In many ways, trail riding is the ultimate test of your partnership with your horse. You need to be prepared to face certain obstacles and encounters in an uncontrolled environment, often over unknown territory. Anticipating possible scenarios and practicing at home can help earn your horse’s trust and bolster your own confidence.
Professional photographer Shawn Hamilton has pursued her passion for exotic equestrian images by riding the wilderness all around the world from the Andes and Mongolia to the Rockies and Canada’s Atlantic coast. She shares the lessons she’s learned here.
Before you hit the trail, you should have developed a strong seat and clear communication with your horse; meaning he should move well and consistently off your aids. Once you have a solid base, you will be better prepared to take on any challenges that come your way.
Pre-Ride Practice Tips
- Choose a secure location to introduce obstacles.
- Be patient and introduce new obstacles gradually.
- Lead your horse to and/or through obstacles on the ground first before trying them mounted.
- Let your horse sniff or touch the objects and praise him when he does so.
- Walk over and/or around a plastic tarp, an old mattress, tires or logs laid out in an uneven pattern.
- Have a friend ride a bicycle, ATV, dirt bike, lawn mower or tractor around or near you and your horse.
- Design at home water crossings or small bridges and use puddles after rain to practice water crossings.
- Introduce your horse to dogs with the help of a friend. Each animal should have its own handler.
- Mount and dismount on both sides using logs, rocks and hills as mounting blocks.
- Trailer to a safe place that has obstacles to practice with if you do not have any at home.
- Take your jacket on and off while mounted.
- Carry saddle bags and open and close them often.
- Teach your horse to pony another horse and be ponied himself.
- Partner with a more experienced horse and rider so that your horse will pick up on their calmness and confidence.
- Remember that being afraid of things the first time is natural; be patient and reward any effort.
General Trail Guidelines
- Be sure that your horse is fit enough to handle what you plan to do with him.
- Wear safety gear such as a certified helmet, proper footwear and stirrups.
- Wear visible, bright clothes – a safety jacket or vest with reflective tape is best.
- Use safe tack and check it before mounting.
- Maintain a strong seat and be constantly aware of your surroundings.
- Avoid texting or talking on your phone, turning around to talk to others or wearing headphones.
- Engage your horse often by giving small aids to attract his attention throughout the ride.
- Always carry a map of an unfamiliar area in a waterproof bag, a compass, GPS, extra batteries and a cell phone.
- Stay on marked trails.
- If you are riding alone, let someone know when and where you are going.
- Plan your route so that you return in daylight.
- Stay calm, maintain confidence and be aware of your surroundings.
Tackling Trail Challenges
Water and Bridges
- Look at your destination beyond the obstacle, not at it.
- Follow an experienced horse. Put a young or less experienced horse in between two more experienced horses, providing comfort and confidence.
- Approach water at an angle, rather than perpendicularly, to dissuade your horse from jumping it.
- Make sure you are comfortable going over a bridge or crossing water mounted before asking your horse to do so, as he will pick up on your anxiety.
- Ask a trainer or confident rider to take your horse over a few times first if you are nervous, and/or borrow an experienced horse to increase your confidence before passing your concerns to your horse.
- Remain at a walk to avoid slipping or spooking.
- Do not “pick a fight” on an obstacle that can lead to injury if the horse reacts in an unsafe manner.
- Get off and lead your horse if that is more comfortable for either of you.
- If you know there is going to be water and/or a bridge on the trail, try to plan your approach so that you come across it on the way home, taking advantage of your horse’s instincts to get back to the barn.
- Check cinch/girth and other tack before attempting steep slopes.
- Dismount if steepness or slipperiness is dangerous.
- Help maintain your horse’s balance by leaning forward on the uphill and back on the downhill.
- Remain at a safe pace when riding up or down hills. Allowing your horse to always run up or down hills will create a habit that will be difficult to break and may cause injury.
Blocked Path (fallen branches, eroded path etc.)
