilities. If your problem can be corrected, it will make your horse more enjoyable, be worth your time and money, and may save your life. If there is no solution, there is always another horse that is better suited for your particular needs. Good luck and Happy, Safe Trails!

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