Happy Trails

There is nothing more dangerous or annoying than a person who is unaware of proper trail etiquette.  To be fair, there are some things that many people do not think about while having a lovely ride on a sunny day.  Here are some of the basics to remember so that your trail experience is pleasant for both yourself and the people you ride with and encounter on the trail:

  • Stick to the edge of the trail.  Even if you can’t see anybody in either direction, its wise to keep your horse towards they side of the trail.  Bikers and joggers can come up quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.  Avoid collisions or a spooked horse by allowing room for other trail users to pass without issue.
  • Always walk when passing someone.  Whether you are passing another rider, a bike rider, walkers or joggers, take the pace down a notch.  By slowing your horse down to a steady walk, you allow him to evaluate the situation and will have less chance for a negative reaction from him.  If your horse spooks while you are passing someone, it becomes dangerous for both yourself and the other party involved.  Keep it safe by slowing it down.
  • Ride to the ability of the least experienced rider in the group.  If you are in a group of riders, no matter the size, do NOT do anything that any single person in the group is not comfortable with.  For example, a group of 4 riders go out and 3 of them are comfortable doing walk, trot and a little canter if there is a clear patch (which I will address later) but the fourth rider is not comfortable doing more than a little trotting here and there.  Don’t bully the fourth rider into trying to canter.  By asking a member of the group to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, you put everyone in the group at risk .  Ride to the lowest ability level or find a different group to ride with.
  • Along with the previous point, do not be afraid to admit that you don’t want to do something on the trail.   Your group should respect your request and not push you.  Gently remind them that you feel you may compromise the groups safety through a particular action and that you just want everyone to be safe and smart.
  • If you are going to head out on trail in a group, determine the ability and comfort level of the participants BEFORE leaving so that there are no shocks on the trail.
  • Do not canter in groups. Unless you are a very experienced horse person and everyone with you is also very experienced, avoid group canters on trail.  Horses are competitive by nature and will often try to be in the lead.  This can cause matters to get out of hand and cause injury.  If you are alone, and you feel like you just have to get in that one good canter, do it in an area which you can see for a good distance in each direction and only canter if there is no one within sight.
  • If it is starting to get dark when you are on the trail, make sure you have a flashlight and reflective vest so that people can see you.  This is especially important if you have to cross any roads to get to/from your trails.  There are reflective bands that you can put around your horse’s fetlocks as well, which may be useful.
  • Keep your cell phone with you in case of emergency.  Whether you keep your phone in your saddle bag or pocket, let it always be easily accessible in case something comes up.
  • Fly spray your horse and bug spray yourself.  The bugs can be much worse on the trail than anywhere else and I don’t know a single person who wants to be eaten alive while trail riding.  If you are focusing all of your attention on obnoxious bugs it leaves little ability to focus on what is going on around you.
  • Wear a helmet.  I know that it may seem silly on the trail, but you never know what is going to set off your horse and how he will react.  It only takes a fall from 3 feet to make someone a vegetable or kill them.  Protect your head!

I’m sure there are things I missed out on, but think these through and just remember to use your brain on the trail.  If you have to think about whether or not you should do something on the trail, its probably a fairly good indication that you shouldn’t. Best of luck and fun to you all! Happy Trails!

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Tricky Trails: Bikes, Runners and Baby Strollers

The Scenario:  You are out on the trail for a nice, peaceful ride and a biker rounds a bend in the distance, heading in your direction.  Your horse spots the biker and his head pops up, he begins to get ansty and as the biker gets closer, he pivots and bolts for home.

The Fix: Regardless of the cause, it is never a feeling that we like to experience when our horse turns tail and heads for home. Thankfully, when this action is brought on by something man-made, it is generally easy enough to fix with a little training.

To deal with a horse who spins and/or bolts when presented with something scary, start in a controlled enviroment.  If you don’t have an arena available, a small paddock will do just fine.

The first step is to get the horse listening to you while you are riding.  Before introducing the scary object or individual, warm your horse up, asking him for leg-yields and haunches in.  If you don’t know how to do these elements, find someone who does and have them give you a short lesson because they will be incredibly useful.  These are good tools to get your horse in tune with and focused on you.

The second step is to introduce the scary thing in the controlled environment from the ground. Starting from the ground, have someone slowly ride a bike, push a buggy or jog towards you and your horse, leaving a wide gap.  If your horse gets too worked up  and makes you nervous from the ground, ask your helper to stop and allow your horse to observe and investigate the scary object.  Give him as much time as he needs to calm down and then ask your helper to continue on, slowly(<–this is the key, if you go flying past the horse, you will do nothing to help him see that the object will not hurt him.) It is important that you give your horse a long rope and that you, yourself, remain calm.  You horse will pick up on your emotions, so if you tense up because you think he is going to react poorly to a situation, it is far more likely that your horse will feel stressed and act out.  When you relax and act like the bike/jogger/buggy is nothing to worry about, your horse may be more inclined to have a calmer reaction. Remember though that you need to remain attentive.  ‘Relaxed’ does not mean ‘inattentive.’ Be ready to move with your horse as he reacts.  Pass the horse as many times as it takes until he has no negative reaction to the object or person passing him on either side.  Then repeat the whole process as you walk alongside your horse.
[Quick tip: If you are standing on the left side of your horse, have your helper also pass on that side.  If you are standing as a barrier between your horse and the scary thing, his reaction may not be as negative.]

Once your horse allows the scary object to pass him with no reaction while you’re on the ground, it’s time to get on him.  While you keep him halted, allow your helper to pass your horse. Hopefully the ground training has helped him realize that the object coming at him is not quite as scary as he thought. This doesn’t mean that he won’t react however, because now you are not there to act as a barrier.  From his back, you can act as a barrier in a different way. Remember the leg yields and haunches in from step one? Now those are coming into play.  As the scary object comes toward your horse, ask him to tilt his nose away from it. Don’t take his eye completely off of it, but don’t let it be the center of his vision. By giving your horse a job to do (turn his head), you are giving him something to think about other than how scary that thing coming at him seems.  When he will stand for your helper to pass with the scary thing on both sides, move him into a walk. With the movement, you can ask him for a haunches in (which, assuming the scary thing is the ‘inside’, will put the thing farther from his line of sight), turn his nose or leg yield away from the object. It is your choice if you want to practice this at a trot, but to make things easier and safer on the actual trail, you should always be walking to pass someone else during the ride.

Once your horse is comfortable in the arena, its time to take what you’ve been working on to the trail. To start, pick a quiet time of day and/or a more secluded path to practice on and have your helper come along again. Have your helper move up the trail a ways and then come back towards you.  Think about the relaxed movements that you used in the arena.  Going out on the trail may seem a little stressful at first, so remember to keep breathing and stay as relaxed, yet alert, as possible in the saddle.  When you and your horse are relaxed on the quiet path, you should be ready to try something a little more crowded.

Just remember:

  • Safety first! Your horse may learn to accept the ‘trail monster’ quickly or it may take a bit of time. Don’t take shortcuts in getting to the end result because it will never give you the results you hope to achieve and can get both you and your horse hurt.
  • Never be ashamed to admit you moved on too quickly.  No step is ever finished.  If you feel you rushed any part, go back a step or two until you and your horse are truly comfortable.
  • You may have setbacks. Things may be going well and then a biker may come flying around a turn and frighten your horse, causing his old behavior to surface to some degree.  Go back to the start and work through it again.
  • For horses, the faster something occurs, the scarier it is likely to seem to them. If your horse is getting worked up, ask him to slow down either within the gait or through a down transition.