Cowboys are known for many things; practicality and common sense are at the top of the list.
Thanks to a lifetime of ranching and rodeoing and conducting clinics for more than two decades, Craig Cameron is known by many as the "cowboy's clinician." He's also spent countless hours on the trail. His down-to-earth philosophy for smart riding is to make sure you can live to ride again tomorrow. He stresses safety in every aspect of horse handling, whether on the ground or in the saddle.
I caught up with Cameron just before he headed off into the Colorado wilderness for a week-long trail-riding clinic. He was kind enough to share his top trail-riding tips.
How important is horsemanship to trail riders? Why?
I think horsemanship is extremely important for good trail riding, because the better you can handle your horse, the better you'll be able to go down the trail and the safer you'll be.
It's a matter of being able to control the whole horse - head, neck, shoulders, rib cage, and hindquarters - right down to the feet. Your ability to have a good handle on your horse and to practice good horsemanship skills will enable you to cross a bridge, creek, or other obstacles, and also to stay safe. The safer you are, the more enjoyable your ride will be.
About Craig Cameron
Considered one of the "original clinicians," Craig Cameron travels nearly 44,000 miles a year putting on horsemanship clinics all over the world. He also starts hundreds of young colts every year. His humane training methods are built around understanding the nature of the horse, and seeing things from the horse's point of view.
Cameron has been inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. His book, Ride Smart, co-written with Kathy Swan, was published by Western Horseman Books in 2004. He currently has two award-winning television programs on RFD-TV, the Ride Smart show, and The Extreme Cowboy Race, of which he's creator and host. (For more information, call 800/274-0077, or visit www.craigcameron.com.)
Cameron has dedicated himself to helping people educate their horses by first educating themselves. He believes that horsemanship is meant to be enjoyable, and that riders need to have a common-sense approach so they can continue to ride safely.
When they aren't on the road, he and his wife, Dalene, ride and relax at their Double Horn Ranch, near Stephenville, Texas.
You want to be a centered and balanced rider; this will help your horse to stay on the trail. Like everything else, horsemanship is an art form. The more you can practice and prepare, the better you're going to be. Many people who play a musical instrument take a lesson every week and practice an hour every day. It would be great if people would do that with their horses!
Q:What are your top on-trail safety tips?
A: Safety on the trail involves both big things and little things. For starters, your horse needs to be well-prepared for the trail. Don't go out on a green horse you haven't schooled for the trail yet. If you've done your homework, you'll both be ready.
Both horse and rider need to be fit. If you're going on a tough ride, your horse needs to be legged up and fit, and he probably needs shoes if the terrain is rocky. If you're staying out on the trail overnight, your horse should also be hobble trained and know how to stand quietly on a picket line.
Keep a safe, horse-length distance between horses. Never get right up behind another horse. Pay attention to other riders and horses around you. If the horse in front of you is wringing his tail or pinning his ears, don't just wait to get kicked. Move away! Pay attention to where you ride and where you tie on the trail.
Be able to mount and dismount from both sides. This can be important if you find yourself on a ledge or narrow trail. Also, your horse needs to lead well, in case you have to get off and help someone, or walk through a tricky spot.
Your horse needs to be "slicker trained," meaning you should be able to put your slicker on and off while on your horse. It's amazing how many people have never done this. They're off on a ride and it starts raining, so they go to put their slicker on and then the rodeo begins.
Your horse should know how to cross water. This is important, because on any trail ride, you might have to cross a creek or some body of water.
Even if you're going on a long ride, always warm your horse up first. You want to get the "fresh" off him; you're not going to have a good ride if your horse is chargy.
Pay attention, and listen to the trail boss so you don't get lost. Use good common sense to protect yourself and your horse.
Don't let your pride get in the way. If you come up to a scary obstacle, there's nothing wrong with riding around it or getting off and leading your horse.
Q:What is your biggest on-trail pet peeve?
A: When riders lope their horses away out in front of other riders. It's a really inconsiderate thing to do, and causes tremendous problems for other horses. Herd instinct takes over, and makes the horses prancy and anxious. If you want to lope, go behind the group, not out in front.
If your horse gets very anxious on a trail ride, you can just lope a big circle around a small group of five or six other horses and riders as they're walking. This really works well to defuse any potentially explosive horses or situations.
Q:The top mistake you see on trail?
A: People who constantly hold their horses. They never turn the horse loose and are in the horse's mouth all the time. This is like driving your car with the brakes on. It takes all the handle off him, and also takes the stop off him. You should be able to ride your horse on a loose rein.
If your horse is chargy and high-strung with a big engine, he doesn't need sugar and starch in his system before you ride. Feed him grass hay instead, so he can be relaxed physically and mentally.
Q:What do you see as trail-riders' top training problem?
A: Letting their horses eat on the trail! This creates a lot of problems, not only for you, but for the riders around you. If your horse is eating, he's not paying attention to where his feet are, and that's when he can stumble, fall, or get into trouble. Instead, let him eat when you eat.
A habit is the easiest thing to create and the hardest to break; create good habits in your horse. You might not think you're training, but your horse is always learning, so be sure he's learning something good.
Q:What's the most challenging situation you've ever encountered during a trail ride, and what's your advice to handle this situation?
A: One of the most challenging things I've encountered is a horse getting stuck in a bog. The second you feel your horse start to go down in a bog, try to turn him and get out of it. If you can't get out, get off your horse. Many times, a horse can get out better on his own. Sometimes a rider will actually pull a horse over and get him stuck worse.
Listen to your guide; ride where he rides, and go where he goes. A bog doesn't always look boggy, so be careful and ride smart.
Q:What should someone look for in a prospective trail horse?
A: Find a really gentle, well-broke horse that knows how to walk. It's a heck of a lot easier to speed one up than slow one down. Test drive this horse a couple times just like you would a car. A lot of people don't even get on the horse they're going to buy, but you should ride him at least a couple times, and also watch him being caught, handled, and saddled.
Q:What should a buyer avoid?
A: If you're a novice or intermediate rider, stay away from young and green. Remember this saying: "Green-on-green makes black-and-blue."