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By Jennifer Humphrey

Trail riding is one of the most enjoyable experiences you can have with horses. It’s scenic, enhances the senses and gives you a taste of adventure. Horses react to trail rides much the same way we do. To be as safe as possible on the trail without more adventure than you anticipate or want, it’s best to understand the horse’s perspective and acknowledge the nature of horses.

By nature, horses are prey animals and almost everything else around them is a predator, including humans. When frightened, their first instinct and only defense, is flight. On the trail there are countless things to be frightened of, such as dogs, wildlife, other riders, bicycles, motorized vehicles, etc. When a horse is nervous or “spooky” on the trail, you shouldn’t punish it. You need to stay calm and keep the horse calm.

There are many steps you can take beforehand to help insure a safe, enjoyable trail ride. First and most important, is don’t overestimate your ability as a rider, especially with a horse you don’t know. Having an oversized ego will get you nowhere but on the ground, the hard way, not to mention putting other riders and horses at risk. If possible, get on the horse you are given and ride it around for a while. Get a feel for it and let it get a feel for you. If the horse is “forward”(spirited), you certainly don’t need to be kicking it. You do need to know how to control it. If the horse is very relaxed you need to trust it and not have a constant, tight rein.

Secondly, choose your leader or trail guide wisely. They should know horses and the trail. They should advise you about your horse’s personality and what the trail ride will involve. The horse should be tacked correctly. It is a necessary, common courtesy to ride to the level of the least experienced rider and/or horse. If someone in the group is a beginner or a horse is skittish, the trail ride is adapted to them.

Besides being prey animals, horses are also herd animals and their reactions on the trail will reflect that. In any herd there is a “pecking order” and competition. Some want to lead, some prefer to follow. Some will kick if another horse gets too close. If the horses on the trail ahead of you are going too fast or disappear around a corner, your horse will try to catch up. Call ahead to the rest of your group to come back to you. Better yet, don’t let it happen in the first place. If you feel that your horse is nervous and you need the help of your fellow riders to control it, communicate that to the group. Don’t take off at an unreasonable speed, especially from behind, without telling others of your intentions. And, never run your horse home or towards the barn as they quickly learn this behavior and you will have no control.

Much of the trail riding in our area involves climbing hills and mountains. Always negotiate steep inclines in a safe manner. If your horse is a slow climber, allow the others to go ahead to avoid a pileup on the hill. Never trot or canter downhill, as some horses that are not seasoned experts on the trail will take advantage of the slope by bucking or running away. It’s very important to keep your balance and the horse’s balance to protect both from injury.

This is only a short list of suggestions and cautions to insure a safe and fun trail ride. If you are taking an extended or overnight ride, there are numerous other considerations such as the weather, proper clothing, riding boots and rain gear, and necessities to pack including water, a hoof pick and first aid kit. Know what to do in emergency situations.

It is important to realize that trail riding requires a lot of thought and preparation. As long as you understand the dynamics, it is a very enjoyable pastime. Once you know what your horse’s natural comfort zone is, the better you can manage it and eliminate problems before they arise. Happy trails!

Jennifer Humphrey is an instructor, trainer and manager at Arrowhead Ranch in Santa Fe. She has been training and teaching horseback riding for over 20 years.

Note: This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 1999 issue.

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