This polar-vortex winter can't last forever, and when it's gone you'll be itching to get out for some glorious trail rides. That's only natural, but don't rush into things. Every spring, countless well-meaning riders wind up getting dumped on their first trail ride of the season. Here are 10 tips to help ensure that doesn't happen to you:
1. Ride in advance. If weather has kept you off your horse for weeks (or even months), don't let a trail ride be your first return to the saddle. Horses learn and remember well, but they do get rusty just as we do when we haven't done something in a while. Get a regular riding routine going to tune up your horse's responses and respectfulness before you go out on the trail, where additional distractions (especially other horses, if you go in a group), will test your control of your mount. (For a good schooling exercise, check out the simple sidepass.)
2. Deal with any issues. If, in your pre-trail-season schooling rides, you run into specific problems, deal with them in the arena before you go out on a trail. Is your horse being resistant or bullying you? Take steps to correct his behavior--don't make excuses for him.
3. Practice easy trails. Before you accept that invitation for a group ride in the high country, take a few low-key spins around your own area first, with a single trusted companion or two. Let your horse get used to being next to another horse, in front of him, behind him--and even a few horse-lengths behind him (this is the tough one). Cross water. Step over logs. Go up and down hills. Work out any glitches in a controlled environment before you venture out into unfamiliar territory.
4. Be realistic. Is your horse truly ready for the type of ride you're considering? If not, you're better off staying home and continuing your schooling in the arena and on practice rides until he is. (For fun, try our terrific arena exercises.)
5. Gear up. A breast collar and a back cinch can help prevent saddle slippage that might alarm your horse or unseat you. A well-adjusted running martingale will help keep your reins in place during the odd fractious moment. A mecate-rein setup or a longe line tucked into your saddle bag can provide a way to work the sillies out should your horse (despite all your prep work?it happens) start to unhinge during the ride.
6. Pick good pals. Ride only with friends who know and practice proper trail manners and can control their own horses.
7. Mind the weather. A calm, sunny day is ideal. Frigid or especially windy weather can make even clam, well-mannered horses flighty. (Cold air is bracing, and wind makes it hard for prey animals to tell where scents are coming from, causing them to feel extra-vulnerable and jittery.)
8. Prep right before the ride. Before you head out, work your horse in a round pen, put him through some groundwork exercises (longeing for respect is ideal), or ride him in an arena to work the fresh out and get him dialed in to you.
9. Then ride. Don't just be a passenger out on on the trail. Keep your horse's attention focused on you by asking for small adjustments—speed up a bit here, collect yourself there, sidepass to avoid that rock. Keep your connection with him live at all times and you'll resolve most problems before they start.
10. And breathe!
Keep alert, but also stay loose. Don't hang on the reins defensively; that just makes your horse tense. Sit deep in the saddle, shrug your shoulders back, relax your muscles downward, and keep breathing. To ease any nervousness you feel at any point, hum or even
These 10 tips will get you off on the right foot. If your horse still acts up out on a trail ride, our January 2014 feature, "Control Your Trail Horse," gives you a step-by-step strategy for dealing with it.