January 12, 2020

Danger in the Woods - Beware

Safety Considerations When Riding on the Trail

As an avid trail rider I enjoy a peaceful, relaxing ride on some of the most beautiful trails the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Over the years I have learned some valuable lessons from my own experience but also from clinicians and instructors on the subject of trail safety. Here are just a few things I’ve learned…

Why Distance Between Horses is Important

Trail riding, ID collar, April
Riding April at a horse ranch in Deming, WA. Wearing ID Safety Collar by Equestrisafe.
Photo by Karen Pickering

The idea of a relaxing ride is being able to just ride, right? I have some thoughts on this. When riding in a group it’s easy to become lax and just let your horse crowd the horse in front of you. Because horses are herd animals staying in a tightly packed group is a form of safety from prey. Not such a good thing on a trail ride. Why?

Horses may be use to their herd but riding with unfamiliar horses can prove dangerous. Crowding another horse can cause the horse in front of you to take his mind off the trail and on to your horse. Not watching the footing in front of him and worrying about the horse behind him can cause a fall or other injury. A horse may kick if another horse gets too close either out of fear or orneriness.

A Potentially Dangerous Outcome

I speak from experience. Years ago I was riding a fairly new horse. She was a gray 4-year old I’d purchased at an auction in Hermiston, Oregon. A group of us decided to ride Excelsior Pass in Glacier, WA.  Rated as difficult, careful attention must be made when riding this trail.  At the time the trail was like a goat tail, narrow and dangerous.

The views were breathtaking! In order to navigate the narrow trail each horse had to carefully pick his way to avoid slipping off the path. On either side of us was a steep bank up or down. It was steep enough, I remember feeling a little queasy if I focused on the downhill side. I was hyper-focused ahead of me, a little nervous about being on an unfamiliar horse on such difficult trail.

Encountering Hazards

Starting off we hit a bog. Horses had to slog their way through deep mud, moving quickly to keep from being sucked down. We gave each horse and rider plenty of room in front and behind us. The next adventure was bees. All I remember was someone shouting, “RUN!”. We all took off at a gallop to get away from the stinging pests. Never a good time to be at the back of the pack!

Finally we settled in to a steady walk, taking in the view. A bear watched us from a distance making it quite the adventure. Most critters will leave a group the size of ours alone. There was at least 6 or 8 of us that I can remember. We visited, enjoying the beautiful day. There’s nothing like good friends, good horses and a beautiful trail.

An Unexpected Danger

Walking along a narrow path on a steep mountainside made me a little apprehensive. I was young enough to have a pretty heightened sense of adventure, but I’ve always been a little on the cautious side. Suddenly my horse fired off with both back feet. Ears pinned, she’d had enough of the horse crowding her from behind. I had been so absorbed in the scenery that I wasn’t aware of her growing irritation.

The rider behind me, a little stunned, wasn’t paying attention and was letting her horse continually bump my horse from behind. Fortunately she was close enough the impact didn’t hurt her horse. It was definitely a warning to back off. In retrospect I should have been watching my horse’s ears a little more carefully. There would definitely have been a warning that she wasn’t pleased about another horse following so close. I wasn’t paying attention, talking away and enjoying the ride. It could have been a real disaster if one or both horses had slipped from the trail.

Lesson Learned

The lesson here is to ALWAYS keep a horse distance between you and the horse in front of you. It keeps both horse and rider safe, allowing your horse to see the path in front and put his head down to look or balance. It’s sometimes work to ride but with enough practice most horses will finally start staying a safe distance without having to constantly check them. And yes, it’s about RIDING, not just sitting up there.

Encountering other Dangers on the Trail

As publisher of The Northwest Horse Source Magazine, I’ve always had opportunity to take a variety of clinics. One I remember well was a clinic taught by Scot Hansen. Scot was a retired police officer with quite a bit to offer trail riders about safety on the trail. You never know whom you will encounter on the trail and sometimes people are more of a danger than the elements or wild animals. I will elaborate more in another article but a few of the things I learned really stuck with me.

  1. Watch your horse’s behavior. They will sense things of potential danger well before we will. Always be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Be careful when encountering people on the trail. Watch their behavior, how they walk, and their demeanor. If someone is doing something wrong, chances are they will appear nervous or shifty.
  3. Never let anyone approach your horse. Someone can easily grab your reins rendering you powerless to get away. Tell people to stay back if you feel uncomfortable.
  4. If things go south and someone threatens you, turn your horse away from them and back into them. There’s a lot of power in the hind end of a horse.
  5. If someone does get a hold of you, grab them, kick your horse on and see if you can get them off balance so they fall.
  6. Don’t kick at them. If they get ahold of your leg they can push you right off the other side of your horse. Let your leg be loose (don’t resist). Harder to push you off your horse if there’s no resistance.
  7. Guns. The words Scot said really stuck with me. “Be sure you can actually shoot someone if you decide to use your gun. If not, they may take it from you and shoot you.” Gun safety is a whole other topic but lessons on shooting a gun would be paramount before taking one with you on a ride. Nothing like shooting your horse in the neck because you forgot to put the safety on.

I learned quite a bit from Scot’s course. These are just a few of the nuggets that stuck with me. I don’t like be paranoid, just prepared.  Many of the safety things I’ve learned have been by experience. I’ve lived a full life with horses and horse people so I am glad to share what I’ve learned. There’s nothing like the view from the back of a horse and so many amazing adventures can be enjoyed, more so if you’re prepared. We can’t prevent things from happening but we can lessen the odds of being hurt by being prepared. Enjoy the ride!

Interview with Scot Hansen in 2014

Karen Pickering
Owner/Publisher Karen’s lifelong love of horses began at a very early age when she wore out a couple of rocking horses before convincing her parents to get her the real thing. That ill-tempered bay gelding, Brandy, was a challenge for the young horsewoman, but it drove her ambition to become a horse trainer. After attending Canyonview Equestrian College’s Horsemanship Program, Karen realized she needed work that was a little more lucrative than training, so she took a job with Customs Brokerage to pay the bills. There, she discovered an affinity for computers and a talent for creating informative, entertaining newsletters. The Northwest Horse Source began as such a letter in December 1995, with a distribution of 1000 copies for its 12 black and white pages. Since then, it has grown into beautiful, all-gloss magazine with the largest coverage of any free equine publication in the Northwest – a distribution of over 16,000 copies and over 600 locations monthly. Not bad for the results of one woman’s dream to work with horses! Today, Karen remains involved with every aspect of the magazine and treasures the community of thousands who share a common passion. Somewhere in the wee hours of the early mornings and late evenings, she still finds time to care for April, her gorgeous and sweet-tempered Quarter Horse.

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