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Tips for Trail Riders
Horse Training Clinician, bob Jeffreys

Trail riding is the reason many of us started with horses in the first place and it’s still my favorite horse activity. Bob Jeffreys

 There’s no pressure to perform, no judges to disagree with and no clock; just your trustworthy mount, you and Mother Nature.  I don’t know much about that saying that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but I surely know that she can play some serious tricks on us at times.  I’ll show you how to minimize the effects of her meddling by preparing well for your trail rides.

Let’s begin this article by discussing a few basic truths that hold all year round, as well as some tips for spring. For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume that your horse feels safe and comfortable with you as his leader and has had sufficient trail training.  For those readers who are interested in how to develop a safe, reliable trail horse, we’ll discuss this in future articles, along with more season-specific advice.

To get ready for your trail ride, groom your horse well before saddling up; a good rub with a curry comb followed by a thorough brushing should get your horse started right.  Then check and pick out his feet.  When saddling put it on gently like you’d put a hat on your head, don’t slam it down on his back.  Cinch up gradually and politely.  I personally prefer endurance saddles or western saddles for trail riding as they spread your weight over a larger area of the horse’s back, making it more comfortable for him but if your own preference is for dressage saddles or English saddles that’s just fine.  The important thing here is that, whichever saddle you choose, it’s imperative that it fit your horse.  For example, if it’s obviously too wide you’ll see the pommel laying right on your horse’s withers, which is totally unacceptable.  If after a ride your horse is wet all through the saddle area, this is a good sign.  Dry spots on your horse in this area would indicate that your saddle is causing undue pressure on those particular areas, preventing his sweat glands from functioning properly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need another saddle; you may be able to correct the situation with appropriate padding.

It’s a matter of preference whether to use a breast collar or rear cinch.  Breast collars are primarily for preventing saddles from slipping toward the rear of the horse.  Saddles that fit well hardly ever slip too much and almost always find the “right” spot and stay there.  However, really steep terrain can cause even a well-fitting saddle to slip, and a breast collar can help.  Rear cinches aid in keeping your saddle from lifting up should your horse stumble, and also help to minimize saddle shifting from side to side.

 When it comes to saddle bags I have found that most horses prefer pommel bags to cantle bags because the wither/shoulder area is less sensitive that the loin/flank area.  In either case, tie the loose ends to your saddle to prevent it from flopping against your horse. Tie a slicker or raincoat to your saddle in case it rains.  Wear or bring along a hat for the same reason.  If you are 15 years or younger, the laws in many states require that you wear a riding helmet.

Other important equipment to bring along includes a halter and lead rope.  I prefer a rope halter and a 10 to 12 foot lead rope, which can be rolled up into a sort of hangman’s knot and hooked over the saddle horn or across the pommel.  This set up will allow you to remove the bridle and bit if you choose to stop and rest.  Should you tie your horse to a tree, make your knot at wither height or above and allow only about two feet of rope length between knot and buckle.  This will prevent him from getting tangled.  Never tie your horse to a dead tree or something else he could move.  If he got upset or scared and pulled back that moveable object would then be “chasing” him and you’ll really have your hands full. 

Your rope/halter combo can also double as a bridle and reins should you accidentally break a rein or a bridle piece.  Some bridles use what is referred to as Chicago screws to attach the bridle to the bit.  Sometimes these can loosen and fall out but this can be prevented by putting a small amount of nail polish in the receptacle before inserting the screw. I personally prefer latigo ties on my bridles.

  A first aid kit is an essential piece of equipment to include. It should contain Vet Wrap, duct tape, bandages, a sharp knife, rolled cotton and blood coagulant (such as Wonder Dust).  This is the basic supply kit for both horse and human.  If your horse throws a shoe and you’re not carrying an Easy Boot, you can pad with the cotton, wrap the hoof with the Vet Wrap and then cover it with the duct tape to make an emergency shoe that will actually get you home.

Occasionally your horse will get a rock wedged in his horseshoe that will not come loose no matter how long or hard you pick or pull on it.  When confronted with this situation, try using another rock and slam it against the side of his shoe (not his hoof!).  You can usually dislodge the intruder with one or two hearty strokes.  Speaking of shoes, make sure you wear boots or shoes with heels, not sneakers. Shoes with heels prevent your foot from going through the stirrup and getting stuck there, a really dangerous situation where you could be dragged and hurt seriously if you fall off.

Finally, take along your cell phone.  Keep it on you in a pocket or a fanny pack so if you get separated from your horse you’ll have it, not him!  However, realize that it may not work if you’re riding in a remote area.

Now that you’re ready to go, it would be prudent for you to tell someone about how long you’ll be gone and if possible, what route you’ll be following.  If you have a map, bring it with you.  If not and you’re riding in an unfamiliar area, stop and turn around every once in a while to take note of what the scenery should like when you’re returning home.

With your equipment ready, your horse tacked up, and spring in the air (finally!) it’s time to talk about getting our horse back into condition, especially if he’s had the winter off.  Help him to shed out that heavy winter coat by grooming thoroughly. Stay downwind when you do this, or you’ll end up covered in horsehair (and take my word for it, it tastes awful!). Start your riding program off slowly and build up his strength and endurance gradually. Please don’t make your first trail ride five hours long; both you and your horse will be sore, and Trigger may not be so happy to see you next time you want to ride. Also, minimize his grazing time on fresh grass as it can be very rich; most horses need to be introduced to lush pasture a little at a time.  Overeating could cause founder and that can be a serious condition.

When you do get out on the trail, remember that you shouldn’t just let your horse follow the beaten path when trail riding.  If you do, he’ll figure that his job is to go where the trail leads, and not necessarily where you lead.  Enjoy your horse while enjoying the great outdoors….trail ride!
©Bob Jeffreys  - Website: twoasonehorsemanship

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