A long, exploring trail ride with friends ranks as one of life’s most satisfying experiences.
“Riding with a group of friends is as good as it gets,” notes accomplished endurance rider Lari Shea, who owns and operates Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Fort Bragg, California. “You’re trail riding for the joy of it.
“But if the ride isn’t safe, if even one horse or rider is injured — or if the rider is afraid of a potential wreck — it isn’t fun.”
To make your outing safe and enjoyable for all concerned, follow Shea’s smart group-riding guidelines: (1) Create a like-minded group; (2) maintain a safe distance between horses; (3) communicate clearly; (4) negotiate obstacles correctly; and (5) pay attention to rider location.
“Equestrian etiquette and courtesy are vital,” Shea points out. “Many of these are common-sense guidelines, but are also just the courteous thing to do.”
1-Create a Like-Minded Group
When planning a group ride, first consider the horses involved. Consider gaits, rider skill level, and ride position.
• Gaits. “Some horses naturally move out faster at the walk, trot, and canter than others,” says Shea. “You may have to accommodate for this to make it an enjoyable ride for everyone,” says Shea.
The average horse walks two to five miles per hour. Gaited horses and those with a long stride will likely go faster.
The rider on the faster-walking horse will regularly have to ask her mount to slow down. Otherwise, the slower horses will constantly be jigging or breaking into a trot to catch up, and that doesn’t make for a relaxing ride.
• Rider skill level. “Orient the ride to the level of the least experienced or most nervous rider, “Have experienced riders mentor novice riders. Mentors can give equitation pointers, such as ‘keep your heels down’ and ‘don’t hold the reins too tightly.’ They can also keep a beginner from inadvertently doing something dangerous.”
If the experienced riders in your group would like to be less restricted by the novice riders, consider branching off the group at a trail fork, if you’re familiar with the trails.
Then the more experienced group can ride at a faster gait or on more challenging trails for a while, and join up with the novice riders where the trail meets again or at a predetermined spot.
(Avoid branching off if there are beginners in your group who wouldn’t be safe without a mentor rider.)
Never canter off from a group of novice riders, as these riders will have a hard time controlling their horses. (More on gait transitions in a minute.)
• Ride position. Alternate positions throughout the ride so a rider isn’t always at the back or in the middle. “Some horses get fractious if they aren’t in front all the time,” Shea notes.
Train your horse to be comfortable alternating positions during the ride. If you need help doing so, consult a reputable trainer or certified riding instructor. (To locate a certified riding instructor in your area, visit the Certified Horsemanship Association’s website, www.cha-ahse.com.)
If a horse is acting up, Shea finds that ponying helps. Only an expert at ponying should do this. Pony the horse with a lead rope, and let the rider keep her reins.
However, if a horse is having a “meltdown,” prancing and rearing unless he’s in front, let him take the lead for a while.
“Encourage the rider to follow the motions of her horse’s head with her hands and the horse’s body with her hips to try to relax the horse into a walk,” says Shea. “If he’ll walk, let him do so on a long, ‘following’ rein. Don’t keep shortening the reins, or the upset horse will likely curl his neck and prance.”
2-Maintain a Safe Distance between Horses
Keep one horse-length (front, back, and on both sides) between horses to help prevent you and/or your horse from being kicked. This is especially important when you’re moving along at a trot or canter.
“A well-schooled horse will be comfortable having another horse next to him on a sufficiently wide trail, but horses tend to defend their space if another horse comes up suddenly behind them,” notes Shea. “All horses like to ‘tailgate’ the horse in front of them. They just don’t want to be tailgated.”
How well the horses know each other affects their behavior on a group ride.
“Horses who are pastured, stabled, or frequently ridden together are much more tolerant of being followed closely by a horse they know,” explains Shea. “So be aware of each horse’s personality and equine friends.”
If your horse gets too close to the horse in front, he or you could be kicked. Your horse might also step on the heel or back of the shoe of the horse in front, causing injury or accident.
Always warn neighboring riders if your horse is getting aggravated and acts as though he might kick. If you know your horse to be a kicker in any situation, tie a red ribbon in his tail as a warning to others.
Communicate clearly about gait transitions, gait speed, passing, stopping, and trail hazards.
