Trail Riding Advice

John Lyons addresses numerous common trail riding problems horse owners encounter on the trail, including going over fallen logs, streams, water crossings, through forests, leading and tying your horse, going uphill and downhill.

Trail riding is a time to enjoy your horse, nature and the company of friends. Of course, along with the fun, trail rides present a variety of challenges – from the lightning-quick appearance of bounding deer or a washed-out bridge, to a sudden ugly turn in the weather or your horse’s refusal to walk past a scary rock.

These challenges give you a chance to gain experience, expand your problem-solving skills, and improve your horsemanship. They also provide unparalleled opportunities for developing a better understanding of your horse, his responses, and various ways to educate him and increase his confidence.

Having a safe, satisfying trail ride requires knowledge, preparation and presence of mind. No, you can’t anticipate every situation you’re likely to encounter or every reaction your horse may have to particular circumstances. But, as John Lyons shows, you can take sensible precautions, follow best safety practices, and reinforce basic training principles with your horse. That way when you do hit the trail, you have an excellent chance of having a great time and handling anything that comes up.

1. Pay more attention to your horse than to the other horses.
You can’t control someone else’s horse, but you can control yours. The more out of control another horse gets or the more upset another rider gets, the more important it is for you to concentrate on your own horse.

Suppose that the rider in front of you is trying to convince her horse to step over a big log lying across the trail. The horse is uneasy about the log and frightened at the prospect of straddling it, so he throws himself into reverse and quickly starts backing toward you.

Give your horse a job to do so that he stays focused on your signals rather than on the upset horse and rider. The most logical job is to avoid a collision, so ask your horse to step well out of the other horse’s path and then keep his attention on you. Watch his ears closely; he’ll signal where his attention is going.

If it looks like he’s becoming distracted, give him another task. Ask him to walk around a bush or stop and then back up two steps. Your goal is to keep him (and yourself) from fixating on the excited horse and rider.

2. If you feel in danger, dismount.
Nothing says you have to go through with – or complete – a certain ride. If you’re feeling over-faced or worried, or you don’t like the way a situation is shaping up, it’s may be best to temporarily dismount or it may be time to end the ride.

There’s no dishonor in being afraid. In fact, fear is a good thing. It’s a self-preservation instinct designed to keep you from getting into trouble. If a storm is approaching and you think it’s unsafe – even if your friends insist you should keep going – listen to your instincts. If you start out on a neighbor’s horse and discover that you don’t have good control, be smart and forgo that particular trip.

Avoid Trail Trouble

Safety comes first, so don’t ignore your instincts or take unnecessary risks.

Ride with your own goals in mind without regard to peer pressure.

Keep it fun, and enjoy being with your horse.

Use the chances you find on the trail to teach your horse new cues or reinforce the ones he already knows.

Stay focused and be an active rider so your horse feels confident about taking his directions from you.

If your horse becomes reluctant or frightened, don’t turn it into a battle. Get home safely and work on skills so the next outing is better.

3. If you can’t ride across a scary object, don’t lead your horse across it.
When you try to lead a horse over something he’s afraid of, such as a stream or a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll try to jump over it. The risk is he may knock into you or jump on top of you in the process. A better choice is to find another way across or around the obstacle or to ride in another direction until you can find the appropriate opportunity to work with your horse and teach him to go across confidently.

Sometimes, riders think that they must get their horse across that stream or their horse will have “gotten away” with something. But all the spurs, tree-branch whips and hollering in the world won’t accomplish what you really need in this situation.

The horse isn’t getting away with anything if he doesn’t cross that stream today, and coercing him isn’t building any kind of foundation for cooperation or trust. By not forcing the issue, you’re showing good judgment. When he’s better trained, he’ll be ready to cross that stream willingly.

4. Enjoy your horse and his training first, and people second.
You should always keep your priorities in order. If you get wrapped up in socializing with the people on the trail ride to the exclusion of paying attention to your horse, you’ll be out of control. You won’t be able to see the subtle signs of doubt, confusion or distraction that are likely to become performance issues or problems with manners and responsiveness.

For example, while you’re catching up on all the latest news from the rider next to you, your horse may be establishing a dangerously close relationship with the hind end of the horse in front of you. Instead of occasionally noticing and yanking your horse back to increase his following distance, try working on little exercises such as baby gives to remind him to pay attention to your signals and walk at the pace you ask. By keeping your focus on your horse, you’ll be able to encourage the behavior you want instead of simply reacting after the fact.

5. Listen to the advice of other riders, but don’t necessarily follow it.
There’s no limit to what you can learn from the people you ride with, and it’s tempting to buy into the wisdom of those with a lot of experience. But not all advice is good advice. Even good advice might not necessarily apply to you.

