Safe trail riding for you and your horse

With more people using trails, safe trail riding and having a trail-safe horse have taken on a whole new meaning. Here’s a look at what you need to know.

As the population grows and more people use trails, safe trail riding has become a more complex issue. Once upon a time, the most common things to spook a horse may have been a deer popping into view, or grouse exploding from cover. Today it is likely to be any of the following: hikers, joggers, mountain bike riders, ATVs, dirt bikes, or even people pushing strollers.

With so much more going on, safe trail riding – and having a trail-safe horse – have taken on a whole new meaning. Let’s look at what you need to know.

Training and conditioning

If you ride in an area where you are likely to encounter “multi-use” folks, safe trail riding means conditioning your horse to as many different sounds and objects as possible. I have trained mounted police horses, and can assure you that these animals have a fantastic ability to understand a variety of odd objects, noises and people. Here are some hints for dealing with the trail issues you might come across:

• Bicycles are especially troublesome to horses as they have a tendency to arrive silently and quickly, and are carrying an oddly-shaped passenger crouched much like a predator. You can condition most horses to a bicycle by simply using one around them. As with any training, start slow, progress gradually, and reassure your horse. If you aren’t sure what you are doing, seek professional help.

• You can condition your horse to almost any motorized vehicle including ATVs, dirt bikes and cars. While riding a young horse that is just learning the ropes, I have even asked ATV riders to remove their helmets so my horse could see that the alien on the motorcycle actually had a normal head.

• If you have to connect your trail system by riding along a road, make sure your horse can handle traffic.

Learn to communicate and educate

Safe trail riding means communication, and communication means more than yelling at someone to slow down as they pass you. You can often get dirt bike and ATV riders to slow down by using a hand signal. I have had many slow, stop, and even shut off their engines and wait, by using a hand signal, while my horse and I rode past. I usually speak to them too.

Learning to say “Hello, how are you?” and speak politely often goes a long way towards getting other trail users to cooperate. I know there are “jerk” ATV users and dirt bike riders out there, but many are more than happy to oblige.

Remember that the person who passes you in one direction may be coming back from the other direction in a little while. If your first encounter was pleasant, you’re likely to receive the same treatment as the person passes by again on the return trip.

Most bicycle riders don’t understand that they can scare a horse. They assume things will be okay because they are on a quiet, non-motorized vehicle. I have taken the time to explain the horse’s viewpoint (that they look like a predator, and the bicycle makes an odd whirring sound) to a number of bicycle riders, and their response has usually been, “Wow, I never thought of that, thanks.”

Likewise, most motorcycle riders don’t realize horses can be spooked by their helmets, and can see reflections in a visor or set of goggles. Communicating can make a world of difference for you and other riders.

Wear a helmet

It cannot be stressed enough that wearing a helmet is vital to safe trail riding. It’s dangerous enough with the many different obstacles, people, and strange things the horse might meet and spook at, let alone all the additional incidents that can happen by accident.

Often, an injury can come from what would seem a simple fall. Many people have been hurt when their horse tripped and they were thrown over the animal’s neck, striking their head on a rock. You may also encounter unexpected sink holes when your horse steps on a soft spot. Trail edges can cave in, slides can occur, and branches that were broken during a storm can fall at the oddest times, as I learned during one of my own rides. I am not sure whether my horse or I was the most surprised when a large branch suddenly dropped from above and stuck in the ground like a spear.

Additional gear for safe trail riding

1. A grab strap or night latch is a good thing to have on your saddle.

They give you something to hang onto should your horse spook, buck, spin, or bolt. They are easier and safer than using the saddle horn or grabbing the pommel. Many riders have been saved from a severe accident because they had a strap to hang onto.

2. All equestrians should carry a sharp, quality knife.

It can be very useful for cutting a horse free from a tangled lead line at the trailer or from a hay net he has put his foot in, not to mention brambles, vines, or sticker bushes.

3. A cell phone is also very handy to have.

Make sure you have an emergency number programmed into your directory, and that you know where along the trail the phone will work and where it won’t.

More safety tips and trail etiquette

• As much as possible, follow the same rules you do while driving: stay to the right for an approaching group and pass on the left when overtaking someone. However, unlike a car, a horse can suddenly close the gap between horses on his own. Make sure that when you pass you have good control of your horse so he doesn’t try to bite, kick, or even sniff the other horses.

• If you are going to canter or gallop, be respectful of other riders, bicyclists, and hikers and slow to a walk when you get near and need to pass. A galloping horse can be frightening to all of the above, especially to another equestrian. Horses usually run away from danger, and a rider galloping towards another horse and rider may accidentally trigger the other horse to start running too. Every year, accidents are triggered by this unsafe practice.

• If you ride with your dog make sure he is well behaved and will listen to your commands. Safe trail riding is complex enough without a dog triggering nasty events by scooting under a horse.

The best way to enjoy safe trail riding is to prepare for the unexpected. By adding training techniques for unusual objects, learning to communicate effectively with other trail users, wearing and using proper gear, and exercising caution when passing other horses, your riding experience will be greatly enhanced.

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Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn, and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260 or e-mail