Can you remember the exact moment you made the decision to be a trail rider? Can you remember why you made that choice? Sometimes we follow our hearts because that is where we feel called to pursue a pleasure or activity.
When we trust our heart we usually are very satisfied with our choice, but other times, our choices may be made for different reasons like disappointments from previous efforts leading to impulsive decisions or high expectations. That can be the start of a cycle of more confusion and let downs. Other times it’s from an honest appraisal of our current abilities that range from mental to physical and even emotional strengths or weaknesses.
Did trail riding become your choice because you didn’t feel fit enough or your horse wasn’t in shape to be a sport horse? Was it the pressures of showing or the grinding of egos in the world of competition?
Whatever the reason, they needn’t be negative, impulsive, or capricious to justify being a trail rider. Trail riding is fun, challenging, serious, fulfilling, and great for horses, people, and one’s soul. Horses benefit from trail riding tremendously, and there are fitness benefits that include both mental and physical components. So, let’s examine the questions further.
Does your horse need to be fit?
In one answer yes, but if you occasionally ride or sporadically exercise, it won’t hurt you or your horse to leisurely travel down some trails. But, when we add the philosophy of safe, effective horsemanship, your trail riding experience is determined by your preparation and commitment.
Injury is always a consideration when riding to you and your horse. To avoid any potential for problems, build up to trail riding like you would any exercise program. Sore muscles can lead to torn muscles and pain can be a distraction for an accident. Start off slow and include stretching routines after you warm-up. These include stretches for you and your horse’s legs, neck, and back. There are currently good books on horse stretching exercises and fitness tips for riders as well as horses.
Start by creating a trail course at home. This helps you relate to obstacles, water crossings, flapping objects, and unexpected changes. Depending on how challenging the trail ride is your horse, like any athlete, needs time to adjust to be able to perform and stay injury free. Be a mindful rider, and build up to a good safe level of consistent riding. His legs and lungs will burn and ache like yours do when you first start a fitness program. Don’t worry, horses adapt pretty fast to consistency, and they prefer movement over doing nothing. They may be lazy, but horses like to experience new things, too.
Your horse will need to get his bearings just like you do.
By learning to ride together over time creates bonding, knowledge, and trust. Pressures on the trail range from small to extreme. Small pressures can be forgetting a bit, having enough saddle pads, water buckets, a flat tire, or feed and grain.
*Note: National parks currently prohibit hay or grain. You’ll need a complete feed like Purina makes. It prevents the introduction of non-native plant species.
Medium pressures can be a thrown shoe or split hoof. Bring an Easy Boot, duct tape, and a few farrier supplies (extra shoe, nippers, rasp) in your saddle bags. These tools can offer a quick fix to get you and your horse back on the trail. Some equine first aid can help with cuts, scrapes, stings, or unexpected occurrences. Betadine, small bottles of clean water, and two rolls of vet wraps, or rolled up ace bandages fit easily into saddle bags for emergency use if you’re on the trail and away from an equine first aid kit.
Large pressures go like this, your horse slips in the trailer. Don’t panic. Often, they lose their balance due to slick trailer flooring. All trailers need to have rubber mats. If they’re down, try to avoid getting in the actual trailer with the horse. Try loud verbal cues like smooching or saying up! UP! If this doesn’t work try hazing with a rope, whip, or stick. Open the trailer door if you’re in a safe, traffic free zone. Often, they’ll scramble to their feet, and except for some scrapes, they will be fine but shaken. Often tying horses too short, especially in stock trailers, will cause them to lose balance because they can’t move their head. Carry a sharp pocket knife with a serrated edge and cut ’em free. Getting in the trailer is way too risky, and it should be avoided at all costs.
I’ve seen horses flipped upside down, sideways, and balled up like a baby, and they all survived without mishap. It’s amazing how strong and flexible they can be. However, like an atomic jack in the box, they can explode up and out so be careful.
Trailer breakdowns are tricky. Flat tires happen without warning. Use proper maintenance and regular inspections to avoid these things. In the event they happen, don’t panic, and don’t take your life in your hands in any kind of traffic or on the side of the road. The best thing to have next to a cell phone is road side assistance programmed in your phone. Let them come and help, and the dues will pay for themselves. If you never need it, great, but you will always have a back-up to help in sticky situations.
Trail riding can be great therapy for you and your horse. Like any riding, it comes with pressures and the possibility of stressful situations, but if you’re prepared, you can make the tense situations part of the overall experience. It is a good feeling to know you can make it back from the trail everyday with horse and rider intact with another enjoyable trail ride under your saddle. On the trail with your horse is a time to enjoy riding while exploring possibilities of the two of you raising your skill level.
Would principles of dressage such as proper form, balance, and poise improve the quality of my trail riding experience?
Sure it would, the whole idea behind trail riding is to build a great partnership with yourself and your horse. His performance improves through fun and fitness challenges. Dressage is truly about refined training. Not ripping through the woods on trails like a pony express rider. That’s what gave four wheelers a negative and dangerous reputation.
Do you need to be an accomplished rider, and is it okay to ride alone?
a. It’s bewildering to me how often people quickly exclaim how many years they’ve been riding and therefore feel justified in claiming experience. Time in the saddle does count for experience, but time in the saddle in lessons, clinics, and challenges build better understanding because you are experiencing both how to learn and even how to teach and train your horse or any horse how to process the things you want them to learn.
b. I’m not a big fan of doing a lot of riding alone. The risk factor is too high, and it’s not worth it if you take your life seriously. Like swimming alone, it is safer with a buddy or lifeguard watching out for you.
Does my tack need to be of special design or custom made?
My belief and my life with horses have shown me that to enjoy a quantity of good experiences, invest in quality so they stay that way. Saddle fit is of paramount importance. Light weight saddles are a great consideration, but cheap plastic and nylon rigs won’t hold up or support safe riding so don’t even kid yourself they will. English saddles or western saddles are fine. Each offer different benefits, and again this comes with experience and personal preference. I use both, and it is often determined by the horse I’ll ride or the duration of the ride. Good handmade saddles can make a big difference in the way you fit your horse, and the way it fits him. But, on a fitness consideration if you’re overweight, and out of shape, don’t expect your horse to be happy no matter what type of saddle you ride. Take responsibility for your fitness like you want him to for his.
Do lead changes, side passing, weight distribution, turns on the haunches, half-seat, and half-halt matter in trail riding?
Definitely, because they can help keep you safer on the ride. Controlling the feet, body, and direction of your horse helps both of you get a better feel for the trail.
A trail ride is no different than any other ride. Safety is the first priority. It may not be in an arena with fences or walls but trees, drop-offs, hillsides, and water are still things you want to avoid running into.
Let’s make this year where horseman everywhere start raising their awareness and understanding of safe, responsible horsemanship. Like not littering the trail with trash, let’s clean up our spills and enjoy a pretty trail and trail ride.
Until then, Be wise, let life guide the ride.
Robert M. Liner