Even if you haven't had a big wreck with your horse, you've imagined what can happen on the trail. You've felt your stomach tie in knots as you headed up a steep hill, passed through deep water, or worse, seen a friend slip or fall with her horse.
Those moments of fear aren't bad and shouldn't be dismissed says natural horsemanship trainer Julie Goodnight. "Fear is a natural response," she says. "It can help you stay alive. With horses, it's always important to think, what's the worst-case scenario? If you know what can happen, you can make plans to avoid it."
Here, Goodnight gives you eight ways to avoid a potential tragedy. When you know what steps to take to be safe, you can ride with confidence and ease.
Safety tip #1: Check your cinch
Problem: Your saddle becomes loose and swings beneath your horse.
Worst-case scenario: You're going along the trail at a brisk pace when you realize you haven't checked your cinch for almost an hour. And you can't quite remember - did you check the cinch or girth after stopping for a lunch break? Your saddle slips to the side, taking you with it. You try to untangle yourself from the saddle, which is now upside down and hanging below your horse's belly, but your foot is caught. Your horse is moving faster as the "attacking" saddle chases him. You're terrified as you're being dragged down the trail. If you're lucky, your worst problem will be a horse that's terrified of being saddled. If you're not so lucky, you risk a serious injury or even death.
Goodnight says she's seen many saddles slip and flip during her years as a horse trainer and trail guide. "That traumatizes a horse for the rest of his life - he's afraid of a saddle after it slips and that's a difficult and sometimes impossible fear to un-train."
Solution: Avoiding this wreck is simple - take time to check your cinch or girth and know where to check for potential problems.
How to go about it: You might've been taught to check your cinch at a point parallel to your horse's elbow. Your horse is concave in shape on his side, so the cinch will almost always feel loose at that point - it's a false reading. Check the cinch between his front legs, at the back of the cinch where it crosses your horse's sternum; that's hard bone. You'll get a true feel for the looseness or tightness there.
To be sure, place a straight index finger between your horse's haircoat and the cinch. Reach in from the side closest to your horse's tail so that when you pull your finger out, you'll leave the horse's hair flat and avoid causing him to be sore. If you can push one finger in up to your first joint, your cinch is tight. If you can easily push two fingers - or one finger farther than the first joint - between your horse's body and the cinch, your cinch may need to be tightened. If you can't get your finger in at all, the cinch is probably too tight, causing your horse to feel undue pressure.
Cinch tightness depends on how your horse is built. If your horse is round and doesn't have high withers, you might need to ride with a tight cinch to be safe. If your horse has high withers and is somewhat thin, you won't have to crank the cinch; you'll likely be safe if you can fit two fingers in up to your first knuckles.
Check your cinch before and after mounting; your weight compresses the saddle and pad, and may allow for extra room. Plus, when your horse warms up and his muscles tighten during exercise, he begins to sweat. Air rushes away from his body and out of the saddle pad. All these factors create space between your horse and the cinch.
You might've heard that horses hold their breath during saddling to create more room between their bodies and the cinch. Goodnight says horses don't plan ahead for a way to escape pain, but they do remember if someone has cranked up the cinch too much at one time. If your horse braces against the cinch, consider tightening his cinch in increments so he doesn't flinch and tense, then relax and loosen the pressure later on.
Get in the habit of checking the cinch each time you mount up and again about 20 minutes into each leg of your ride. You might need to dismount to check the cinch properly. To remind you to retighten your cinch after each break, put your stirrups up over your saddle horn or, if you're riding in an English saddle, leave a billet hanging down. You'll see the strange setup and remember to adjust your gear before moving on.
Safety tip #2: Analyze your bridle
Problem: Your bridle comes off because you don't have a throatlatch or a rein breaks away from the bit.
