Trail Riding Safety

Learn how to avoid seven sketchy situations on the trail--and how to get out of them as safely as possibly if they do catch you by surprise.

Proper planning can make all the difference when it comes to enjoying a trail ride and trail ride safety. 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.

Even with proper preparation (see sidebar, “Plan Ahead,” below, for tips), unexpected situations can arise, and you must act quickly to keep all the horses and humans in your party as safe as possible. Here are a few common problems in trail riding safety to keep in mind. If one of these situations sneaks up on you, you’ll also be armed with information necessary to get out of it quickly and with as little harm as possible.

Hoof Blows
Situation: Kicks to horse or rider.

Avoid it: Pay attention to your horse and those around yours you at all times, whether on the move or standing still. Before you leave on your ride, tie a piece of red ribbon into the tail of any known or suspected kick-prone horse. It’ll warn others not to come too close. Alert fellow riders if you need to stop, so that they can prepare their horses and avoid pileups.


Any stopping point, whether to retrieve dropped gear, tighten a cinch, or take a photo, poses an increased kicking risk, especially when you’re riding in a group of unfamiliar horses. The situation puts the horses in what is, essentially, a herd environment. Throw in that they’ve been on the move and are suddenly stopped and agitated, and the risk of a kick is heightened. At stopping points, don’t allow social herd interaction: sniffing, rubbing, nuzzling, which also can lead to kicks. Keep your horse’s attention on you, while you stay aware of what’s happening elsewhere. Position your horse’s hindquarters away from any other horse, and be sure that none of the other horses’ kicking gear is aimed at you or your horse.

Worst-case scenario: If horses do get a little friendly or frisky and another horse or a rider gets kicked, separate the horses immediately. Assess the injury. Will the horse/rider be able to continue on the ride? Will the items in the first-aid kit suffice for treatment, or is emergency help required? Kick-blows to riders should be regarded as potential emergencies, because they often strike bone or cause massive contusion.

Sucked Down
Situation: Bogs and quicksand.

Avoid it:

Bogs and quicksand can be especially dangerous for a horse, he could start thrashing or panic, leading to severe soft-tissue damage. If you’ll be riding a managed trail, call ahead to see if the trail is open and the terrain is suitable for horses. Often, a stretch of rainy, wet weather can lead to closed trails because the footing isn’t stable. If the trail is open in spite of a bog or quicksand, the trail service often will designate a safe detour around the poor footing.

Beware: If a boggy trail isn’t heavily traveled by horses, the trail service might not know about the situation. If you’re riding on private land, there’ll be no trail service to rely upon. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to what’s ahead. An unusually green area, for instance, indicates a water source, and the footing beneath that green may be boggy. Also, bogs can get deeper with each crossing, so traverse any questionable terrain one horse at a time.

Worst-case scenario:

Stay calm. If you encounter a bog, keep your horse moving forward, as the longer he stays in one place, the less momentum he’ll have to get free. Stay out of his way, you might have to direct him to the safest area to exit, but try not to interfere with his head too much. Get up off his back, reach forward with your reins, and encourage him to keep going forward. It’s a very fine line: You don’t want the horse to panic, but you don’t want him to stop completely and bog down even more. With quicksand, horses often can’t get out without intervention or rescue.

Surprise Stingers
Situation: Attacks by ground-dwelling bees or wasps.

Avoid it: Be aware that ground-nesting bees and wasps can be an issue on trail rides. There’s really no sure-fire way to anticipate where the underground nests lie, because you can’t see them like you could if they were in a tree. But as a rule of thumb, these stinging insects prefer to nest in areas with plenty of pollen (meadows, for instance, or forested areas with pollen-laden trees) and a water source nearby.

The lead rider may notice insects buzzing a foot or so above a spot on the trail, indicating entrance to an underground nest. If you’re at the front of the pack, be alert for such a sight, and plan to detour around it, alerting those behind you to do likewise. This might be an argument for using well-frequented trails, as ground-dwelling bees and wasps generally won’t nest directly beneath a highly traveled path. 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.

Water Woes
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.

Rubbed Raw
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.

Unstable Footing
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.

Plan Ahead
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.

  • Choose one map to follow before venturing out, to ensure that the entire group is on the same page.
  • If possible, call ahead to be sure that the trail is in good condition and to ask about any potential trouble spots along the way.
  • Decide as a group what’s expected of the riders and their horses. Point out which horses are dominant, which are speedy or slow walkers, which may be mares in heat, and which may tend to kick. Also, discuss each rider’s skill level so the more advanced ones can look out for the novices.
  • Designate an experienced rider with a seasoned horse as the group’s leader. This person should know the trail well and be confident that he or she can handle myriad situations.
  • Charge the rider with the most first-aid knowledge with carrying the first-aid kit.
  • Choose a form of emergency communication. If cell phones won’t work in the area you plan to ride, you’ll have to rely on two-way radios to contact emergency help.
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