10 Mistakes You’re Making on the Trail (And How You Can Fix Them)

Monique Potts goes over different scenarios that might happen during a trail ride and shows you how you can avoid them in the first place.

Photos by Nichole Chirico

Trail rides are supposed to be relaxing and fun, but if you don’t take the time to teach your horse the fundamentals before heading out, it can turn into a dangerous situation very fast. To avoid that, I’ve gone over the 10 most common mistakes I see riders make on a trail ride, and how you can fix them before they go from bad to worse. Read on to learn more.

Mistake #1: Overfacing Your Horse

The first question I ask when someone comes to me and says they’re having trouble trail riding their horse is if they’re overfacing their horse when they go on a trail. If your horse is acting up when you go out on a ride, there’s a possibility he’s hit his mental capacity and is feeling overwhelmed. While trail riding is supposed to be a fun and relaxing way to enjoy time together, it’s still something that you need to prepare him for ahead of time.

If you start to feel your horse getting overwhelmed on a ride, it’s time to start moving his feet and getting his focus back on you, not what’s going on around him. However, always make sure that the trail you’re riding on is wide enough so you can safely ride your horse in circles before asking him to get to work. 

Being able to get control of his feet starts from the ground, so it’s important to work on these skill sets before you decide to go for a ride. Getting control of his feet will help you gain control of where and when your horse moves his feet, and it can also help you out on a trail ride in case you have to dismount for any reason and lead your horse. 

Test your ability to move each foot individually. Read “Move His Feet” on HorseandRider.com to learn how I use a pole to teach my horses how to move their feet. Once you can do that on the ground, you can start working on gaining control of his feet when you’re in the saddle. You’ll do the same thing you did on the ground—moving his shoulders from side to side and disengaging his hindquarters—but instead of using a lead rope or flag to create energy on the ground, you’ll use your hands and feet to create energy.

Mistake #2: Not Using the Buddy System

One of the biggest safety issues I’ve seen happen on a trail ride is when a group of riders don’t stick together. While it’s always great to have a horse that isn’t dependent on his buddies, you don’t want to learn your horse has insecurities when he’s by himself in unfamiliar territory. Before heading to the trailhead, be sure to talk to your riding group about having a buddy system to ensure that horses and riders stay safe during the ride. 

While it’s fun to go for a lope when you’re on a wide-open trail, it’s more important to make sure you’re not putting another rider in a dangerous situation by taking off without them, leaving their horse distressed and anxious.

Mistake #3: Riding the Brakes

It’s easy to want to ride the brakes when you’re new to trail riding; the reins are your security blanket and having a tight grip helps you feel in control. However, the more you use your brakes, the quicker you’re going to burn through them, and probably annoy your horse in the process. Instead of having a constant hold on your horse, release your hand and rest it at the base of his neck. See what he does.

Most of the time I find that when a rider softens their hands, their body also relaxes, and their horse begins to feed off that energy and relax, too.

If you’re riding the brakes because your horse wants to move at a faster pace than you’re comfortable going, there are a few different things you can do to fix the problem. First, give him the chance to make a mistake. If you release your reins and he immediately speeds up, you can slow him back down before giving him the reins again. If he continues to walk with too much speed, you can even stop him and back him a few steps before asking him to walk forward again. Eventually he’ll learn that the more he speeds up, the more he has to stop and back up. 

trail mistakes
If your horse has a lot of energy, get his focus back on you by walking and trotting in small circles, asking him to move his body in different directions to see how he responds to your hand and leg cues.

Mistake #4: Using Poorly Fitted Gear

When you go for a trail ride, chances are, you’re going to spend long hours in the saddle. Ill-fitting tack can be uncomfortable for your horse. Before you head out to a ride, look over your gear to make sure it’s fitted to your horse properly. Is your girth fitting properly or is it pinching your horse? Is your saddle pad up off his withers? Is your bit sitting in his mouth properly? How tight or loose is the curb strap? These are easy things you can evaluate before getting on.

Properly fitting gear goes for you, too. Making sure your stirrup length is right so that you don’t develop knee pain will make longer rides more fun. You’ll also want to make sure you’re wearing proper riding gear. A good pair of denim will help protect your legs against debris on the trail or any bugs (ticks, for example) that might be hiding in the trees. And you should always wear proper footwear when riding. If your horse spooks and you come off, you’re more likely to get your foot hung up on a stirrup if you’re not wearing riding boots. 