Worst-case scenario: You're loping across an open meadow when suddenly you realize you have no contact with your horse's mouth. You're holding on to your reins as your bridle drags along the ground beside you. Your horse senses your panic and takes off faster - and heads straight for the tree line. Without reins, you don't have a way to steer him through the approaching trees. Will he rub you off because you can't maneuver quickly? How will you stop without your trusty rein aids? The trees are getting closer…
Solution: Make sure your headstall has a throatlatch and it's properly connected. Also, take time to analyze the screws or leather latigos that connect your headstall to the bit and your bit to the reins. Goodnight says losing one rein isn't as traumatic as losing your entire bridle. Still, if your horse isn't properly trained, you might have trouble stopping without pulling the bit through your horse's mouth. Plus, stopping for repairs during a ride is never a fun way to spend time.
How to go about it: Goodnight recommends purchasing a headstall with a throatlatch included. She says many riders who show in Western classes ride without the throatlatch attached so that their horses look refined. But out on the trail, your horse can easily pull off even a split-eared headstall if there's not an extra fastener around his jowl. Buckle the throatlatch, and make sure you can fit three fingers vertically aligned between your horse's jaw and the latch's leather.
While you're checking your bridle, look closely at the connections between leather and metal; that's where you'll first see wear and breaking. Replace any worn leather before you leave for a ride. Also, make sure your bridle's Chicago screws are tightly fastened. Consider dotting the back of the screws with super glue to ensure you won't lose a rein. (Only do so if you know you won't want to change your tack setup later.)
Safety tip #3: Apply an under-bridle halter and lead correctly
Problem: Leaving your halter and lead rope attached beneath your bridle can leave dangerous loops for your horse to step through or tangle on passing brush.
Worst-case scenario: You're almost ready to stop, rest, and eat some lunch. You're riding with a rope halter beneath your horse's bridle. You've attached a lead rope to the halter, coiled the slack, and tied the coil to your saddle's front left latigo.
When you stop for a break, you plan to take off the bridle to allow your horse to rest and graze. As you approach your lunch site, you realize the lead has become slack and hangs down in a large loop near your horse's lower chest, but since you're almost at your stopping point, you figure you'll fix it later.
As you cross a log, your horse places his foot in the swinging loop. He raises his head to find he's tied to his legs. He pulls against the solid rope and finds no relief. If the halter doesn't budge, your horse could break his neck. You're out of balance and risk falling as your horse continues to bob and fight the connection.
Solution: Goodnight says she's not against riding with a halter under a bridle, but recommends using a flat, nylon break-away halter instead of a rope one. She also recommends detaching your lead while you ride.
"A rope halter may feel uncomfortable for your horse if it rubs beneath other layers," Goodnight says. "Plus, if you have a heavy rope lead swinging from the rope halter, your horse might become insensitive to any pressure on his face. He'll feel a constant downward pulling pressure all the time, which fights the cues you're giving with your rein aids."
How to go about it: Choose a flat halter that fits your horse well. Place the halter high enough on your horse's nose so that the extra layer and riggings don't interfere with the bit.
When you bridle your horse, adjust the bridle to allow for the halter's extra bulk. Loosen the bridle if you see more wrinkles than usual at the corner of your horse's mouth, where bit and bridle meet.
Instead of attaching the lead to the halter and tying it anywhere near your horse's neck, choose a lead with a snap, and simply detach and stash it in your saddlebag until it's time for a break.
Safety tip #4: Remove the tie-down
Problem: A tie-down interferes with your horse's balance and can put him at risk for drowning.
Worst-case scenario: You're riding down a steep hill toward a deep-water crossing. Your horse slips sideways as you head down the hill and needs to correct himself and take a step up to be back on the trail. He could correct himself easily if he wasn't tacked up, especially with a tie-down. With a tight strap connected from the bridle to his body, he can't use his head to balance his body weight.
As your horse attempts to climb back onto the trail, he stretches the tie-down and slips again. You're sliding toward the water. With his tie-down in place in the water, you're in even more trouble. Your horse must keep his nose above water to breathe as he attempts to swim across. The tie-down keeps his nose under water. If you can't find your knife in time to cut the line, your horse might drown.
Solution: Train your horse to carry his head appropriately, and ditch the tie-down. If you must use a tie-down, fit it so that he can move his head for optimal balance, and remove it before approaching any body of water.
