Trail Etiquette Equals Safety

Learn how to increase you and your horse's safety when trail riding.

Have you ever been on a trail ride enjoying a relaxing jaunt in the woods, only to have another rider come galloping past your horse without so much as a “hey howdy” or “here we come”? As your horse becomes nearly uncontrollable, you probably have a few choice words about the rude and dangerous rider who has not learned the finer points of etiquette while riding with others.

Though Webster’s dictionary defines etiquette as “rules governing socially acceptable behavior,” a code of ethics while riding in a group of horses is even more important because it can determine the safety of other riders and their horses. These ethics can be broken down into horse manners, rider manners and equipment.

Horse Manners
No horse can have good manners on the trail unless he is properly trained to do so. The same bad manners in a horse at home make him a poor trail companion. The unexpected on the trail magnifies the problems of kicking, biting, running away, crowding other horses, bucking and rearing.

In order to put good trail manners on your horse, you will need to practice the following lessons in an area around home so that distractions are at a minimum and your horse can learn the cues you are trying to teach him. Trail riding in a group has a way of “un-training” your horse, so his lessons must be well learned in order for them to work on a trail ride, where he (and you) most need them.

Give to the bit. Giving to the bit is the beginning of your horse having brakes. So practice this cue until your horse will give every time you ask without resistance.

Hips over. As the horse takes a big step to the side with his hindquarters, he ends up turning about 90 degrees. If he will do that, you can limit his ability to bolt forward or shy easily, and you can slow or stop him by making a series of 90-degree turns.

Head down/calm down cue. The head down cue allows the horse to calm down even when he’s excited. It gives you a way on trail to gain control when you most need it. (See “Calm Down Now” in the September 2002 issue of Perfect Horse.)

Trail Trekking Tips

• Prepare your horse at home for situations he will encounter on the trail.
• Follow the instructions of the trail boss.
• Always let riders know you are passing them, and don’t pass the lead horse or lag behind the “drag” horse.
• Be on the lookout for and respectful of hikers, joggers, cyclists, and motorcyclists on multi-use trails.
• Place a red ribbon in the tail of a horse who kicks, a green one for a novice and a yellow one for a stallion.

Spook in Place. Teaching your horse to face something that startles him can prevent him from spinning out from under you, and keeps the scary thing in front of him instead of behind him, where he views it as chasing him. (See “Headed for the Trail” in the October 2002 issue.)

Using these four cues can help you get out of nearly any sticky situation on the trail. They also will form the basis for you to work on any bad habits your horse may have that would pose a threat on the trail.

If you normally ride alone in an arena at home, practice riding with other horses. If you can work with others in the arena, you can get your horse used to riding behind and in front of other horses. That may also alert you to behavioral quirks your horse may have with others, allowing you time to work on them before heading for the trail.

Working with your horse at home will pay off. Other riders will appreciate the control you have over your horse, even if he is acting frisky or frightened. His trail “manners” will improve every time you take him on the trail with others, and you may be able to avoid serious trail accidents if he knows his lessons well.

Rider Manners
Since riders are responsible for the decisions they make regarding not only their safety, but the safety of their horses and the others around them, it is critical that they be aware of the general rules of the trail. Regardless of whether you are on an organized pleasure or benefit ride, or out with a small group of friends, you need to be aware of the riding abilities of those you are with, and the level of training the least experienced horse and rider has.

Imagine how frightening it would be to have never taken your horse out of a walk on a trail ride, only to have the whole group you are riding with take off cantering. You would most certainly be in for a wild ride.

An organized group trail ride will likely have a trail boss. The first rule of etiquette on an organized ride is to listen to the trail boss. The decisions that person makes while out in the woods can mean the difference between an accident or a safe and enjoyable ride. The trail boss is responsible for knowing the trail conditions and distances, as well as setting a safe speed.

Do not pass the lead rider unless instructed to do so. Also, do not fall behind the “drag” rider without letting him know you are doing so.

Wait until all riders have had a chance to mount and settle on their horses before riding out. Most horses will want to move off when the group leaves, and a horse feeling he’s being left behind could cause him to buck his rider off.

