Written by Juliette Beauchamp, this article appeared in our March/April 2015 Issue
As the warmer weather and longer days of spring approach, many riders in Virginia look forward to trail riding. Virginia is rich in riding opportunities, with scenic mountain trails, historic battlefields, even lakes to swim in. Riders of all ages and experience levels can enjoy and benefit from riding out in nature, but there are a few basic safety rules to consider before hitting the trail. Although this list may seem daunting, many of these recommendations are common sense and can apply to all rides.
If possible, always ride in pairs or a group. This is the safest way to ride out; if there is an accident or emergency, help is with you. If you prefer to ride alone, or don’t have anyone to ride with, at the very least make sure that someone knows where you are and when you plan to return. Give a friend your expected route and send a quick text once you’re safely back. It takes just a few moments and could save your life if you become injured or incapacitated on the trail.
If you have any known medical conditions or medication allergies, consider letting someone in your riding group know so they can alert medical responders to any potential issues. An armband with that information listed is a discreet alternative.
It is always a good idea to wear a helmet. While this can be a touchy subject, and is indeed a matter of personal choice, there are so many things that can happen on the trail that make wearing a helmet the wisest choice. A 2007 study from the CDC reports that horseback riders account for the highest percentage of traumatic brain injuries amongst recreational activities and many of these could be prevented with a properly fitted helmet.
Plan ahead and keep in mind your skill level and your horse’s level of training. If you don’t have much trail riding experience, look for trails that are less demanding. Keep in mind that after heavy rains and snowmelts even small creeks and streams can become difficult to cross, and storms or high winds can knock down trees or even cause dangerous mud slides. Always be aware of your surroundings and don’t try to ride above your skill level.
If your horse is young or spooky, riding with older and calmer horses can be very helpful. If your horse is known to kick, or even if he’s just young and insecure, tie a red ribbon into his tail. This warns other riders to keep their distance. While most horses quickly learn to enjoy trail riding, the first few rides can be overwhelming to them. A little forethought can help keep everyone safe and relaxed.
It seems like everyone has cell phones these days, but keep in mind that in remote areas service can be unpredictable. If your phone is password-protected, tell someone the password so they can access your emergency contacts if you cannot. Be sure that your phone is fully charged before riding out and make sure it is securely attached to your person rather than your saddle. If you and your horse part company, you want to be able to use that fully charged phone. It’s also a good idea to have your contact information attached to the horse in some way, either on a bridle tag or pastern band. Spend a little time desensitizing your horse to your phone’s ring tone, or make sure it’s set to silent mode.
Consider your horse’s legs. Many riders use protective wraps or boots of some sort, which can help prevent injury. Think about the terrain when deciding what to use; for example, if you are going to be crossing moderate to deep water, polo wraps might not be the best choice. If there are open galloping spaces, bell boots can help prevent lost shoes. Whatever you choose, be sure it is properly fitted and that your horse will happily tolerate them.
Always make sure your horse’s shoes are tight and not likely to be lost. Some larger organized rides will require that you provide spare, pre-shaped shoes for your horse. If your horse is barefoot, be sure that they can handle whatever footing you will encounter or consider using well-fitting hoof boots. It is poor horsemanship to ride a barefoot or badly shod horse across rocks or hard ground.
Make sure your horse is fit enough for the ride. If your horse has been lounging in the pasture for the last three months, don’t expect him to carry you on a long trail ride without any preparation, as doing so invites injury. Even at a walk, an unfit horse can quickly become tired if the terrain is steep and challenging. Give your horse (and yourself) a few weeks of conditioning rides before you begin your spring trail adventures.
While the gear you pack will vary widely depending on the length of your rides, there are a few things you should always take with you. A hoof pick can fit in a pocket or be taped to your saddle and can be invaluable should a rock become wedged in your horse’s hoof. Some string or leather can be used for quick, temporary tack repairs. Spare water and snacks for you can be easily stored in saddle bags. A small roll of duct tape can be used to wrap a hoof that’s lost a shoe, and vet-wrap and a small supply of cotton padding can be used to quickly temporarily bind an injury on horse or human. For multi-day rides, consider packing additional veterinary and first-aid supplies. For longer rides in unfamiliar territory it might be a good idea to carry a compass or learn how to use this feature on your smart phone. Remember though that the phone’s compass will be useless if your phone dies.
Be sure your horse’s tack is well-fitted. Many riders prefer to have a halter under or over their horse’s bridle on the trail, and this is also the safest choice for tying or picketing. If you are riding at night or on public roads, use some kind of reflective tape or fabric to alert others of your presence. Be aware that many drivers have no experience with horses and may not slow down or give you enough space on the road. You have to be responsible for your own safety and that of your horse. Some riders attach bells on their saddles to warn deer and other wildlife of their approach. This can be very helpful with a horse that’s prone to spook, but make sure your horse is used to the bells before you ride with them.
If you are riding on public land or in areas where you will encounter unknown horses, make sure your horse is up to date on his vaccines and has a current negative Coggins test. A copy of this document should stay in your hauling vehicle or trailer tack room. If on public land, it is also a good idea to have some form of identification for yourself as well.
Know your trail etiquette and be especially careful when approaching other groups of riders. Alert riders in front of you when passing and be sure to leave plenty of space between horses. Many injuries on the trail can be avoided by that simple rule. Be respectful of the trail; don’t litter or leave anything behind. Be sure to remove manure from parking areas and be courteous of others using the trail. Try to avoid letting your horse pass manure in water, especially near camping sites. Avoid certain areas after heavy rain or snow, as soft ground can be quickly damaged by horses. Observe all fire regulations and be careful with camp fires and cigarettes.
Always leave all gates as you found them. There is no faster way to lose riding privileges on someone’s land as letting their livestock loose.
It’s a good idea to get your horse use to being around dogs, as even if you don’t ride with them, you will probably encounter them at some point on the trail either loose or leashed.
Although for many trail riding is as much a social event as a riding opportunity, it’s a good idea to save the alcoholic beverages for after the ride. Alcohol can impair judgment and encourage risk taking, neither of which is good while on horseback. Remember, you are responsible for your horse’s safety as well as your own, and that’s best done sober.
Especially on longer rides, colic and tying up can be concerns. Let your horse drink at all water crossings, and if on an overnight ride, consider packing some electrolytes to encourage additional water consumption. If using electrolytes in water, be sure to also have a fresh water source available.
We are lucky to live and ride in such a beautiful state. With a little attention to safety and respect for the land we ride on, we should all be able to enjoy it for a long time to come.