There are several types of trail rides and the following suggestions and reminders will apply to nearly every type. If you are hosting a ride try to inform your guests as to what to expect in the way of terrain, water and/or graze, and length of ride. Whether you're in a group that will be riding in the fields next to an arena, following neighborhood trails and road ways, using the Parks & Recreation areas, or heading for the back country and doing some 'bush poppin'; a little thought prior to taking off can help avoid hurt feelings and make for a safer ride. After all, isn't a bunch of happy faces and a "Let's do it again" at the trail's end what it's all about?
By the way, a rule of thumb, the lead rider is responsible for removing all the spiders and their webs as you travel down the trail. Also the last rider is bear-bait while everyone else heads for the tall timber. You can draw straws for these two jobs.
Just some short reminders before you head out. If your group will be riding in an area that requires trailering, be sure there is ample parking places and that everyone understands, like you, that road apples must be removed before heading home again and pawed out holes refilled. Ask permission to cross any private lands before hand so other routes can be checked out if permission is denied. If your trail leads through a gate, be sure to leave it the way you found it. If you need to use a map for the area you'll be traveling in, be sure you or someone in the group knows how to read a map and figure where you are on the map. Map reading classes are fun… really. Don't forget your raincoat. Remember, too, that a trail ride is no place to try out new equipment for the first time.
Of course horse tack is a personal preference, however remember the old saying, 'must have a burr under his saddle'. Seasoned trail riders will tell you those fuzzy blankets, breast bands, and cinch covers collect leaves and twigs, alder berries, and lots of other junk, not fun for your horses back, belly, or chest. It would also be best to leave the rear cinch at home as branches can get caught in them causing some unpleasant horse activity and possibility an injury. When doing a lot of 'bush poppin', tapaderos will keep limbs and such out of your stirrups. You should have easily accessible, on your person or saddle, a sharp knife, hoof pick, lead rope, halter (if you're not using a bridle/halter combo), and bug dope for yourself and your horse, among other gear. Please, do not carry firearms unless you are proficient in their safe use. It would be nice if someone has a cell phone along. These are a really great convenience that many of us old-timers would have enjoyed years ago. However, have it turned off or set to a silent signal so as not to spoil a quiet ride.
A simple first-aid kit for both horses and people should be carried along and more than one person should know how to use it. Is anyone allergic to bees? Did they bring their bee sting kit? Does one or more in the group know where it is located and how to administer it? Okay, I'm rambling and getting into first-aid know-how, so back to the main subject.
A recent unscientific survey as to the major cause of aggravation and unhappiness during trail rides came back 99% for one major gripe. It seems that slow riders dislike being left behind and fast riders grumbled about the lagers. There are two solutions to this major problem. One: slow riders should make an effort to speed up their horses and fast riders should make an effort to teach their horses to slow down. Two: if there are enough riders in the group so no one is alone, split into two separate groups and enjoy the ride with those of the same pace. And third but not last: stay home and pout.
Did I just say there where two solutions? Well, your being an equestrian like myself, I'm sure you know that if you put two horse folks together and ask a question you will get 3 or more answers. Now back to some dos and don'ts while on the trail.
Remember voice commands to your horse may be great when riding alone, but in a group someone else's horse may think you are talking to it. So try to use leg pressure when speeding up and reins when slowing down. If someone needs to stop to adjust tack or visit the bushes don't take off and leave them. This might be a good time for you to also check your tack as it should be checked after about a mile down the trail and also before going either way on steep hills. If you must fulfill an urgent need to dart ahead of the group, be sure to alert everyone before you take off so they can get their horses in hand and remember while you're way out in front, conversation will be going on behind your back.
If your trail crosses the highway, you should cross as a group. If you are a small group and space allows, gather everyone safely along side the highway and cross all at once. If you have a large group or little space to stretch your line of horses then you should cross in smaller groups. Be sure not to split up buddies to avoid a horse bolting across the highway. Wait for everyone to be safely across before starting on down the trail. If your horse might spook at the sound of hooves on pavement, dismount and lead them across. Also, there have been horses that have put on quite a dance when reaching the painted center lines of the highways, so be prepare should yours think it marks a fence or might be a snake. Again dismount and lead if in doubt. This advice also applies to bridges. When traveling over bridges, stay to the center. Footbridges and wooden footpaths in sensitive areas should be taken on a case-by-case base. When in a posted area, please obey the rules about using different trails.
Does your horse like to grab bites of grass or strip leaves from tree limbs? This is a no-no in a group and a bad habit anyway. That grabbed tree limb may slap the rider or horse behind you. Also crashing into a rump that has suddenly stopped is not fun for anyone. Of course you're all traveling a safe distance between each other, right? That means you can see the hind shoes of the horse in front of you between your horses ears. And "everyone knows" what a red ribbon on a tail means, you did put one on Ole Grumpy didn't you? If there are tree branches hanging down that you can't easily snap off, let the person behind you know as you push it aside so they can avoid being hit when it swings back.
