For avid trail riders, "the road less traveled" is usually the most appealing. It's all about discovering what lies around the next bend and getting there on the back of a good horse.
In this series, Lynn Palm shares guidelines and helpful exercises on how to increase your on-trail control and safety, whether you've been trail riding for years on a trustworthy equine partner or are just introducing a young horse to the world outside the arena.
Palm, a world champion Quarter Horse trainer who now teaches Palm Partnership Training, is a big believer in trail riding's physical and mental benefits. In fact, the majority of training with her first world champion, Lecanto Raider, took place on the trail. Here, she focuses on recommended trail-riding tack to optimize your and your horse's safety and comfort. Her equine partners are 9-year-old stallion Rugged Painted Lark (Western tack) and 5-year-old stallion Larks Painted Dinero (English tack).
Checkpoint #1: Saddle
For light training on the trail, Palm prefers a dressage saddle, but if she plans to do a great deal of cantering, she'll opt for a hunt seat saddle, which helps a rider achieve a two-point position. A two-point position, in which your legs are against your horse's sides while your seat is out of the saddle, helps you stay balanced over your horse's center of gravity, which increases your stamina at the canter.
When it comes to pleasure trail riding, especially in hilly terrain, Palm likes a Western saddle, because it has a larger seat and is more comfortable. Also, the saddle horn can help you keep your balance when going up or down hills in steep terrain.
Saddle fit/placement. Whatever your saddle choice, be sure it fits your horse. If the tree is too narrow, the saddle can slip back, putting painful pressure on his lower back and loins. Poor saddle fit can lead to a host of physical problems, including sore withers, back and loin muscles, muscle atrophy, lack of extension, uneven hoof wear, and lameness. If you doubt whether a particular saddle is a good fit for your horse, consult a saddle-fit expert.
Surprisingly, many riders unknowingly place their saddle too far forward on their horses' backs. When this happens, your horse's scapula (shoulder blade) actually hits the saddle tree as he strides out. To avoid pain, he compromises his stride; this unnatural, altered stride causes him to land harder than usual, putting more pressure on his feet, joints, and muscles.
Also, the under-panels of a too-far-forward saddle don't come in contact with your horse's back. Instead, your saddle bridges, meaning that it touches only his withers and lower back. This creates undue pressure on these areas, rather than uniformly distributing your weight.
Cinch/girth. Palm suggests using a neoprene or leather cinch or girth, which is easy to clean and disinfect-particularly important if you use your tack interchangeably on different horses. "I really like a neoprene girth, but you have to be cautious, because you can get one overly tight," she says. "On long trail rides, particularly when it's hot, I use a leather girth. I don't like to have rubber against my horse's skin, especially in tender places, such as the girth and back areas. Neoprene can irritate the skin, because it doesn't breathe."
If you ride with a back cinch or girth, you shouldn't be able to see a noticeable gap of daylight between the cinch/girth and your horse's belly. A loose back cinch is asking for an accident to happen. On the trail, a branch can get caught in it, and your horse can even hang up a back foot, which may lead to injury.
When tacking up, tighten the cinch or girth at least twice. After the first time, leave the stirrup hooked on a Western saddle horn or the English irons run up the leather. This will remind you to tighten the cinch/girth once more before mounting.
Safety check. Saddle style is your personal preference, but safety isn't optional. Routine maintenance and observation can mean the difference between a pleasurable ride and one that ends in a wreck, due to tack failure.
Before every ride, turn your saddle upside down and look it over. Pay close attention to places where hardware connects with leather, looking for cracks or signs of wear. Inspect the billets and buckles on an English saddle and the latigo on a Western one. If you find any cracks in a leather latigo, replace it immediately. A nylon latigo will last longer than leather, but be careful you don't overtighten it when cinching up.
Checkpoint #2: Saddle Pad
Pad type. A wool saddle pad is ideal, as it conforms to your horse's back, wicks away sweat, and is long-wearing. Look for a one-inch-thick wool pad. Avoid a synthetic-fleece pad, which lacks the moisture-wicking properties of wool.
Note that a single Navajo-type blanket isn't typically thick enough for your horse's comfort; add another pad or blanket underneath. Square cotton blankets and half pads are popular among English riders. Palm personally likes Professional's Choice SMx Air-Ride pads (800/331-9421; www.profchoice.com), in both Western and all-around styles. These pads conform both to your saddle and your horse's back.
Don't make the mistake of thinking "the thicker the better," as too many pads will cause a barrel effect, which causes the saddle to shift; this, in turn, can sore your horse's back. You can't improve saddle fit by adding pads. If a saddle doesn't fit properly, no pad can correct the problem. Be sure your pad is large enough for your saddle. There should be at least one inch of pad showing around all edges of the saddle.
Tack-up tip. Whenever you tack up, pull the front of your pad or blanket up to the top of the cantle. This creates a "tunnel" allowing air to enter and reach your horse's back, making him cooler and more comfortable during the ride. Also, make sure no mane hairs are trapped and pulled tight under the pad.
