Learn how to avoid seven problematic situations on trail rides--and how to get out of them as safely as possible if they do catch you by surprise.
Proper planning can make all the difference when it comes to enjoying a trail ride. Without it, you can wind up in predicaments ranging from inconveniences to serious threats to your safety, as well as that of your horse and your trail-riding pals.
Beware: These insects get very agitated when horses tread over their nest, and their sting feels like a hot electric jolt. Often, the first two or three horses in the pack step on the nest and trigger a nest-defending attack. They might be stung in the belly or the flank, causing them to rear, kick out, buck, and panic. By the time the next few horses move ahead and the riders realize what’s happening, the insects can be in full-on swarm mode.
Worst-case scenario: If you see this situation develop or the lead rider yells, “BEES!” or “WASPS!”, move fast–either ahead or off the trail. If you’re on such a narrow trail that you can’t detour, be ready to high-tail it past the nest (at a lope, if necessary), and don’t hold up the riders behind you. If your horse gets stung and starts to buck, pull his head up and urge him forward to redirect his attention and lessen the chance of additional stings. The worst thing you can do is attempt to pull him to a stop, because that just gives the insects more opportunity to sting.
Extra caveat: You’re just as likely to be stung as your horse is. If you’re allergic to bee and/or wasp stings, always carry an EpiPen®, and be sure that another rider knows where you keep it and how to administer it.
Situation: Water crossings.
Avoid it: When water runs high, or if your horse slips and falls while crossing water, things can get dicey. Always cross at a designated area, both for safety concerns and to conserve the surrounding environment. Even if a creek has a rocky, visible bottom, the entrance and exit should be clear if it’s an established crossing. Call the trail service, if there is one, to ensure that all the water crossings are safe, especially when the water is high and moving quickly.
Beware: In the event that a horse does go down in water or finds himself having to swim, he’s going to need full use of his head and neck. Before crossing, un-dally ponied stock and remove tie-downs, martingales, and any other ropes and straps that could entangle your horse.
Worst-case scenario: The majority of horses instinctively know how to swim, so it’s likely that the horse can take care of himself if you find yourself in unexpectedly deep water. If you can, stay with your swimming horse by holding onto the saddle horn. Give your horse his head so he can keep his balance and get you out of the situation. If you can’t hang on or your horse falls, place all of your effort toward getting away from your horse’s feet as quickly as possible. A kick to the head could render you unconscious, which can be deadly in any situation involving water. Once you get clear of your horse, don’t try to stand up, even if the water doesn’t seem deep. Sit in the water with your feet up and pointed downstream in case swift water carries you away.
Dropped or Broken Gear
Situation: Unsecured/damaged gear.
Avoid it: Dropped water bottles, cameras, and hats; lost Chicago screws; broken reins or cinches–any and all of these can cause inconveniences and wrecks. Know how to secure your gear to your saddle, or ask someone who does to help you. Be sure that your gear fits your horse well and is in good condition before you take off. Carry only the necessities. Discuss what other riders are bringing along–do you really need duplicates?
Beware: If you have to stop the ride to retrieve or fix something, the chance of something else going wrong increases dramatically. A horse may get loose, for instance, or get into a kicking match with a neighboring one.
Worst-case scenario: If you or another rider does drop something, or a piece of gear breaks, alert the riders around you that you’re going to stop and how you plan to solve the issue. If necessary, ask another rider for help. By keeping everyone apprised of what’s happening, you’ll help ensure that no one winds up in trouble; for example, none of the horses get loose.
Situation: Girth Sores.
Avoid it: Condition your horse well before taking him on a long or multi-day ride. Ensure that your cinch is clean, in good condition, and properly adjusted.
Beware: Check your horse for rubbing throughout the day. If he develops a sensitive spot, move your saddle and adjust your riggings.
Worst-case scenario: A saddle sore can get oozy and bloody and make the remainder of your ride very uncomfortable for you and your horse. Carry a few disposable diapers and ointment in your pack. Apply the ointment to the sore, and wrap a diaper (plastic side toward the wound) around your cinch to reduce friction and protect the area from further irritation.
Situation: Loose-shale footing in mountainous areas.
Avoid it: It takes a steady, seasoned rider and horse to navigate this kind of terrain, so don’t attempt it if you’re a novice on a green horse. If your horse is quiet and familiar with the terrain, you shouldn’t run into problems. On most well-traveled trails, the footing should be fairly secure, so up your safety odds by staying on the designated trail.
Beware: Some mountainous trails have steep areas with loose rock that can be tricky to cross.
Worst-case scenario: When you encounter loose footing, stay out of your horse’s way. He might have to scramble up or down the path, but help him stay calm and encourage him to walk steadily. If your horse is emotional and runs through touchy situations, check and release him to keep him under control, but then let him have his head for balance. Don’t get off and attempt to lead him down a trail with loose footing, as you could be injured if he loses his balance and slides into you.
Whether your ride will be around your own back 40 or out in a wilderness area, proper preparation sets you up for a successful, safe adventure.
The editors thank Team Horse & Rider’s Julie Goodnight (juliegoodnight.com) for contributing advice and expertise to this article. This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Horse & Rider.