Turbulent Trails? Think Safety First!
Trainer Mel Harms-Grossman offers some safety tips for riders hoping to hit the trail.
Trail riding can be a fun part of horse ownership. Trail experiences range from the easy cool down walk around the yard or field to the challenge of the mountains or rugged ranch country. Whatever your trail riding level or experience, safety considerations should always be first on your mind. Here are some tips to improve your trail experience. Do you have any to add? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Choose a trail leader.
Unless you are hitting the trails on your own, it is helpful to have a person in charge. This person does not have to be controlling every move of the group but they should be responsible for safety and logistics. The leader might pick the details, like ride location, departure time, partners or working order, specific trail and return time. They should be familiar with the route or responsible for navigation. They might also be in charge of when the group goes at a faster or slower speed, appropriate for the terrain. The leader should leave word or note about the group at the stable or trail head or ranger station. They should also help with planning in emergency situations. Leadership does not have to be permanent, it can rotate over each occasion or season. Individuals serving in the leadership role should be experienced trail riders because of the responsibility it entails.
Communicate your plans.
Whenever we ride in open country we increase the difficulty of our ride. With that difficulty comes the chance that if something unsafe happens, there are less people around to assist. On your safety check-list, add the item “phone a friend” or “write a note” or “leave word.” Whichever phrase works best for you, remember to tell somebody. Include details such as location, start time, return time, route, number of horses, number of riders and emergency contact information. In emergency cases, you will be glad to have these items in place ahead of time.
Approach trails with group mentality.
Ever had that one horse and rider that can’t stay with the group? It’s annoying and unsafe, so work on it! By working as a group, issues like this can be corrected, making the experience more enjoyable and safe for all. The leader should be aware of all the horse and riders. Is one horse getting left behind or raging ahead? Leaders should be able to stop the group and wait or ask the last horse to catch up or first horse to come back. They might also send the slow horse out ahead or help that horse and rider team along to make things easier for the group as a whole. Horses are herd animals and will get nervous when left behind or alone in a group. Keep that in mind and plan accordingly.
Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Do you have many years of trail experience? Are you a beginning rider on your first ride? The trail ride is idealized, dreamt about by youth and adults and romanticized through American Western movies. Many riders dream of going down the trail, racing away from the scene of a crime, drinking beer and singing with their buddies or having a romantic ride with their love interest. All of these are possible but not probable scenes. The reality is that trail riding takes good horsemanship skills, awareness and sometimes work to be successful. As you and your equine partner get better together and have more experience, the rides will become easier. Part of making the ride easier is knowing what you do well as a team, what you struggle with and planning how you can succeed. If you are new to trail riding, ask other riders if there are things you and your horse could be doing better. Also, take mental note of things that you feel did not go well on the trail. Resolve to work on those items in a controlled area or with an instructor.
Plan for success.
Most of us don’t plan to be unsuccessful; however, we can do our best to ensure success! How can we plan for success? We can obtain knowledge by riding often in advance of a planned ride. We can work on our overall horsemanship skills so we are better prepared in case of emergency situations. We can pack appropriate gear for the ride. We can decide what challenges we are ready to take on and what challenges might take more preparation.
Have realistic expectations and goals.
If you are a new rider or are riding a new to you horse it is safer to start with a small trail ride instead of hauling out to the great unknown adventure. As an experienced trail rider, don’t expect to cover new terrain all on your own, enlist the help of others who know the area. Are you taking a young horse on a first trail ride? Expect to have challenges, be relieved if you do not. Seriously, young or inexperienced horses are one of the largest disruptive factors and provide many safety concerns on a group ride. Some young horses will handle their first trail rides with grace, others will not. If you are taking a young horse, I find it best to plan that ride with an older “Steady Eddy” horse or two. Complete several short and easy rides with that young / inexperienced horse prior to a large ride. Finally, know what shape your horse is in! If he/she has been standing in the pasture all winter long, chances are you won’t be able to expect the horse to complete a two- or three-hour ride.
What other good tips do you have for trail riding? Watch for my list of trail etiquette, safety and packing items. I’ll post it on my blog page as a resource for trail riders and further discussion. Happy Trails!
For over 10 years Melissa (Mel) Harms-Grossman has successfully trained horses for show at halter, reining, barrels, poles, ranch reining, trail, western pleasure and more recently ranch horse pleasure and western dressage. She enjoys starting colts, providing continuing education for started horses, finishing show horses & working to build confidence in trail horses. One of her most proud accomplishments is helping clients attain show goals of exhibiting at AQHA and FQHR World Shows. Mel trains horses at her own SunRunner Ranch in Buffalo, Minnesota.
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