The show season may be coming to an end, but many Utah horse owners enjoy fall and winter fitness out on the trail.
If you’re inclined to venture into the great outdoors, consider our list of twenty-one simple tips to enhance your fun and make any outing as pleasant as possible for both you and your horse. Compiled from assorted reliable resources, both professional and amateur, plus a handful of personal hands-on experiences, we hope you find a suggestion or two to help improve your own trail treks.
1. Spend some time in a safe, enclosed area (round pen or arena) introducing your horse to objects that you may encounter on the trail (bushes, branches, logs, bicycles, dogs, etc.) before expecting him to confidently manage new sights and sounds out on the trail.
2. Experts like famed clinician Clinton Anderson advise introducing young, green horses to trail situations with either a very solid and experienced horse, or alone. Never take two (or more) green babies out together. They will only feed off of one another’s fears.
3. Always start with SHORT, manageable excursions before asking your horse to make a longer trek.
4. If you may be riding near traffic, make sure you’ve first introduced your horse to motor vehicles in an area where you can control her from the ground (example: your barn’s parking lot)
5. Make sure your steering and brakes are working before you leave home. If your horse won’t willingly turn left and right, stop, back up and listen to your directives in a comfortable, known environment, you’re unlikely to get (and keep) his attention out on the trail. Control is imperative. Don’t leave home without it!
6. Respect space. Don’t crowd the horse in front of you or the rider beside you. Getting too close is just asking for an accident.
7. Never break into a fast trot or canter without first making sure others in your group are equally comfortable at the same gait.
8. If your group stops for a water break, allow all the horses to drink before riders start to head out. (Some horses will become anxious and refuse to hydrate if they’re worried about being left by the herd).
9. Help your horse refocus if he becomes anxious or tries to rush ahead. Gentle, calm lateral flexion or riding in small circles may help bring the horse’s attention back on you.
10. Head up, heels down, breathe. Tension often leads riders to curl into a fetal ball, launching their body precariously forward. If your heels tip up your body will again tip forward. Holding your breath is generally counter-productive. Keep breathing, look up and put those heels down to create a more confident, in-control and secure seat on the horse.
11. Don’t be too proud to get off and regain control on the ground. If a situation is making you anxious, your horse is going to feed that anxiety back to you 100-fold. It may be best to occasionally dismount and regain your composure and/or your horse’s attention from the ground.
12. Don’t second-guess your instincts. If a route looks in any way dangerous or compromising, look for an alternate path. If your initial thoughts suggest you’re putting yourself and your horse at risk by negotiating an obstacle or tricky terrain, try to find an easier way around.
13. Wear a helmet!
14. Pack first aid supplies and as much water as you can comfortably carry. A little snack is a good idea, even for a short trip.
15. Be visible. Wear something bright and – if you may be out after dark – reflective accessories or a light can be helpful as well.
16. Carry your cell phone on your body (in a pocket or fanny pack). That way, should your horse decide to go on his own adventure, you still have a source of communication that’s close at hand.
17. Don’t ride beyond what your fitness level, or your horse’s level of conditioning, can enjoy.
18. Make sure someone knows where you’re going.
19. Tie accessories (rope, rain jacket, blanket) securely onto your saddle. Hall of Fame cowboy Craig Cameron always tells riders not to have things flopping around where they can catch on a branch, startle your horse (or others) or impede a quick dismount.
20. Don’t litter.
21. Apply plenty of bug spray before you hit the trail. (important for both humans and horses alike).
Naturally, there are probably 100 other helpful ideas out there as well. Safety and preparation are always key in making any horseback experience as enjoyable as possible. Happy trails, everyone!