If you’re working on teaching your horse the “calm down” cue as a building block to moderating his speed on the trail, for instance, someone might tell you to just run him up a hill or two to “get it out of his system.” Someone else might recommend her favorite bit as a cure-all. Or you might hear suggestions for supplementing your horse’s diet or performing deep breathing exercises to promote relaxation.

Be discerning about all the advice you’re given. After all, you’re ultimately the one who’s responsible for your own safety and for the well-being of your horse.

6. Take advantage of the teaching opportunities you encounter on the trail.
Don’t be afraid to take the time necessary to work with your horse. You’ll have a far more rewarding ride if you look for chances to train him along the way.

Take that stream crossing, for instance. A high-pressure, traumatic 10-minute effort to get your horse to the other side may get you down the trail more quickly, but it will probably be at the expense of your horse’s trust and his understanding of what you’re asking. If you take the time to teach the water crossing lesson – or even a tiny part of the lesson – you’ll have strengthened your partnership and may never have another problem crossing streams again.

7. Have your horse face potentially scary objects.
If you’re riding and sense something approaching that might frighten your horse, such as a school bus or a dirt bike, turn him to face the object and let it go by. If the object is behind him, he may think it’s going to chase him. An object that’s only half-glimpsed, or heard but not seen, is far scarier than a full view and the reassuring sight of it going away.

8. If it looks like your horse might bump you into an object such as a tree or fencepost, turn his nose toward it.
There’s a natural tendency to pull your horse away from an object when you think you’re going to sideswipe it, but that typically makes the situation worse. Suppose your horse is angling toward a tree on your right and you think your knee might get smashed into it. If you pull the left rein in an effort to move him away from the tree, you’re likely to move the horse’s body (and your knee) to the right instead. If you pull his nose to the right, he’ll move away from the tree, giving your knee enough clearance to avoid the bump.

9. If you’re leading a horse and losing control, let go of him.
Nobody likes having to find and catch a loose horse, but that’s a better option than getting hurt by hanging onto him. If you’re riding with other horses, he might decide to stay close to them instead of running too far off. It’s true that a loose horse may pose a risk – to himself and possibly to other people. But you have to consider your own safety first.

10. Don’t try to control someone else’s horse.
This is similar to John’s first tip: Keeping your own horse calm and under control is the most important thing you can do when someone else is having problems controlling theirs. Imagine that a rider is trying to keep his horse from spinning around and bolting or shying backward into a ditch. If you attempt to take hold of that horse, you may push him into full-blown retreat mode and alarm your own horse in the process. Only offer to pony someone’s horse if you’re sure you can do so safely. Both you and your horse must be experienced at ponying, and the horse to be ponied must be cooperative enough to follow the lead horse without putting anyone at risk.

11. Never, ever run after a runaway horse.
If you go chasing after a runaway horse, you’ll probably make him run faster. You might even drive him headlong into big trouble, such as through a fence, onto a road, over a cattle guard, or off the side of a mountain. You have little chance of catching him and every chance of panicking him. If you can, try making a wide circle and approaching from a different direction.

12. If a wreck is happening, stay out of the way so that you don’t make it worse.
Despite the urge to jump in and do something to help, there’s almost nothing you can do in the middle of a wreck to make things better – and there’s a good chance you could make things worse. For example, if someone is hanging on by a thread and looking for a safe place to land, the last thing you want to do is crowd into that space and reduce their options. Think about the safest and best way to help the people and horses involved after the activity settles down.

You can introduce or reinforce all sorts of learning as you ride your horse on the trail. But you should also do a lot of training at home to guarantee sufficient control and cooperation when you head out into a more stimulating environment. At a minimum, your horse should be responsive to the following requests.

Lead and tie without pulling. Many trail situations require you to get off your horse and lead or tie him. For instance, you might need to hop down to help another rider or move something out of your path.

Stand for mounting. You may have to get on your horse in less-than-ideal circumstances, such as standing on the side of a mountain. Your horse should stand when you ask him – and he should do it whether you’re getting on from the right side or the left.

Riding on Steep Terrain

Riding up and down hills presents its own challenges. For one thing, it’s more difficult to control your horse.

Imagine the difference between carrying a child piggyback clambering up a steep, slippery path compared to walking along a nice flat road. With your focus on the arduous task of getting up the hill, you might be less inclined to stop halfway up or to pay much attention to your passenger suggesting that you should turn a certain way or slow down. Remember that the better control you have with your horse on flat ground, the easier time you’ll have controlling him on hills.

If you have to get off on a steep trail, be sure to get off on the uphill side, whether that’s the right or the left side of the horse. (Here’s where it pays to practice mounting and dismounting from both sides.) If you step off on the downhill side, you have a longer drop and you could lose your balance. You might pull your horse off balance as well.

Going Uphill…
When you’re riding uphill, your horse will probably want to hurry – whether it’s a 10-foot embankment or a 10,000-foot mountain. He’s also not going to want to stop and stand at an angle, although that may be the safest thing to do. As he climbs, he will get increasingly tired, raising the chances for a misstep – especially if the footing deteriorates the higher up you go. Instead of letting him get worn out in a dash for the top of a long hill, stop and let him catch his breath several times along the way.

