20 Tips for Safe Trail Travel with Horses
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Ah, the good old days. That was the time when someone said, “I think that horse might buck,” and you said, “I’ll ride him.” Secretly, you hoped he would buck. You had been bored for the last 20 minutes and it was time for some excitement. Besides, you had been bounced off several times before, with nary a scratch, and you missed that flying feeling. Well, things change. Most of us simply do not bounce like we used to. Now it’s just a dull thud and, later, the doctor explains the injuries.
Back in the late ‘60s I was camp boy for a central Yukon outfitter. A rough string of 20-odd horses, picked up from horse sales, was unloaded at our remote Canol Road camp. The horses were roped, sacked out, bucked out, thrown, shod, and a few days later pointed down a trail. I clearly remember promptly and violently getting bucked off onto a hard, rocky trail — the price I paid for trying to put on a noisy rain slicker when a northern drizzle kicked up. I remember living in tense and constant fear that my horse, who was wound tighter than a bucking bronc, would explode at the sight of a candy wrapper or a grouse.
Those were the good old days. Cowboys absorbed great quantities of physical abuse and rarely heard the word “insurance.” We are softer but wiser now. We actually expect to live the good life past the age of 50, and we expect the same for our children. New age revelations and revolutions have given us horse whispering, the round pen, and equine partners. What this means for trail riders is time well spent on the trail with a trusted trail partner. It means enjoying the sights and smells of the woods without worrying if the sound of our lunch wrapper or a bird busting out of a bush will send us into a wreck. It means love, not war; no battles or tense rides — just stress slipping away.
For experienced riders, safety is not really a 20 step procedure but the result of a number of factors including common sense and experience. Experience tells us what to do or not to do. Our safety depends on the horse that we ride, our abilities, the trail conditions, and luck.
On the trail you will be pulling out noisy lunch wrappers, have rain gear flapping about, be reading paper maps, taking pictures, having hats blow off your head, and facing hikers, bikers, and vehicles coming around corners — all while on the back of your trusty steed. Your horse must be trustworthy, desensitized, rope broke, stand still, etc.
Trail riding helps us feel younger and alive. Here are some tips to keep us that way, in no particular order:
#1: Be proactive with your trail horse. Always use lots of touch. Both you and your horse need to be comfortable as you repeatedly go in and out of the horse’s space to work with and contact the horse.
If you suspect your horse may kick, tie a red ribbon on its tail, which is the universal sign of a kicker.
#2: Be vocal when walking around horses, especially when approaching their backsides. Horses that are dozing or feel threatened may kick out if startled. Never unexpectedly touch the backside of a horse that cannot see you.
#3: When you are working with a horse and you need to walk around it, maintain hand contact and stay close. We have never seen a horse kick at a person this way, and if it did, you would be pushed away rather than kicked at a distance. If the horse is extremely fearful, nervous, or dangerous, then walk around well out of striking range.
#4: Never allow a horse to crowd your space, which includes choosing to put his face or rear end into your space. You can invite the horse into your space or go into the horse’s space at will; you can pat him and be as affectionate as you want, but be very careful about how often and how forceful the horse comes into your space. Your safety on the trail depends on this. When your horse pushes his face into you, immediately shove it back where it belongs.
Stay close to your horse and maintain hand contact as you round its backside.
#5: Check your headstall and saddle rigging for breaks, worn areas, and loose screws regularly, and repair them before hitting the trail.
#6: Be sure your cinches are snug to prevent slipping. Unlike a roping or rodeo horse, trail horses need to have the rear cinch snug at all times so that sticks do not get caught and jammed into the horse’s gut.
#7: Hood covers (tapaderos) not only keep your feet drier, warmer, and protected, they prevent sticks from getting jammed into the stirrup and the horse’s ribs, preventing serious wrecks and injuries.
#8: Never stick your foot all the way into the stirrup, rather, only to the ball of your foot. Practice losing and finding your stirrup as getting your foot in or out quickly may be important in difficult moments.
#9: Trail horses that move off or turn circles as you mount cause all types of grief. Be sure that your horse stands calmly as you mount and dismount. A horse that moves off or turns can stir up the other horses or cause the rope of the horse that you are leading to get jammed under his tail.