Whether riding on an organized ride or a group pleasure ride, don’t separate yourself from the other riders or drift off the trail without letting someone know. Notify the trail boss or another rider if you or someone near you is having a problem with their horse or tack.

Never pass another horse at any gait (especially the gallop) without notifying the rider you are doing so. It is best not to pass in a fast manner at all, since it is a sure invitation to get kicked or crowded off the trail, as well as possibly causing the other rider’s horse to get upset.

Maintain one horse-length distance between each horse to avoid being kicked or bitten. If you cannot control your horse enough to maintain the distance, politely ask the other rider to move out of the way at the first safe opportunity, then move your horse an appropriate distance from the other horses.

Walk up and down hills or gullies. Most horses by nature want to use momentum to carry them up the other side of a steep hill or gully, so they will prefer to rush down and back out again. Many times they will run right into the horse in front of them.

Also, do not stop at the top of the hill when another rider is behind you. If the horse behind cannot get enough momentum to get out of the gully or up the hill, their only choice may be to go back down again dangerously, risking a fall.

Call back to other riders of hazards in the trail such as holes, drop-offs, wire on the ground, low branches, rattlesnakes or cars. Do not hold onto branches as you go under or past because this causes the branch to sling back into the face of the next rider or horse.

If you must hand-walk your horse, do so at the back of the pack, and only after letting another rider know what you are doing and why.

Walk across pavement. Usually steel-shod hooves and pavement don’t mix well, and you don’t want to end up in a heap on the asphalt.

Wait until all horses have had a chance to drink before riding away from a watering spot. Most horses won’t stay and drink their fill once the group has moved away from them. On long rides, it is imperative that horses have adequate chances to drink plenty of water.

Respect the property you are riding on. Pack out everything you bring in, and never litter. Do not disturb the land in any way. Littering or land destruction can be a certain way to lose trail-riding privileges on both private property and government lands. Follow the rules that property owners and government parks set. Rules are usually put in place for the safety of you, and your horse and the protection of the land.

Leave gates as you found them. You would not want to be responsible for letting livestock out onto roads or other people’s property.

Bear in mind that many trails are multi-use. You might be sharing them not only with fellow riders, but with hikers, joggers, cyclists and motorcyclists. Often, these people aren’t familiar with how to act around horses, so it’s best to either give them the right of way or plenty of forewarning that you’re coming. You may also have to prepare your horse at home for these types of distractions.

Be aware that normal movements, for instance, removing your jacket while you’re in the saddle, could frighten another person’s horse. The same is true of simple things like handing a water bottle or sandwich to another rider. Also, be aware that while you may be able to talk on your cell phone and ride, your horse could well drift into a space where he’s bugging another horse or rider, crowding up to the horse’s hindquarters or hogging the trail.

Equipment Considerations
Check all your tack before leaving on a trail ride. Tack problems in remote areas not only pose safety hazards, they can spoil the day’s ride for you and fellow riders. Be sure to carry spare parts such as leather or nylon straps, an all-purpose Leatherman tool or knife, large “zip ties” (plastic pull wraps used mainly by electricians), and a lead rope/halter.

Place a red ribbon in the tail of a known or suspected kicker. That tells riders approaching from behind that your horse may kick or otherwise display dangerous behavior to other horses. You may also place a green ribbon in the tail of a novice or green horse. Though the ribbon alerts riders about your horse’s experience, it doesn’t relieve you of responsibility to control your horse. Not kicking another horse or rider is your responsibility. Keep your horse busy and focused on your signals and he won’t have time to react to the other horses.

Place a yellow ribbon in the tail of stallions, and keep them under control at all times. The danger factor to others increases considerably with stallions on the trail, so be sure your horse has adequate training.

Riding with Common Sense
Most accidents or challenges on the trail can be avoided by using these common sense approaches to good manners and etiquette. Remember to be polite to other riders and your horse while enjoying the countryside. Keep a positive attitude even while things are not going exactly as planned, and you will find that you can enjoy a pleasant ride with a group of fellow horsemen on your perfect horse.