Whether you're a dressage rider or a barrel racer, there are few things better for you and your horse than a trail ride.
I am always amazed at the number of people who have never ridden outside a ring. They don't know what they are missing. It doesn't matter if you are experienced enough to wander the woods alone or are out on a group ride, there is nothing quite like enjoying nature from the back of a horse.
Trail riding lends itself to many things – from cool-down to conditioning, to seasoning a skittish green (untrained) horse, to providing a mental break for you and your mount. It's terrific to tone down or tune up a competition horse. It teaches him that the demands he normally expects when you climb on his back can sometimes be replaced with pure fun. It also can provide a training opportunity. There are many movements that can be practiced on the trail – sizing up the distance to a log, doing haunches in or turns on the hocks.
And a jaunt on the trail is as relaxing for the horse as the rider. The more you do it, the less hyper your horse will be when you take him into the show ring or any other new environment.
Tips For Your Trail Ride
Group rides can provide useful learning situations, especially for green horses. They learn to go quietly from their older, seasoned trail mates who don't spook at every squirrel. It also helps them to conquer other frightening circumstances – natural obstacles such as water, fallen logs or traffic. Here are a few tips if you're planning a trail ride: Be in control. Never leave the barn unless you are comfortable about being in control of your mount. Nothing is more frightening than being out in the open on a runaway horse, either for you or your trail mates, who may feel the need to follow suit. You should be competent at the walk, trot and canter.
Wear a helmet. It offers protection in a fall – and more. Low-hanging branches that you don't see could hurt or even decapitate you.
Use insect repellent. Spray it on both you and your horse. In addition to keeping those pesky flies at bay, ticks are prevalent in the Northeast and neither you nor your horse needs to get Lyme disease.
Take along a hoof pick. A pebble in your horse's hoof a few miles from the barn can create a boulder-sized problem. Many times, a lame horse can be made sound by just dislodging the rock from his shoe – an endeavor not always possible with your fingernail.
Observe equestrian etiquette. Be nice, particularly if you're riding in a group. Don't tailgate – keep a safe distance from the horse in front of you. Don't be tempted to race by your fellow riders, and don't pass without telling the rider ahead of you. Stop if another member of the party is having trouble. Horses tend to imitate each other and will be more likely to be quiet or stand still if the rest of the group does.
Get landowner's permission. Don't jeopardize what's left of our rideable land by traipsing over someone else's property without permission. Ride around the edge of fields – don't gallop through the middle, leaving divots from your horse's hooves. Be sensible and don't ride on someone's property if the ground is soft or muddy. If you unintentionally damage property, let the landowner know.
Be careful on the road. Don't ride your horse alone on a road unless you know that he is comfortable with traffic. An unknowing motorist who toots a friendly beep on his horn can send you into the path of oncoming traffic. And always ride on the side of the road, with the traffic, at a walk.
Let someone know where you are. If you do trail ride alone, let someone know where you are going. No matter how experienced you are, there's no guarantee that your horse will return to the barn if you are unseated or injured. It can be hours before anyone realizes that you are in trouble and comes to look for you. Hang a small blackboard in the barn on which trail riders can leave their name, time of departure and destination.
Many people advocate taking a cell phone on solitary trail rides. There are special cell phone cases available in the equine catalogs that clip to the dee rings on your saddle or your belt. This probably is a good idea – just remember to charge it.