- Dismount and secure your horse by either tethering with a halter and lead or bitless bridle, have another rider dismount and hold both horses or hold the reins yourself while removing the blockage.
- Do not remove brush or other objects rapidly toward your or other horses causing them to spook.
- Carry a fold up saw that can be used to remove branches that will not break.
- If it is unsafe to pass, turn around or go around.
Riding on Roads
- Be highly visible. Put a colourful quarter sheet on your horse with reflective tape. Reflective leg bandages are also effective.
- Time your ride to avoid riding at dawn or dusk when visibility is poor.
- Get your horse used to traffic gradually and in a controlled environment.
- Ride single file on the shoulder in the direction of traffic.
- Obey all traffic signals and indicate your intent to stop, cross or turn.
- Cross roads directly across the traffic and, if in a group, cross all at once.
- Choose roads with wide shoulders.
- Turn your horse to face noisy unfamiliar vehicles.
- For spooky objects such as garbage bins, flapping tarps, dogs in yards, safely cross to the opposite side of the road to avoid being spooked into traffic. Busy roads are not the place to introduce your horse to new objects safely.
Vehicles (ATVS, motorbikes, bicycles)
- Move to a safe spot off the trail if vehicles are approaching. Face your horse toward the oncoming vehicle.
- If cyclists and/or drivers stop to let you pass, ask them to speak to you, allowing the horse to recognize them as human. If necessary, ask motorized vehicle drivers to remove their helmets.
- Be aware that once you have passed stopped motorized vehicles, their engines will start up again. Face your horse toward the vehicles so he can see where the noise is coming from.
- Slow to a walk when approaching other horses from behind.
- Make yourself known when approaching.
- Pass in single file, on the left, at a walk.
- Let others know if your horse has tendencies to kick or bite other horses.
- Do not allow your horse to come nose to nose with other horses on the trail; this may spark a front leg strike.
- Face your horse toward the dog if it is running toward you. This can help establish your space and protect your horse’s hind legs from dogs with a herding instinct.
- If you take your dog out onto the trails, make sure he is always under control and respect other users of the trail.
Culverts and Underpasses
- Speak out as you pass through or beneath dimly lit/dark spaces so others coming toward you know you are there.
- Ride in single file, on the right side, at a walk.
- Carry a headlamp if you know culverts are on the trail.
Bees and Wasps
- Avoid dry, un-travelled trails in the fall where bees tend to nest.
- Have a group plan and a code word such as “bees!”
- If you stir up a wasp nest, get out as fast as you safely can. Yellow jackets can follow you aggressively for up to two miles. If the swarm is in front of you, reverse and go. If it is behind you, go forward even if it means splitting up the group.
- If your horse is bucking and you cannot stay on, then safely dismount, grab the reins and go away from the nest.
- Deer are easily spooked, so be prepared for sudden movement when they decide to run from you.
- If your horse is nervous, try to put a more confident horse between you and the deer.
Moose, Elk, and Predators
- Make noise on the trail when riding in wilderness areas to avoid sneaking up on an animal and startling it.
- Moose and elk can be more aggressive than deer. If you spot them on the trail, back away slowly and calmly, and do not run.
- Wear bear bells on your horse. Most predators will try to avoid you.
- Wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and black bears prefer to avoid humans. Grizzlies can be more unpredictable.
- Look large to a bear by putting your horse sideways to them and putting your jacket above your head.
- If riding in grizzly territory, carry bear spray and know how to use it properly and avoid spraying your horse.
- Mountain lions will generally slip away but if one does stand its ground, slowly and quietly back away.
- Carry all first aid, maps, cell phone etc. on you in the case that you and your horse get separated.
- A bridle or saddle tag on your horse with contact information will help for a safe return of your horse if you are separated.
- Keep your arms close to your body when falling to avoid hand, wrist and arm injuries.
- Kick your feet out of the stirrups.
- Tuck your head, legs and arms into your body and roll when you hit the ground to avoid being stepped on.
- Hold onto the reins only if it won’t prevent you from keeping your arms close to your body.