How to go about it: If you need help training your horse, consult a reputable professional. If you do use a tie-down, apply it, then wait for your horse to stand still and relaxed with his head in a neutral position. Then lift up on the tie-down. It should have enough slack to reach up to his throat; otherwise, it'll interfere with his balance.
Safety tip #5: Wear a helmet
Problem: Wearing a helmet is hot and just not stylish.
Worst-case scenario: You head to the mountains for a long-planned day ride. You decide to wear your hat instead of your helmet. After all, you have a trust worthy horse. Your helmet is in the truck, but it's so hot in the sunshine. You think your hat is an acceptable choice.
Twenty minutes into your ride, the trail opens up onto a rocky climb. The smooth, slick terrain is covered with small rocks. You trust your horse to move on. He tries, then slips backward. You lose your balance and roll off of his back onto the hard rock. Your head hits with a thud.
Solution: Goodnight says most trail riders don't wear a helmet because helmets are too hot - and aren't "cool" - or riders trust their horses and don't think there's any chance of a fall. The justifications don't make sense. Wear a helmet.
"When I decided to wear a helmet when I conduct my demonstrations and clinics, it was difficult, because none of my peers did the same," Goodnight says. "I was concerned that it would make me appear uncool. I also worried about getting too hot and not looking nice later. Then I realized that no one was going to not like me because I wore a helmet. No one else cares that much about what you do. Now, if anyone comments on my helmet, I tell them that obviously I'm smarter than them and my brains are more important."
Modern helmets are designed to allow more airflow than older models. They come in a variety of colors and styles, not just the big black versions you may remember from your younger days.
If you're still arguing that you have a safe, well-trained horse, Goodnight lends this wisdom: "You're in an uncontrolled environment with unmanaged footing. Even the best-trained horse isn't guaranteed not to slip or fall. There's more of a chance that your head would hit a rock if you do fall off on the trail. It just isn't worth the risk."
How to go about it: Look for lightweight helmets designed for horseback riding and that carry the American Society for Testing and Materials/Safety Equipment Institute seals. The ASTM includes doctors, engineers, and physicists. It sets standards especially for riders, judging the impact that could happen falling from a tall horse at high speeds. SEI personnel test equestrian helmets to make sure the headgear meets ASTM standards.
Safety tip #6: Protect against insects and West Nile Virus
Problem: Your horse can become distracted by bugs. You and your horse are at risk for mosquito bites, which can carry West Nile Virus.
Worst-case scenario: While you're trotting through the mosquito-infused forest, your horse, accustomed to a bug-controlled barn, gets a terrible case of itchiness. Hoping to rid his skin of the pests, he purposefully aims for the bushes. As he brushes off the bugs, you lose your balance and come off, too.
Worse, if a mosquito carrying WNV bites, you and/or your horse might also come in contact with WNV. Horses infected with WNV may stumble, stagger, grind their teeth, lose the muscle strength to stand, have facial paralysis, go blind, and suffer effects of encephalitis that ultimately take their lives.
If an infected bug bites you, you'll experience headaches, a high fever, a stiff neck, disorientation, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness, and even paralysis if the bite results in encephalitis or meningitis (an infection of the brain or spinal cord, or its protective covering).
Even if mosquitoes in your area don't have the virus (yet), new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston shows that bites by "healthy" bugs may prime your system and make it easier for you to contract a severe virus variety.
Solution: Avoid mosquitoes to avoid the virus. Protect your horse with a vaccine against WNV. Protect yourself with long sleeves, bug spray, and mosquito-repellent clothing.
How to go about it: Get your horse vaccinated for WNV each spring, and ask your veterinarian what boosters might be needed to keep your horse safe throughout the warm mosquito season. (Three new vaccines against WNV are PreveNile by Intervet, RECOMBITEK by Merial, and West Nile-Innovator ("The Mosquito Shot") by Fort Dodge, available only from your vet; for more information, visit www.intervetusa.com/species/equine, http://us.merial.com/equine, and www.fortdod gelivestock.com/equine).