Trail horses need to be completely desensitized and must give their feet freely.
#10: Trail horses may find themselves dragging lead ropes or having loose lash ropes wrapped around their feet and legs. Be sure your trail horse is completely desensitized to ropes.
#11: It is critical that trail horses allow you to handle their feet freely as they need to be hobbled, shod, and have feet checked for stones, cuts, bruises, or sprains.
A trail horse that gives his feet willingly is also telling you that he gives you his mind willingly and will likely be a more willing partner for the many demands of the trail.
#12: When you are leading your trail horse a short distance walk alongside the horse’s head. Hold the lead rope close to the halter with your arm straight. It feels odd to have your arm straight at first but in a short time it becomes habit. If you do not do this you will get your feet stepped on.
#13: When you walk down a trail ahead of your horse stay well out in front, with about a foot of lead rope dangling from your hand. If your horse crowds your space snap him back with a flick of the dangling rope on the nose. When crossing mud, logs, or small ditches stay off to the side as the horse may jump forward and injure you.
Avoid dangerous crossings with boulders, fast water, and holes. Horses panic when crossing water with a soft bottom. Photo: Shutterstock/Nate Allred
#14: Never tie the lead rope from the horse you are leading to your saddle horn; simply hold onto it or give it one dally around the horn. A fixed rope can lock you in the saddle in the middle of a wreck.
#15: Riding helmets are an important safety item. You may have heard stories of when a helmet made the difference between life and death. Several years back the horse that my wife and daughter rode toppled down a dozen feet onto the boulders of a remote mountain stream when a dirt bank gave way. My wife sustained a broken femur and my daughter’s helmet earned a large dent from a blow on a rock. I believe the helmet may have saved her life. This is the only serious injury that has occurred with the use of our horses in more than 30 years (see Nightmare on Caribou Creek, PPHJ Oct/08 for the full story).
#16: Get off and walk. When trails peter out, debris or bogs cross your path, trails get close to a drop off, or you get lost or in tight circumstances, play it safe and walk.
#17: Avoid crossing water with a soft bottom, no matter how deep. Horses panic when their feet sink and they lose purchase.
#18: Try to avoid trips where you may have to cross dangerous water. It takes experience to search for safe crossings and to avoid large boulders, swift water, dangerous downstream holes and debris, and poor places to emerge. Never allow children to cross water on small horses or ponies; they are better off with an adult on a sturdy saddle horse.
#19: An eleven foot lead rope for trail riding is safer than an eight foot rope. It gives you the space you need to pony horses, lead horses while on foot, tie to trees, and, in a pinch, to be used as a short lunge line to discipline unwanted behaviour.
#20: Learn your quick release knot and bowline knot well (see PPHJ Jan/09 and Feb/09 issues for instructions on these knots and others). There are times when you need to quickly tie up or untie, and being too slow can cause problems.
Seemingly simple things, such as not tying the lead of your packhorse to your saddle horn, can really make a difference to your safety. For example, once my family was deep in the remote northwest corner of British Columbia, and I had warned my wife Marlene at least twice not to tie the lead rope of the packhorse she led to her saddle horn, especially since our five-year-old son Dylan shared her saddle. As I edged my saddle horse and packhorse down what appeared to be a steep beaver run into a wide but peaceful stream maybe two feet deep, I looked back to where Marlene’s horse was hesitating at the top of the bank. Sure enough, she had looped the lead tightly to her horn. The packhorse she led had stepped on the long lead. When Marlene’s horse stepped from the bank, pulling on the lead, the packhorse reared back. The riding horse began to flip backwards but regained its footing, heaved forward, and they all crashed down into the stream. Marlene and Dylan submerged for a moment, then came up spitting water but unharmed. In a panic I jumped off my horse and splashed back to them. Meanwhile, their horses surged forward, with two more loose pack horses behind them, heading straight across to my horses — a path which lead right over me. I slipped on a rock and fell back into the water. In a fraction of a second the horses were on me as I stared up through clear water and what seemed like a dozen hooves about to crush me. Incredibly they passed over me with hardly a touch. It felt like a miracle. Someone once said don’t move and horses will try to avoid you. It worked.
Little things get you in trouble when it comes to horses. Always keep that third eye open!