Q:I don't currently own a horse, but I've owned and ridden horses for 20 years. I now enjoy trail riding horses provided by professional outfitters. Friends often offer their "extra" horses to me for trail riding with them. Some haven't been ridden for a while, and I'm a bit leery of jumping on a horse I don't know. What do you think? Should I avoid these offers altogether, or is there a way to assess the horse ahead of time?
Albany, New York
A: Annie, this is an excellent question. Some people loan out their horses to just about anyone that comes along. This isn't a safe practice, especially if the rider doesn't assess the horse prior to a trail ride. Your question shows that you possess keen horsemanship savvy.
In my opinion, it's safest to not ride other people's horses or loan out your own horse. With your own horse, you can build a deep bond of mutual trust and respect. That is the safest and best way to go, but it takes time and focus. Consider leasing or half-leasing a well-trained trail horse, so that you have the opportunity to develop this bond.
If you do decide to ride another's horse just for the day, follow my guidelines, below. As you do, always stay safe, and practice Responsible Horsemanship. If you need to, ask a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor in your area to help you.
Always assess a borrowed horse in a safe environment before you ride him on the trail. If the lender doesn't allow for this, politely turn down the offer. To assess the horse, follow these guidelines.
• Ask questions. Ask the lender how old the horse is, how long he or she has owned the horse, and how much professional training the horse has had (if any). Other key questions to ask: Does the horse have any bad or dangerous habits? Has anyone been injured while riding the horse? Has the horse ever been injured? How much trail-riding experience does the horse have? How has he behaved with other first-time riders? Has anyone ever had a bad experience with the horse?
• Observe ground work. Ask the horse's owner to demonstrate the horse's ground skills, including leading, stopping, backing, lateral flexion, and longeing. Assess especially how well the horse stops and backs up; these are important skills for your upcoming trail ride.
• Observe tacking up. Ask the owner to groom and tack up the horse. Observe how well the horse takes the bridle and saddle. Also observe how well he stands for grooming, feet cleaning, and fly applications. Observe the owner's horse-handling skills. You want him or her to be self-confident around the horse, not timid. A timid horseperson is less likely to be the horse's herd leader.
• Observe under-saddle work. Ask the owner to ride the horse in a round pen or other enclosed arena, with safe footing. Ask the owner to stop, back up, ride in circles, ride in straight lines, and perform gait changes. Ask the owner if the horse sidepasses and opens gates, and willingly goes over and through obstacles, such as water and brush.
• Determine cues. Ask the owner how he or she cues the horse. Then observe the application of these cues in the arena, and duplicate them as closely as possible. If you give the horse unfamiliar cues, you'll confuse him, which can lead to problems on the trail that may compromise your safety.
• Spend time with the horse. Spend as much time with the horse as you can. Get to know him on the ground and under saddle. This will also allow the horse to get to know you.
• Ride with care. On the trail, wear a riding helmet. Stick to walking and jogging; the horse will likely be harder to control at faster gaits. Ride only with people who put safety first. If you face a situation that seems risky, don't hesitate to turn around and head home.
Trainer J.F. Sheppard practices Responsible Horsemanship. He's certified under top Paint Horse trainer William T. Lawrence. You can reach the Oregon resident at firstname.lastname@example.org