Pad cleaning. Clean your saddle pad regularly; hair and dirt buildup can irritate your horse's back. Also, use a clean pad if you switch horses; shared equipment can spread skin problems from horse to horse. Toss cotton blankets and pads in the wash. Hand-wash wool pads in cold water with a mild soap, such as Ivory, and a hard bristled brush. After washing, air-dry blankets and pads in the sun.
Checkpoint #3: Bridle
In the Arena
"Most of the time when people have trouble on the trail, it's because they just head out without warming up themselves or their horse first," says Palm. "If you take time to warm up your horse before going out on your ride, you'll quickly find out what his mood is that day, and you'll take the edge off him if he's feeling a little 'high.'"
Before you step into the saddle, stretch and limber up, especially in cold weather. Then take at least 20 minutes - or as long as you need - to longe your horse, or ride him in the arena or pasture to burn off some of his natural energy before you hit the trail. Walk, trot, and lope/canter in both directions, and make sure he's listening and responding to your cues. This simple strategy will go a long way toward making your trail ride safe, relaxing, and fun.
Bridle type. Either a leather or nylon bridle is acceptable for trail riding. Secure the headstall with a browband and throatlatch. When riding English and using a snaffle, Palm recommends adding a cavesson (noseband) to keep your horse from opening his mouth and to provide more control. If he can open his mouth, he can evade bit pressure, because a snaffle works off his mouth's sides.
Many trail riders like combination halter/bridles. (For more information on trail bridles and bits, see "Trail Bridles & Bits," Special Section, May/June '06). Or, put a well-fitting nylon halter on underneath your horse's headstall. Make sure the halter is fitted high enough (one inch under each cheekbone) to prevent bit pinching. Take along a stout lead rope so you can safely tie your horse when you stop along the trail.
Reins. Split reins or a single rein are a matter of personal preference. Palm chooses to ride with 5/8-inch wide split-leather reins made from bridle leather, because they're a good fit for women's hands. Round reins are her second choice, but she prefers leather over nylon. Nylon is slick, while leather offers better grip and contact. However, in rainy weather, leather can become slippery, so nylon is the better choice. Palm carries an extra set of reins in her saddlebag for this reason. If you ride English, you'll find laced or braided reins offer a good grip.
If you ride with a single rein, leave those short barrel racing or roping reins at home. They belong in the arena. When you trail ride with very short reins, you may tend to lay them on your horse's neck, sacrificing control. Or, your rein cues may be too abrupt simply because you don't have enough slack. Reins should be long enough that when you pick them up, there's a good 6 to 12 inches of bite, the part of the rein that hangs down. This extra length gives you adjustment options and allows you to maintain a loose rein or light contact when you don't need greater control.
Hardware: Use buckles or leather lacing, rather than snaps, to attach the reins to the bit. "Jiggling snaps can annoy a sensitive or nervous horse, because it stimulates them even more," Palm notes. "If you do use snaps, make sure the snap weight isn't heavier than the rein; otherwise it'll move constantly and send vibrations to the bit, which some horses find very annoying. These vibrations also interfere with clear rein cues. If you use snaps and your horse mouths the bit a lot, or is nervous, replace those snaps with leather lacing, and you might notice a big improvement."
Do you need a breastcollar for trail riding? The answer depends on where you do most of your riding. If you often ride in hilly terrain, a breastcollar is desirable, as it prevents your saddle from slipping back when going uphill.
Look for a well-made, leather breastcollar, and properly adjust it to fit your horse. It should fit snugly - not tight and never loose. It should rest above your horse's point of the shoulder (as shown). If it sits too low over the point of the shoulder, it'll restrict his movement and cause him pain. The front center ring should rest right at the base of his neck; if it's any lower, the breastcollar is sitting too low.
Checkpoint #4: Bit
Bit type. "You should ride in the least severe bit you need to have control of your horse," Palm notes. "People tend to have more bit than they need. They think they need more bit on the trail, but a more severe bit enhances sensitivity and response. When you take your horse on the trail, he's stimulated by the new surroundings and will be more reactive to the bit. Instead of getting more control, you can actually have less."
When you head out on the trail, ride in the same bit that you use in the arena. If your horse performs well in a sidepull, bosal or hackamore, that's fine for the trail, too.
Any bit can be abusive depending on the rider's hands. Even a snaffle bit - which sports a broken mouthpiece and lacks shanks for leverage - can be severe in the wrong hands.
Bit fit. Make sure the bit you are using fits and is adjusted properly in your horse's mouth. It shouldn't sit too low. There should be one wrinkle in the corners of his mouth, just above the bit.
If your horse is comfortable with the bit, his mouth, head-and-neck carriage, and neck muscles will be relaxed, and his eye will be soft. Is his mouth always moving, is his neck tense, or does he frequently toss his head? Any or all of these can be signs the bit isn't right for him, isn't fitted properly, or you're being too heavy-handed.
Curb strap. If you ride in a curb bit, use a plain leather curb strap with buckles on both sides for ease of adjustment, says Palm. A properly fitted curb strap will create just the right leverage to work on the bars (the space between the incisors and the molars where the mouthpiece lies) of your horse's lower jaw. If the strap is too tight, it places constant tension on the bit. If the strap is too loose, the bit loses leverage. To check adjustment, make sure you can slip two fingers under the strap and slide them along your horse's chin.