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Horse Safety During Trail Rides

By Jeffrey Rolo

For a horse owner, few things are better than taking a leisurely trail ride with your equine companion. Taking in the surroundings… breathing the fresh air… gently swaying back and forth in the saddle… combined they can make the hours slip away like seconds. But as peaceful as trail rides with your horse are, there are certain "rules" a horse rider should follow to ensure that a foul surprise doesn't interrupt the experience.

The first key to a safe trail ride is a sense of comfort with your partner, and that goes for both you AND your horse. Trail rides often have many surprises in store, ranging from birds suddenly darting out from trees overhead to cars zooming on by too quickly. Such incidents can easily startle your horse, and when this occurs it is essential that you convey a sense of ease to your partner lest he bolt or rear, possibly throwing you in the process.

It's also essential to keep in mind that a trail ride is NOT the time to introduce your horse to new experiences unless the trail ride itself is a planned and controlled lesson. Horses may often be required to backup, perform 180 turns in tight quarters, cross pools of water, maneuver over fallen trees or debris and much, much more. Make sure your horse can perform these necessary moves and/or requests, because if they cannot you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle on the trail.

Unless the trail ride is a training lesson, you should use a horse that is already comfortable being a leader and a follower. During most trail rides the horses will ride in a formation, but if for whatever reason that formation breaks up you don't want a one-trick pony that will panic being placed in a new role.

Never ride alone! It's one thing to ride alone in a controlled atmosphere such as a round pen, but it's almost foolhardy to do so on trails or roads. Even the best horse can panic and do something silly when you least expect it. Even the best rider can lose his balance and fall. And although riding helmets do offer good head protection, I've seen many injuries ranging from badly sprained ankles to broken necks. Remember, a helmet can only offer so much protection.

Know your horse. The more familiar you are with horses and their body language, the better you can recognize potential trouble signs such as tensed muscles, pinned ears, etc. By knowing your horse, you can help take his mind off potential "boogey men" every time his attention floats away from the task at hand.

It also helps to be aware of your surroundings such that you can anticipate potential trouble spots. For example, if you know that around the bend resides a dog that charges towards the fence and barks up a storm every time a horse approaches, you can start reassuring your horse the moment the commotion begins. Although your horse might be initially spooked, if he sees that you're aware of the "problem" and have dismissed it as a non-threat, chances are he will relax.

Be careful not to take this too far. A great rider is constantly alert, but he's also in complete control of his movement and emotional state. For example if you hear a car approaching from the rear, it's NOT a good idea to hold your breath and tense up like many riders unknowingly do. Those are nervous reactions that have a high probability of convincing your horse that the car is a threat… after all, if YOU fear it then HE should too! An alert rider predicts threats and reassures their horses upon exposure. A nervous rider predicts threats and only makes matters worse.

Food and water are controversial topics when it comes to trail rides, and for most of us they never really enter the equation during the rides themselves since many of us don't ride more than a couple hours at a time. If you do undergo a strenuous or extended trail ride though you will want to be aware of your horse's food and water needs.

Some riders will never allow their horses to drink water during a trail ride, fearful that cool water from a pond can cause colic. This is a semi-accurate concern – you definitely do not want to allow your horse to drink too much water in the midst of that work or he can colic. But by the same token if your horse becomes too dehydrated he can still colic, this time due to waste compaction caused by a lack of liquids required by the digestive system. I personally feel it's safe to allow your horse to drink for approximately one minute – you want to allow him enough liquids to function, but not so much as to cause ill health.

As far as food goes, the trail is no place for a grain-only diet. Sometimes horse owners are tempted to bring nothing but grain since grain is easy to transport, but horses require a majority diet of hay, grass and other forms of forage.

There are a multitude of considerations that go into safe horsemanship, so clearly this article was not to be an all-inclusive look at trail riding. But as long as you keep the above horse safety tips in mind at all times, you'll already be one step ahead of many.

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