Spring is the perfect season for trail riding for a couple reasons. First of all, our horses can become a little "arena sour" after riding in the indoor arena all winter long. The arena–although a safe and comfortable place to ride–becomes boring for the horse after a while. If you've noticed your horse acting spooky during rides when they are normally focused and business-like, it's an indication that their minds are wandering and looking for distractions.
Imagine if you lifted the same exact weights in the same order for the same amount of time every single time you went to the gym, or ran the exact same route every day...you'd feel the same way your horse does after months of indoor riding. Getting outside, away from the familiar arena, is great for the horse's brain and builds trust between the two of you because you're doing something new together. I bet that if you mix things up occasionally by hacking outside and trail riding, you'll notice your horse having an easier time focusing on its work when you are in the arena.
Another great reason to trail ride this spring is that there aren't many bugs yet. In the summer months we have to douse our horses with gallons of fly spray, and even then sometimes they're too bothered to be outside for long. Spring offers a brief, idyllic period where we can be outside without the nuisance of flies. Just watch out for wet and muddy spots on the trail, especially if your horse has shoes. Pulling a shoe out on the trail is a real bummer!
There are several simple practices to follow when trail riding that will help ensure your safety and your horse's well-being. I'll list a few things off the top of my head, but please feel free to comment with your own best practices for safe trail-riding...I'd love to hear all the ways you keep your horse happy and safe on the trail.
- Wear your helmet. It's the only thing between your brain and that rock that is speeding towards you right now because your horse spooked at a deer/plastic bag/shadow/ruffed grouse/dog. Seriously, wear it.
- Trail ride with others whenever possible, if not always. Horses feel more secure and safe in a herd, and their instinct is right, we are safer together! If you have trouble out on the trail and you're alone, what is your plan for getting help? Plan ahead for the worst case scenario if you do venture out alone. Personally, I prefer to be with a buddy at all times for safety and for the fun of sharing the experience with a friend.
- Use tack. If you need to dismount to lead your horse through water or around an obstacle, or if you happen to fall off while on the trail, it is very difficult to re-mount if you were riding bareback. I do not recommend bareback trail-riding unless you're very confident you can get back on your horse without the aid of stirrups and a saddle.
- Bring a hoof-pick and your cell-phone. I never go trail-riding without these two things tucked into a little pack. If your horse picks up a rock out on the trail and starts limping, that hoof pick will become a life-saver. And in the event that you get lost or hurt, your cell phone is your life-line (it's also good for taking trail-ride-selfies.)
- Wear bright clothing or reflective gear. Our trails require us to ride along the Hwy for a short distance, and cars need to be able to see us clearly. The same reflective clothing that bicyclists wear works well for trail-riding, too, or you can purchase specific neon-colored trail-riding vests from retailers like Dover and Smartpak.
- Learn the correct hand-signals and use them. Just like bicyclists, trail-riders need to follow road laws and signal to cars when they are turning or crossing a street. Learn the signals and use them to help drivers safely share the road with you and your horse.
- Listen to your horse. If your horse can't handle a long ride at first, don't push it. Keep things short and sweet, ending on a positive note. The first trail-rides of the spring can be a little rocky and horses tend to be nervous, their senses on high-alert. The important thing is that you try to make it a positive experience for your horse, so that they become more and more comfortable with heading out on the trail. Be patient, praise a lot, and go slow. Depending on the horse, walking down the driveway and back might be a big enough challenge at first.
- Listen to the weather. If rain, thunder, lightning or high winds are forecasted....probably a good day to ride inside. If you do get caught out in inclement weather, head for home swiftly or to the closest shelter and use that cell-phone to call for a pick-up.
Happy trails everyone!