If you wear a helmet, double check that it’s fitted to your head properly and that it was designed for horse riding specifically. If you ever fall off and hit your head, replace your helmet before your next ride. 

Mistake #5: Riding With Anxious Horses

Horses are herd animals, which means if you have one horse in the group that’s constantly anxious on the ride, the rest of the group is going to begin to feed off that horse’s energy. If your horse is the one that struggles with anxiety on the trail, go back to the basics and work through those issues before trying to take him on a long ride.

Riding around your own property is a great way to start building confidence in your horse. If all he’s ever done is spend time in the arena, it can be overwhelming going into an open area. Starting at home gives him a sense of security because he knows where he is. You can also enlist help from your friends. If you have a friend who has a calm, quiet horse, see if she can ride with you at home to help with building confidence. The idea is that your horse will start to feed off that horse’s energy and will start to realize there’s no threat and that he can relax.

Mistake #6: Making Your Horse Unbalanced

When you’re going up or down a hill, or crossing rocky terrain, it’s easy to want to hold your horse’s face to help him get through it. But the more you hold his face during these kinds of obstacles, the more likely you are to throw him off balance—putting both of you at risk for an accident. 

Instead, give your horse his head and let him find his balance. The more balanced you stay in the saddle, the better. As he won’t have to worry about you shifting your weight in the wrong direction. 

trail mistakes
If my horse gets nervous when I trail ride, I might start by riding around in an area to get him used to being outside of the arena on a property he’s familiar with. Gradually building his confidence.

Mistake #7: Trying to Contain Energy

 You start to go down the trail and your horse starts to get antsy and begins jogging. You go to your hands to pull him back to a walk, but he immediately goes back into a jog. The more you pull back, the more frustrated he becomes (and brings us back to Mistake #3). That’s because trapping his energy is just going to jazz him up even more. 

Instead, use up that energy by making him work. Get his focus back on you by walking and trotting in small circles, asking him to move his body in different directions to see how he responds to your hand and leg cues. You can flex his head, counter-arc him, and even leg yield him to test his responsiveness. Of course, always pay attention to your surroundings. Make sure that you have a safe area to work your horse and that you’re not going to put yourself in a dangerous situation. 

Make him stay round and collected as you work him. He’ll start to figure out that he has to work hard when he’s being antsy and that walking on the trail quietly is the good place. 

Mistake #8: Not Conditioning Your Horse

You wouldn’t go run a marathon without training ahead of time, so why try to take your horse out for a trail ride when he’s not physically fit? Not only is your horse more likely to sustain an injury when he’s not conditioned to trail ride, but he’s also going to be miserable in the process. 

If you know the trail you’re going to ride has hills or steep inclines, you need to condition your horse beforehand. This can take several weeks, even months, to do. If you plan on trail riding your horse during the summer months, condition him in cool mornings and evenings to get him fit.

Extend trotting and loping in your arena can help build muscle and help your horse’s endurance. You can also use your own property to your advantage. If your pastures have small hills on them, spend some time riding up and down them. Every little bit of exercise helps, and your horse will thank you when you take him on a long-distance ride that he’s physically able to handle.

Read More: Learning to Cross Water on the Trail

Mistake #9: Shoe Choice

If your horse has sliders on his back feet because you do the reining, ranch riding, or cow horse events, you might need to be careful with what kind of trails you take him on. Steep hills or slippery environments can be a disaster waiting to happen with sliders on, and should be avoided. 

Hoof boots can be a great thing to have on hand when you go for a ride. Not only will they help protect your horse’s foot if he loses a shoe, but they can also protect his feet from things like stone bruises if you’re going to be riding on rocky terrain. Hoof boots vary in size and shape, and can be purchased in pairs or as individual boots.  They’re easy to stash in a saddlebag to always have on hand.

Mistake #10: Not Having Control

This is one the biggest mistakes I’ve seen, and quite possibly one of the most dangerous mistakes. Fundamentals are just as important for horses that trail ride as they are for horses that compete in performance events. It’s easy to think that just because you don’t ever plan on showing your horse, you don’t need to have the same fundamentals performance horses have, but if you can’t stop your horse, back him, cue him forward, and get him to move off your legs and hands, then you shouldn’t be taking him into an unfamiliar environment outside of an arena.

By doing your homework before you head out on the trails, you’ll set your horse up for success and enjoy every ride you have together. 

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