Leaving the dusty arena behind and enjoying the great outdoors is a great way to keep things interesting for both you and your equine partner. A good solo trail horse is a treasure but if you are lucky enough to have a few riding buddies, it can be a great group activity too.
Before heading out on a group ride, it’s important that everyone is aware of some trail riding codes of conduct. These rules are important for the safety of horses and riders so that everyone can have an enjoyable trail experience.
1. Setting the pace
If any riders wish to pick up the pace, everyone in the group needs to be consulted. If even one person is not comfortable with it, then for safety’s sake, you will need to remain at a walk for that ride.
Horses are herd animals and do not want to be left behind. An inexperienced or unconfident rider can be in quite a pickle if other horses start trotting off. If that rider attempts to keep his/her horse at a walk when other horses are trotting or cantering ahead, there will likely be a battle of wills that an inexperienced rider may lose. The rider will be telling the horse, “I want you to walk!”, and the horse will be saying, “Heck no I need to catch up to the others!”
While it’s not true in EVERY case, typically the best thing for this rider to do would be to let the horse keep up/catch up with the group. Unfortunately, a common fear response is for the rider to pull back and keep a tight rein on the horse, thinking it will keep the horse slow. This is when you tend to see head tossing, prancing, and depending on the horse, maybe even bucking or rearing. This disagreement between horse and rider can have some very unsavory consequences.
2. Choose your ride order carefully
The leader and caboose have the most responsibility for the entire group and therefore should be the two most confident and competent riders. Also, not every horse can handle being in front, so keep in mind that the leader needs to be on a horse who is able to accept that responsibility.
The Lead Rider
The lead rider takes into account the experience level of all riders and sets the pace accordingly. He or she also chooses the path and checks for and advises the group of hazards/obstacles. It is vital that the leader checks in with the other riders.
As I tend to ride very forward moving horses, I would let my horse get a few paces ahead and then circle back to the group. This way I can check on everyone and my horse is not getting overly frustrated with the slow pace. Simply hollering back “Everyone doing ok?” also works.
Questionable or hazardous terrain should be avoided, even if it means everyone turning around and doubling back. Once there is space to do so, the lead and caboose should pass the other riders and get back to their respective positions. When the leader sees an obstacle (i.e. a groundhog hole, sharp rock, extra slick terrain, etc.), he or she should call out what it is and point to it so the next rider sees it.
The unfortunate part of being the leader is that you are the spiderweb clearer. This is a disgusting, thankless task that one must suffer through for the good of the group. I highly suggest always carrying a crop. They are very useful for clearing the webs before they hit your face. If you don’t have a crop with you, snagging a small branch as you ride is another web-clearing option.
The last person in line needs to keep an eye on everyone ahead of them. Is a horse acting up? Is someone falling way behind? Did a horse stop for a bathroom break? Is someone struggling with something? Although every rider should be willing to call out if they need something, that doesn’t always happen. Therefore, the caboose needs to holler to the leader, “hold up!”, then give the ok to begin again.
Nobody is off the hook for trail responsibilities. Although the lead and caboose have more responsibility over the group, everyone has jobs to do. Those jobs include, but are not limited to:
1. When an obstacle is pointed out (usually by the lead rider), it is the job of each subsequent rider to notify the rider behind them of where the obstacle is, whether you say “hole on the left”, or just point with a hand. The message should be passed all the way from leader to caboose.
2. Do not let low hanging branches snap back to hit the rider behind you. Nobody likes a branch to the face.
3. Keep a reasonable distance. One horse length is good (unless you are behind a known kicker, in which case two horse lengths is safer). You do not want your horse to feel like they are being left behind, but you do not want their nose up the butt of the horse in front either.
4. If you need to pass the horse(s) in front of you, alert the rider(s) by saying “on your left/right”.
5. If you see a horsefly on the rear of the horse in front of you, alert the rider so he/she can squash that sucker!
6. If you or your horse need to stop for any reason, holler to the group to “hold up!”
7. Be aware of your surroundings.
Trail riding rules, like other rules, have exceptions. Every situation and group of horses and riders is different. The main focus on any trail ride should always be safety.
Do you like to hit the trails with your horse? Share some tales from the trails below!