Trail riding (or hacking out) can be a lot of fun, especially when you go out with a group of reliable friends. It’s also a good way to improve your horse’s fitness, expose him to different environments, and add some interest to his riding experiences.
It’s important ensure both you and your horse are mentally and physically prepared for the challenges of group trail riding before heading out on that ride.
Prepare and Practice
If your horse has no or limited experience trail riding, taking short hacks around the farm property outside of the arena will show you how your horse reacts in a slightly different environment. Some riders are also less confidence outside of an enclosed riding space, so this is also a good way to expand your comfort zone.
Expect and prepare yourself for him to be more excited than he is at home. Any training or behavioural issues you have at home will be magnified on the trail. You must be able to control your horse in walk, trot and canter. Your horse also needs to be able to halt, stand and back-up.
Your horse may also become overly excited in a group if he isn’t used to riding with other horses. Introduce him to riding with other horses at home. Pay attention to his level of excitement and take things slowly to avoid overwhelming him.
If your horse is comfortable being in a group, simulate trail riding with the horses walking in single file, keeping at least one horse distance between them. Adjust the distance if any horse shows signs of stress, fear or aggression towards another horse.
Practice passing each other applying trail etiquette. Pass at the walk, and let the rider in front know you’re going to pass. Practice passing and being passed on both sides, but mind that in an arena setting you should always pass on the inside rather than between the other horse and the rail.
Trail etiquette mandates passing on the left as long as there is room for the other horse to move over to the right side of the trail. Pass on the right only if the other horse can only move safely to the left side of the trail.
Planning Your First Group Trail Ride
Plan a short trail ride close to home with one or two trusted friends with experienced trail horses. This arrangement lets you see how your horse responds to being on the trail and how well you can handle him in this new experience.
Pick terrain that isn’t too challenging. Steep hills, rocky or muddy footing, water crossings, bridges, and narrow trails with no room to pass aren’t ideal for your initial rides.
How much and what type of traffic is on the trail? Are motorized vehicles (i.e. ATVs and trail bikes) allowed on the trails? If it’s popular with hikers, mountain bikers and/or dog walkers, you might want to give it a miss or select the less popular times to go.
Other safety considerations. Wear an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet. Make sure someone has a cell phone in case of an emergency. Consider using a trail riding app that has maps and tracks your location. Leave the dogs at home.
Set the ground rules before the ride:
- Length of time
- Type of terrain
- Only walking
- Opportunities for your horse to be in the middle, at the back and in the front
- Altering the ride if you or your horse become stressed
Once you and your horse are comfortable with short rides in a small group then you can take longer rides, try different trails or increase the group size. Only make one change at a time to avoid overwhelming yourself or your horse. Focus on making every ride a positive experience for both of you.
- Tie a red ribbon in your horse’s tail if he might kick if another horse gets close
- Pass at the walk and on the left (as long as there is room for the other horse to move over to the right)
- Move over to the right (as long as there is room) when being passed
- Never leave another rider behind
- Stop and wait if another rider is having difficulty with their horse, or has dismounted (and wait for them to remount)
Larger Group Rides
Ensure any group ride is a good fit for you and your horse by asking for information:
- The number of horses expected (the more horses, the more mentally challenging it will be for you and your horse)
- The level of riding ability required
- The general pace of the ride (the faster the pace, the more excited the horses can get)
- The type of terrain the ride will cover
- If stallions or green horses are permitted
- The safety rules in place
Preparing yourself and your horse ahead of time, choosing the right setting and the right riders will help you all enjoy riding the trails!