You should stop and rest the horses ever so often, especially if someone is riding an unconditioned horse. Usually, if the terrain is easy, an unconditioned horse should be able to travel 3 to 5 miles without too much trouble. If possible, when the horse has the urge to 'fertilize', curb him/her (step off the trail). Many other types of trail users don't appreciate organic fertilizer on shared trails. No matter how silly this seems to us, it is one of the causes of friction between different user groups.
Is there a spot to graze while taking a break? Be sure the front horses are far enough along the trail that the back horses can also find some graze. A great look out spot? Give everyone a chance to enjoy the view before moving on. If you spot a trail hazard, pass the word on back. Don't assume everyone will see it. This also goes for any wildlife you spot. A flock of grouse flushing under hooves could give everyone an unwanted adrenalin rush.
Some horses refuse to be at the end of a line while others don't care to be first. After a few rides, you should be able to find a spot along the line that is comfortable for your horse. Just remember, the old tale about the view never changing for the rear horse. So when possible switch positions ever so often.
One thing that should be agreed upon, before the trail ride, is whether or not dogs are invited. Think about the area you will be riding. A group of horses will attract loose neighborhood dogs anyway and having a pet along with you can spell trouble. Dogs might frighten some of the other horses as they run ahead and duck in and out of the brush. If the water source for the horses will be puddles along the trail, you may hear some rude remarks as you round a corner and find Rover enjoying a soak in the only water for miles. Dogs also love to bring back to Mom or Dad the unhappy mama moose or uptight bear they just ran into. Of course this could prove to be the real photo opportunity of the day!
Speaking of water along the trail, we were just a moment ago, weren't we? Anyway, remember to offer your horse a drink whenever possible. Never let it foul the puddle no matter how much fun it is to run through, until all others have had a chance at the water. If you come to a stream and your horse likes to play in water, be sure to keep it down stream from all the others so they can enjoy a clear drink. Also be careful along the banks of steams and rivers, as sinking up to your stirrups can be hard on horse's legs. When you are crossing a creek or river deeper than the shortest horse's knees, try to enter upstream from your intended exit. This way the current will help your horse rather than hinder it. Do not take off when you reach the opposite bank, but wait in an area that gives others room to pull out. If your horse has never crossed running water and refuses, two steady horses (one on either side) may do the trick. Or hitching a ride with someone while your horse is ponied across may work. If it's possible to practice on short rides, do so as a long ride is no place to start training.
So your group has decided to have a lunch ride. Be sure the area for the lunch stop is large enough to give everyone a place to tie his or her horse. Do not hobble your horse unless it can behave and not start a surge of jealousy among the tied horses. This is where that great bridle/halter combo you got at the last tack swap will come in handy and the good lead with the safety snap proves it's worth. Before tying your horse to that tree, check to be sure it is firmly attached to the ground and won't pull out if your horse decides to leave. Check all around for hornets' nests, either in the ground (as far back as his hind legs will reach) or in the branches. Snap off anything that might poke your critter in the face, chest or legs. If your horse has a habit of pawing, be sure to fill in the holes. This will protect the tree roots.
Now that you've loosened the cinch or unsaddled and given a deserved back rub, you can bring out the snack you brought for your 4-legged friend. Before feeding it, check to be sure the other horses are settled and won't be upset if their person forgot one for them. Now's a good time to renew the bug dope on your horse. Be sure to clean up the area after lunch. Kick the road apple piles into the woods. If you had a fire, make double sure it's totally out before leaving the lunch site.
Overnight camping can be enjoyable if some forethought is taken. Of course the easiest is having non-riding family and friends met you at the campsite with food and camping gear. You will still need to assign enough folks to night watch duty to be sure the horses stay out of trouble while everyone else is sleeping. If your camping plans don't include the catered route above, preplanning is a must. Your trail group should get together before the ride to decide on camping gear, food stuffs for people and horses, water supply, number of pack animals if any, etc. By proper preplanning and setting any rules necessary, you will avoid misunderstandings. No matter which type of overnight camping you do, leaving a clean camping area is a must. If you are using packhorses be sure you know how to properly use the chosen type of equipment. The packhorse will have to do all the balancing of the pack equipment on it's own so for it's comfort and well being check it often and don't plan on trotting unless necessary.
While there are many more points to bring out and ponder for an enjoyable, hassle free (is there such a thing) trail ride, the main thing to remember is to be considerate of other riders. Keep your eyes and ears open to any suggestions and complaints. Weigh them and try for a better ride next time. If you as a rider can in anyway make the ride more pleasant for others, don't hesitate to do so. After all, this is where some consideration for what others in the group really want to do will pay off.
If you see every trail ride as a conditioning ride for competition, don't ride with a group that wants to laze-along. You'll all be unhappy. If you're a seasoned backcountry rider, try to make newcomers comfortable and don't think everything has to be a 'survival of the fittest' ride. If you're a green trail rider, don't hide the fact but ask questions. This will make the next ride easier on you and your horse. After all, our summers are too short to waste time complaining or being a pain in the butt. Get invited back.