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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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