• Gait transitions. Agree ahead of time on which verbal and hand signals you’ll use, and use both before upward and downward gait transitions.
If you’re the lead rider, announce and signal a change of gait, then wait until everyone in the group is ready before the making the transition. Pay attention to the entire group. If you’re in the group, pay attention to everyone else.
To make a transition from, for instance, a trot to a walk, the leader should raise one hand in the “whoa” motion and call out, “Whoaaaaa…and walk.”
The riders behind should repeat the verbal command, if not the hand signal. This is especially important on a winding trail where you can’t see the leader.
• Gait speed. Watch your speed, especially in open space. “In wide-open spaces, horses tend
to be more competitive and try to race if cantering,” notes Shea. “It’s easier to control the speed at a trot.”
Trail position also affects control at faster gaits. “If you ride abreast, horses tend to accelerate,” says Shea. “Keep the horses in a single file, so it’ll be easier to keep them in control. Then they won’t expect to be able to pass.”
• Passing. When you do pass another horse and rider, ask for permission from the rider or riders in front, and specify which side you’ll be passing on.
For example, say, “When there’s room, could you move to your left, please? I’ll pass on your right.”
Don’t pass unless it’s safe to do so and never pass at a faster gait than the riders in front are moving. Never pass your leader or guide, unless you’ve all agreed to change positions.
If there’s a drop on one side of the trail, the passing horse takes the outside track.
• Stopping. Don’t be a hero. “If you lose your stirrup or balance, call out, ‘whoa’ to the whole group,” says Shea. “For example, don’t try to regain your stirrup while trotting or cantering along.
“If you need to stop for a bathroom break, or to adjust your girth or stirrups, call out to let the other riders know to stop and wait for you.”
• Trail hazards. Call out any trail hazards you encounter, such as a low-hanging branch or hole in the trail. Other riders might be looking off to the side and not notice it in time. Yell out, “Low branch,” or “Hole on the right!”
4-Negotiate Obstacles Correctly
If another rider’s horse is balking or hesitating at a creek, log, boggy ground, or other obstacle, be patient and considerate.
Wait for every horse to get through the situation before moving on. For example, if one horse is balking at a muddy spot, but the other horses continue on ahead, that horse might feel left behind and leap the mud hole, which risks unseating his rider.
Also, when you stop at a stream to allow the horses to drink, wait until the last horse has finished drinking his fill before resuming the ride. If the first horses finish and walk off, that last horse will hurry and won’t drink enough to rehydrate.
If your horse balks, speak up. “Don’t be afraid to ask for a lead if your horse balks at an obstacle,” says Shea. “Or you might ask a rider with an obstacle-savvy horse to come back and go in front of you. Then your balky horse will likely follow.”
5-Pay Attention to Rider Location
If you don’t pay attention, you can unintentionally put the riders behind you in a precarious position. For example, if you’re in front when riding up or down a steep trail, check the location of all riders before stopping.
“Everyone needs to be aware of where other riders are and the footing for their horses,” Shea notes.
When you get to bottom of a steep trail, stop, and wait for the other horses to get down. Otherwise, the horses on the hill might think they’re being left behind and try to hurry, which can be dangerous.
“If you’re in a large group, the entire group doesn’t have to wait. Just three or four riders can wait for the next three or four, and so on,” notes Shea.
Cynthia McFarland is a seasoned trail rider and full-time freelance writer based in Central Florida. She regularly contributes to national equine magazines and is the author of eight books.
A champion endurance rider, Lari Shea has completed more than 6,500 miles in 50- and 100-mile endurance races, placing in the top 10 in 95 of 106 races completed since 1988, and winning first place in 34 of those races. In 1989, she won the Western States 100-Miles-One-Day Trail Ride, known as the Tevis Cup. Her horses have won 31 Best Conditioned Horse awards.
Shea also has more than 30 years of experience as a riding instructor under her belt, specializing in trail and endurance riding. She headed the Horsemastership Program at the College of the Redwoods for 12 years.
The owner of Ricochet Ridge Ranch (888/873-5777; www.horse-vacation.com) on the coast in California’s Mendocino County, Shea produces daily trail rides, custom horse holidays, and the Redwood Coast Riding Vacations.