Trail riding offers us the opportunity to see the world in a unique way, to enjoy the outdoors while enjoying the greatest sport on earth – horseback riding. Not only is it good for people to get out, see beautiful scenery, it is also great for the horse to have a change of pace. Of all the equestrian activities, trail riding is probably what most horses would choose to do if they were allowed to make a choice on what work they do. Most horses seem to enjoy going down the trail.
Basic necessities for safe, enjoyable trail riding include the following:
A capable horse
A horse that is trained well enough to be safe riding out on the trail – knows basic commands and is obedient under stress; doesn’t panic easily
The horse is fit enough for the work asked of him – you’ve done some basic riding and conditioning prior to going out on the trail
Tack that fits properly – it doesn’t matter if it’s English, western, endurance – just so it fits your horse well, does not interfere with him being able to move freely, and fits you as a rider also so that you, too, are comfortable. If you use a breast collar or crupper, make sure it’s fitted properly so that it doesn’t rub on the horse’s shoulders or between his legs. Use a saddle pad that provides enough cushion to protect the horse’s back but not one so thick and heavy that it creates a lot of heat under the saddle. Look through some good trail riding handbooks and tack catalogs for ideas and recommendations. A good rule to remember is to never, ever try out brand new tack or equipment on a long ride.
Tack and equipment that is safe. Don’t have a back cinch that hangs way down several inches below the horse’s belly where a branch or weeds may get caught in it, or worse, the horse’s foot when navigating a steep downhill. Don’t use a tie-down if you can avoid it – a horse that lies down in water can easily drown by not being able to get up when wearing a tie-down. These are just plain dangerous for the trail. Use the least amount of “stuff” possible – avoid “gadgets” – leave the draw reins for arena work, the headsets, etc.
Shoes or other protective foot gear is important. Don’t take a barefoot horse out on a rocky trail if he is not used to it. It takes a long time for stone bruises to heal, and your horse could easily suffer an abscess that will put him out of commission for weeks.
A capable rider
If you’re brand new to riding, don’t set out on the trail alone. Get some experience in the arena until you’re comfortable that you can easily control your horse, that you will not panic if your horse gets a little spooky, and know your horse well enough to know how he reacts under new circumstances. It’s never a good idea to go out alone on the trail anyway. Try to always go with a friend, for safety’s sake. Generally it’s not the natural obstacles or critters out there that you have to worry about; more often, it’s the two-legged monsters that you have to watch out for.
Be fit to ride – ride enough before you go on a trail ride so that you are fit enough to ride for a couple hours without feeling exhausted, sore, uncomfortable. Know your own limitations and don’t over exert yourself. Trail riding is supposed to be fun, not wear you out and make you miserable. Hurting is no fun.
Wear safe, comfortable clothing. Like new tack, don’t wear brand new boots or shoes, or tight jeans first time out. Murphy’s luck will have it – you’ll have to walk a nice long distance for some reason (horse throws a shoe, whatever) and you’ll end up with blisters on your feet.
Safety helmets are highly recommended. Not only do they protect your head if you should fall off, but for trail riding they are wonderful – you can skim under tree branches and not get scratched or have to worry about scraping your head. It’s just good common sense to wear a safety helmet.
Take drinking water for the ride. As with any other outdoor activity in NM, you need to always avoid getting dehydrated. Carry along a water bottle or two – always. There are lots of easy ways to pack water – you can find water bottle holders that attach to the saddle, or you can carry them in a fanny pack, or camelback if you’re going for a really long ride. I always preferred to carry a couple water bottles that I could balance in a fanny pack, easily accessible for me, no bouncing on the horse. Be careful about using large saddlebags filled with heavy items like water – these can bounce on your horse’s loins and make him very sore in a very short time.
Be prepared – use a cantle bag or similar to carry a rain poncho, small first aid kit, sunscreen, snacks, hoof pick.
Once you’ve discovered the pleasure of trail riding in small doses, you may be interested in trying some longer rides, camping out with your horse, maybe a competitive ride.
Competitive trail riding and endurance riding are both sports that demand a lot of both horse and rider. You have to spend a lot of hours in the saddle, riding lots of miles, preparing for the competition. These sports really test your skill as a horseperson as you go the distance, and your horse’s athletic ability and heart. When you have a good horse for a partner and a good trail to ride. When you are able to meet the challenge and finish the ride with a sound, happy horse that is ready to go out and do it all over again the next day, it’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment. There’s nothing like riding many, many miles to develop your skills as a rider. And there’s nothing like spending hours in the saddle to really get to know your horse.
Regardless of whether you have an interest in competing, or simply want to ride for pleasure, it’s wonderful to have a fit, well-conditioned horse.
Trail Riding, by Rhonda Hart Poe
Go the Distance, by Nancy S. Loving, DVM
The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, by Donna Snyder-Smith
Have Saddle, Will Travel, by Don West
NATRC Rider’s Manual
Cross Train Your Horse, Books One and Two, by Jane Savoie
For the Good of the Horse, by Mary Wanless
For the Good of the Rider, by Mary Wanless
Endurance and Competitive Trail Riding, by Linda Tellington-Jones
Ruth Bourgeois is an avid trail rider, distance and former competitive trail rider, and trails advocate who moved to New Mexico partly to enjoy the vast trail riding opportunities. Ruth lives in Taos, New Mexico with her four horses and is self-employed, doing web design and marketing ([http://www.myinternetmarket.com]). She is a founding member of the Equine Spirit Sanctuary, a horse rescue and sanctuary (http://www.equinespiritsanctuary.org).