When you ride, it’s easy to get so focused on the task at hand that you lose sight of all else. Your horse, on the other hand, is always aware, noticing changes in weather, your mood, the disposition of other riders and horses, and his environment. As a non-prey animal, it’s likely you overlook many of the things that impact your horse’s emotional state or cause him to react. By increasing your awareness to match that of your horse, you avoid many potentially hazardous situations.
Though you’re more alert, you can still have fun on the trail and enjoy your friends. Here I’ll share the five areas where you should heighten your awareness to keep yourself and your horse safe.
Awareness of Your Horse
Before every ride, pay attention to your horse. Does he seem moody or irritable? If so, check for a physical discomfort causing his change in demeanor. If he hasn’t been ridden in a while and has excess energy, longe him in a safe area before riding. This lets him work off his extra energy and get comfortable in what might be a new environment or stressful situation.
If you ride a mare, this means being aware of her heat cycles and thinking ahead enough to place her at the back of a group trail ride to keep her from kicking another horse behind her and to minimize squealing. Same thing for any moody horse.
Throughout your ride, be aware of your horse’s temperament. Sudden irritability can mean he needs a break or a drink or that the ride is too intense.
Be cognizant of your horse’s needs throughout the ride to avoid bad situations before they happen.
Awareness of Self
Your horse reads your emotions every time you approach him. If he senses stress, he gets anxious. He doesn’t understand that your bad day at work doesn’t have anything to do with him. He simply perceives that you’re upset and reacts defensively. Once this happens and your horse gets worked up, it’s difficult to get him back under control.
Instead of approaching your horse with your own personal mission in mind, be self-aware. If you arrive to the barn flustered or upset, do your best to calm down before you ride—or even before you load your horse to haul him to a ride. Clean stalls or your tack, take a walk in the fresh air, or spend some quiet time on the ground with your horse, grooming him. If you’re less stressed when you ride, it decreases the likelihood you’ll fight with your horse or cause him to get worked up.
While riding, pay attention to your mood. Conflicts usually happen when you get mad—at your horse, other riders, or yourself. If you start to feel a fight coming, stop and try to calm down. Slow your cues and take deep breaths. Quick, jerky motions will only continue to cause him to continue to overreact.
Awareness of Others
On group rides, you’re often around unfamiliar horses. Your mount doesn’t know who the leader of the herd is, which increases the likelihood he’ll be hyper-aware of other horses’ anxieties. Watch other riders and be mindful of the group dynamic so you don’t get into trouble. If you see a rider struggling, give her plenty of space so that if an issue occurs she has room to get her horse under control. At the same time, provide the leadership your horse needs to stay calm and avoid escalation.
If you aren’t paying attention and another horse spooks, your horse will overreact. Stay in control of your emotions to help diffuse his anxieties. Provide clear, calm guidance. If your horse is the one that spooks, be mindful of those around you. Keep your distance from other riders to ensure that you don’t bump into other members of the group.
Awareness of Environment
Be proactive as you ride down the trail. It’s like driving a car. If you only look at what’s in front of you, you can’t react quickly enough if something happens, such as a deer jumping out of the bushes in front of you. It doesn’t matter how much work you put in at home to desensitize your horse, there will be things that appear on the trail that startle him and/or make him nervous. If you’re aware of your environment, you’ll be prepared to react in a way that makes your trail horse feel safe.
Look ahead to watch for signs of wildlife and other potential fear factors in your environment. Rustling bushes or trees can signal the sudden appearance of birds, deer, or other wildlife. If you see birds flying in a group overhead, consider what might’ve caused them to move. Perhaps another rider, animal, or trail user flushed them out as they passed. Be prepared for this person or animal to cross your path.
Weather also plays a role. Do your due diligence and check the weather before your ride. If you’re on a long or overnight trip, watch the sky. Remember this warning: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. The color of the sky can signal an approaching storm/unpleasant weather or calm, blue skies.
Awareness of Gear
Each time you ride take inventory of items to be replaced, including old or worn leather pieces, latigos, and missing Chicago screws. As you cinch up and adjust your headstall, pay attention to the fit of your gear. If your horse’s body composition has changed, make adjustments. A hanging back cinch can easily snag on a branch or bush and cause problems. A too-loose cinch or breast collar won’t keep your saddle in place, which can cause unnecessary problems on the trail.