Before climbing a long hill, stop and think it through. Should you tackle the hill as a long series of switchbacks? Will you be able to turn around and come back down if necessary? Are you unsure of what you’ll encounter at the top? Maybe you need to find a longer but less-precipitous trail.

…And Down
When you’re heading downhill, make sure your horse doesn’t get going too fast. If he does, he’ll be like a runaway truck. The steeper the hill, the more frequently you should ask him to stop so that he can rebalance and you can keep his momentum from building. Think of it as testing the brakes.

Don’t lean too far forward or too far back. Look at the trees you’re riding past, and try to keep your back parallel with their trunks.

If you’re going downhill and the person in front of you is going more slowly, wait at the top before following. Give that horse and rider time and space to go at their own speed. If there are loose rocks, you certainly don’t want to send them down on top of your riding companions.

The better you can steer your horse by moving his shoulders and hips, the better the situation will be. If you steer his nose instead, pulling his head to one side or another, you’ll interfere with his balance.

Speed up cue. Any time you want your horse to go forward (e.g., over a fallen log or down a path away from home) or you want him to speed up, you should use a specific cue, kicking lightly with both legs until you get a noticeable change of speed. Many horses go forward easily – until they don’t want to. If that’s the case, more subtle cues, such as leaning forward, may be ignored.

Calm down cue. The calm down or “head down” cue allows the horse to calm down even when he’s excited, giving you a way to work on control when you most need it. Make sure your horse understands and responds to this cue before you take him into more exciting or distracting situations.

Hips over. By getting the horse to take a big step to the side with his hindquarters, you can turn him about 90 degrees. This is effective in preventing him from shying or bolting, and it also lets you slow him down by performing a series of hips-over maneuvers. This is an excellent way to keep your horse focused on you when you’re trail riding.

Spook in place. Teaching your horse to face something that startles him can keep him from spinning out from under you. It gives both of you a chance to regroup and assess the situation before reacting (or overreacting).

Sacking out. Make sure your horse is familiar with ropes, towels and various items around his head, hindquarters and feet. One classic scenario involves the simple act of pulling off a jacket or handing a water bottle to a friend. A horse unaccustomed to objects moving around above him like that is very likely to be frightened.

Trail riding is unquestionably one of the most satisfying and enjoyable ways to spend time with your horse. With a little planning and the right focus, you can be assured of great trail experiences that benefit both of you.

Sure, you can head out on the trail without giving a thought to the condition of your tack or what you’re taking along. But that’s just asking for trouble. A little preparation can make your ride more comfortable and a whole lot safer. Here are some items to consider.

Make sure all your tack is in good shape and that it’s comfortable and fits your horse well.

Don’t leave any essential items behind. (Have you ever assembled at a trailhead only to hear friends bickering about who forgot the cinch, the saddle blanket, or the bridle?)

If you’re riding in steep country, remember to bring a breast collar and/or crupper to keep the saddle from sliding out of position.

Consider bringing a spare. Depending on the type of tack you use, it may be wise to pack an extra girth, halter, or set of reins in case of equipment failure.

Take your own “equipment” needs into account, too. Dress in comfortable layers and pack extras (socks, gloves, a sweatshirt, a hat, etc.).

If you’re venturing out in unfamiliar territory, consider taking maps, compasses, GPS devices – or perhaps best of all, someone who knows the area like the back of his or her hand.

Food and Water
Even if you don’t expect the ride to last more than an hour or two, plan for it to be a longer outing. You could run into delays, become lost, or just decide to take the long way home.

Be sure you have sufficient water, snacks or complete meals for the riders. Bear in mind that your horse’s water needs (around 10 gallons a day under normal circumstances) could double or even triple on a demanding ride.

Never set out on a long ride unless you know for sure there will be a good water source for the horses. You can pack a concentrate mix for your horse to eat (beet pulp feeds are ideal) or hay cubes, but make sure it’s something he’s used to eating. You don’t want to introduce him to a new type of food out on the trail.

First Aid
Pack first aid supplies for horses as well as riders. You can assemble your own supplies or buy a commercial kit such as the EquiMedic Horn Bag Trail Riding kit (

You don’t necessarily want to pack for your trail ride as though you’re going to be marooned on a desert island for a year. However, certain items can come in handy without bogging you down too much.

A multi-tool knife is great to have and easy to carry. A cell phone is standard issue these days, even if you can’t get a signal from every spot along the way. (Remember to keep it on your person so that if you’re separated from your horse, you’ll still have it. Also, make sure it’s fully charged before you head out.) And of course, a flashlight, matches, poncho, sunscreen, insect repellant…you’ll know what to take if you’ve ever wished you had it on a previous ride.

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