Trail rides or hacking is a favorite of mine. Still, it does cause a lot of nerves because anything can happen. Outside the arena is an environment that cannot and will not be controlled. Loose dogs, bicyclists, runners, and more. Still, a lovely walk or ride out on the trails has a way of bonding you and your horse and giving you a sense of freedom.
Both Ferrous and Delight loves hacking out. Only one trailers well. The other gets so excited at the prospect of playing on the trail that he practically vibrates with excitement. Not the best for a timid rider and yet somehow we slowly but steadily increased our confidence together to achieve calm rides, but even hacking out alone when we couldn’t find someone to buddy up. I still feel more comfortable going out with a friend in case of emergency, and for the company, but sometimes you just need to leave the arena for the wide, open spaces.
Here are some tips to trail ride safely with your horse when you are solo.
Do Your Groundwork
An often overlooked training method is groundwork. Many trainers and horse owners will lunge their horse periodically to let them “get it out of their systems”. When I refer to groundwork, I mean improving communication and aids and trust between you and your horse.
Positive reinforcement methods are a great thing to incorporate into your groundwork. Read your horse, play games on the ground, do in-hand exercises. My horses seek me out in the paddock, I don’t have to chase after them. They WANT to be with me. More, I can read their body language and see how mine affects them. These things translate to under saddle work and later, on the trail. If my horse bolts and leaves me in the dust, I have faith that I can get them calm and safely back to me…eventually.
Desensitize, Desensitize, Desensitize
You are probably thinking, duh. But modern horses in the Western world are often bubble-wrapped. When I was in Mongolia with the semi-feral horses it shocked me how the nomads rode their motorcycles closely or even alongside, and how they just rode through villages with snapping dogs, wandering cattle, and more. I realized how little credit we give to our animals, especially performance horses.
The first time I took Ferrous onto the public park trails, he took most things in stride but was uncomfortable with the mountain bikers. They are fast, moved differently, shine in the sun, and make a “whirring noise”. About halfway home he hit his threshold, which I can now detect after working with him so well on the ground. I dismounted and walked him back because he feels more confident when I lead him. A few weeks later, a lone biker stopped and allowed me to pass. I asked him if he’d be willing to come closer and work with us to make my horse more familiar. It was a great learning lesson for both horse and cyclist.
At your barn there are a number of things you can do to desensitize your horse. Everything is an opportunity. Contractors, landscapers, moving vehicles, barn dogs and cats- learn to introduce your horse to everything and praise them when they show curiosity and calm with either affection or treats. Patience goes a long way. For example, last year our barn got ducklings. Ferrous HATES birds. For weeks, whenever he would see them he would freeze, scoot, or shy away from them. I began to graze him nearby, walk him over to watch them and ride past them without looking. Now, he and my daughter will often chase them out of the ring! We took something scary and turned it into something that isn’t a big deal.
Walk the Route First In-Hand
One of the scariest things for me is the unknown. I am a careful person. As such I like to experience things first, before introducing them to my horse. I am not comfortable with spontaneity. For example, I know Delight has been around cows before and seemed comfortable. After his time off, I considered using him as a trail/Western horse. So before introducing him to team sorting, I went myself and rode a cow-broke horse. I wanted to know how the horses were supposed to behave, how the cows interacted, and what the heck I was doing. Once I have a few rides under my belt, I will trailer Delight over to introduce him as well.
The same goes with a trail. If you have trail access at your barn, I’m jealous! It is so lovely and fun. You will probably have a lot of time to explore and get to know the routes. I definitely recommend starting with a buddy. Ferrous and I first learned the routes at Huber Woods with friends, but in a group it isn’t always easy to pay attention. The first time solo, I hand-walked Ferrous and used an app like All Trails to know where I was going. I got lost a lot! But we were on an adventure and quickly we were going under saddle, and comfortable knowing the trail.
Have the Right Gear
Having the right equipment can mean the difference between a good ride, and a dangerous one.
- Helmet. Protect your noggin! While I love my OneK helmet for the arena, I prefer my Tipperary for the trails because it covers my lower cervical spine at the base of my neck and is well-ventilated for those humid summer days.
- Protective vest (falling on rocks, HURT). I have been lucky in my falls mostly, but when I broke my ribs that changed my perspective. The last thing I need on a ride alone is a nasty fall.
- First aid kit. Keep a small kit in your saddle bag or trail bag in case of emergency. A small knife and vet wrap are handy in a pinch.
- Halter Under Your Bridle. One of my favorite lessons from endurance riders is riding with a halter under my bridle, or using a combination halter/bridle. I have been known to dismount and encourage walking through a stream or having to lead to a small log to mount up again. With a halter, I don’t have to pull on the bit.
- Lead rope. Attach a spare lead rope to your saddle, or put in your cantle bag in case you need to stop and rest or lead your horse. In a pinch, you can use this if your rein breaks!
- Have your phone. Yes, yes. We don’t go anywhere without our phones, but DO NOT leave it in your saddlebag. Have it on your boot or in a zipped pocket in case your horse gets away from you.
Tell Someone Where You Are Going
Nine times out of 10 your ride will go smoothly, however, it just takes one freak accident. When you leave, make sure someone knows what trail or park system you are going and what time you plan to return.
A few years ago, I had a particularly traumatic trail ride with my friend and trainer. We were walking in the woods, minding our own business, when my horse began to rear up and become upset. We decided to turn around and go back, which is good because our horses took off after we jumped off and I fell into a wasp’s nest. Two horses ran, and we were lucky to keep one, which helped us to retrieve the others, scared and hurt. The horses’s did what they were supposed to, but it was really scary. Covered in no less than seven stings, I had to walk back to the barn shaking and worried I’d have an allergic reaction. We were in a group with someone more experienced, but if I was alone, I would have been in a tough situation and no one would know I rode in the woods that day.
Keep Calm and Enjoy The Ride
This is for those timid riders like me who get nervous from time to time! Breathing helps you to relax and keep your heart rate down, which helps your horse to relax, also. Another good way to do that is to hum or sing. A friend of mine who works for U.S. Fish and Wildlife also recommends this to keep other animals and predators from being surprised by you.
I asked some of my Timid Riders Facebook group for suggestions to trail ride safely and Rebecca agrees, “I always make sure I talk or sing when riding through areas where there might be wildlife – so I don’t startle a deer or wild turkey right under my horse’s nose.” Rebecca, The Timid Riders.
I’d much rather a bird than a bear!