In our recent summer articles we’ve talked about where to ride, what tack and accessories your horse will benefit from, rider tips and assorted other trail-related matters, but how do you know if you’re really ready to head out on the trail?
Let’s take a look at our top 10 list of must-have skills to ensure that you and your horse are ready to have a safe, enjoyable and comfortably in-control outdoor adventure. Answer "yes" to these questions before you say "yes" to a trail ride!
1. Can you trot in wide open spaces? While many recreational trail riders simply walk along the trail, Shauna Norton Hatch, respected local trainer and owner of the popular Nayborhood Pony Farm in Lindon, UT, suggests that all riders be able to long trot their horses in an open pasture, maneuvering in straight lines, diagonal patterns and negotiating natural obstacles well before embarking on even a simple trail ride. This practice will go a long way toward developing the confidence of both the horse and rider, advises Hatch.
2. Can you do an emergency dismount? All reputable trainers who encourage their students to explore outdoor environments insist on the mastery of the emergency dismount. Riding instructor and barefoot hoof practitioner Meisja Wagner helps students of all ages increase their confidence and dexterity by practicing this move in the arena before taking the skills to the pasture, and then, eventually, out on the trail.
3. Will your horse go through water? Even if you don’t have access to a pond or stream near your regular riding place, you can always create a small water way or puddle with the aid of a hose. Make sure your horse will calmly and willingly step in water before you go outside of your home base. They may need to look at, smell and touch it first (that’s okay) but they should be able to calmly negotiate a reasonable amount of still or moving water.
Practice with patience at home before expecting any horse to perform out on a trail.
4. Can your horse step over an obstacle? Out on the trail you’ll encounter rocks, brush, logs and an assortment of other things that will require that your horse know where his feet are and how to pick them up. You can practice these skills as well at home, starting on the ground (using a longe line) before asking your horse to step over them with the addition of your weight in the saddle.
5. Will your horse jump over an obstacle? As with the stepping-over task, you can accustom your horse to jumping over objects while you’re on the ground, using a longe line to guide and control him. If you then feel comfortable having the horse jump over obstacles while you’re in the saddle, that’s great too, and it can be a lot of fun! Be sure to stand in your stirrups, weight down in your heels and grab a little mane so you won’t slam down onto the horse’s back or injure his mouth with the bit and reins as he lunges over and lands.
6. Has your horse encountered wildlife (or at least another species)? Most equestrians in urban environments don’t have moose, deer or fox at their barn. However; you can still accustom your horse to the site, scent and movement of other species. Make sure they are at least comfortable around dogs. Given the opportunity to introduce them to sheep, goats, poultry or any other animal, please do so.
7. Are you and your horse comfortable with motion at varying heights? When on the trail, birds may fly suddenly out of the brush, breezes will move branches, rabbits and other small animals may run across your path. You can use assorted exercises and groundwork at home with the aid of plastic bags, ropes, balls and equine toys to help them get used to a number of actions at varying heights within their field of vision. Make sure you don't over react to such things, too! Remember, your horse takes his cues from his leader (that's you).
8. Can you walk, trot and canter bareback, without stirrups? While you may not be doing these things on your trail ride, such skills ensure that you have a good and reliable seat on your horse. Riding bareback at all gaits calls upon balance that will help you stay centered on your horse should he spook or balk at something startling and, if the horse runs off and you lose a stirrup or get jostled about a little in the saddle, you’re more likely to stay aboard. All these factors add up to increased confidence, and confidence is essential for relaxation.
9. Does your horse respect you as his leader? If not, don’t bother walking out of the round pen. If you’re not the leader, your horse has to be. Do you want to be on the back of a 900+ pound animal in a foreign, possibly fear-inducing environment, left to the whims of his better (reactive, prey animal) judgment as to how situations should be dealt with? I hope you said no. As in the arena, at all times, you want to be seen as a calm, confident, benevolent and entirely trustworthy leader. The respect that’s generated from such a relationship will play a significant role in a successful and rewarding experience for you both once you head off into new adventures.
10. Is your horse sound? Most of us make a practice of running our hands down the horse’s legs before picking up his feet to clean them. Watch for signs of soreness or tension in the legs and feel for unusual bumps or abrasions. Are his feet in good repair? No chips, cracks? Does she have sturdy, healthy soles? Feel along your horse's back, shoulders and haunches as you groom; there too you need to be aware of any soreness. If your horse is unwell in any way, don’t ride him. A brief jaunt at a walk, at home on soft, even footing may be okay, but you certainly don’t want to ask a horse that’s not in optimum health to negotiate the terrain of a trail. Always consider the horse’s well-being first.
When you can emphatically and honestly answer YES to these ten basic questions, you should be ready to safely head out onto the trail. Have fun and enjoy your ride!