As you get ready for a trail ride, pack a mosquito-repelling spray for you and for your horse. Ask your veterinarian which brands he or she recommends for ultimate bug control and safety for your horse.
If you plan frequent jaunts into the woods, consider adding mosquito-repelling clothing to your wardrobe. This apparel is infused with permethrin, a manmade form of a natural insect repellent found in chrysanthemum plants. Check out Ex Officio's Buzz Off Insect Shield line (800/644-7303; www.exofficio.com).
To find out more about the mosquito population in your area, visit the AABB's website. (The association was formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks, but is now known by its acronym.) Go to www.aabb.org, and search for "2008 West Nile Virus Biovigilance Network." You'll find up-to-date charts and maps showing where the virus is found; you'll also find tips to help you protect against the virus.
Safety tip #7: Avoid unsafe apparel and accessories
Problem: Hoodies, loose-fitting shoulder bags or fanny packs, dangling jewelry, and jackets with zippers all can cause hang-ups.
Worst-case scenario: As you start to dismount for a lunch break, your zipper-closed jacket slips over your saddle horn, leaving you hanging from your horse's side. With your feet already out of the stirrups, you can't push yourself up to free yourself. Your horse feels your strange movements at his side and sidesteps. When you move along with him, he sidesteps again, then starts to trot and lope to get away from your too-close stance. He then drags you by your unbreakable jacket.
Solution: Make sure all of your clothing and accessories fit close to your body and that no straps or outerwear layers can catch.
How to go about it: Look for equestrian-specific jackets that have snap - rather than zipper - closures.
A snap will come apart much faster than a zipper will break. Tuck in shirts and hoods. Tuck the base of loose sweatshirts and any under layers into your jeans or jods. Pull your hood out only when it's time to put it on.
When it comes to accessories, leave your jewelry at home. If you wear a fanny- or backpack, adjust the straps so that they lay flat next to your clothing. Consider turning your fanny pack toward your backside so that it's out of the way as you mount and dismount.
Better yet, store everything you can in your saddlebags. Keep your necessary emergency items (cell phone, knife, identification, protein bar, and compass/global positioning system) in a zip-closed pocket or hide-away satchel beneath your outer layer. Or, shop for a specially made wallet that attaches to your leg. One good source of these types of totes is the Cashel Company (800/333-2202; www.cashelcompany.com).
Safety tip #8: Leave word
Problem: You're riding alone and no one knows where you are or when to expect you back.
Worst-case scenario: You take off for some personal rejuvenation time. It's just you and your horse out on the trail. No one knows where you are or when you'll return.
For a while, you're glad for that freedom. Suddenly, a summer storm sweeps the sky. A lightning bolt lands too close for comfort, and your horse charges off. You're left behind far from home.
Worse, your cell phone was stored in your saddlebags. You don't know how you're going to get back to the trailhead and out of the storm. Which way did you come from? You hope your significant other will miss you, but he or she won't be home until at least 9:00 p.m. It's getting scary and dark.
Solution: Always tell someone where you're going and when you'll return. "Riders' lives have definitely been saved when they've left word, clearly stating when they should return and when to send help," says Goodnight.
How to go about it: Before you leave home, call a family member or friend who you know will get the message. Let him or her know which trail you'll take and how long the trip should last. Also, let him or her know whom to contact if you haven't checked in by a certain time. Keep a list of relevant emergency numbers ready.
Before you leave home, attach an ID tag to your horse's bridle or under-bridle halter. Use a luggage tag to list your name and contact information, and your emergency contact's number. Pack a grease pencil to write your name and telephone number on your horse's hindquarters before becoming separated, if you get a chance. A rescuer may find your horse before they find you, and your friend will know what trail you took. That information will speed up your rescue!
Once you mount up, stick to your trail plans, and don't tarry. Keep your emergency items with you, not in your saddlebags, in case you and your horse become separated.
After your ride, check in with your contact to let him or her know you're home safe.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse own-ers to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org). For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from www.equinenetworkstore.com.
Heidi Melocco (www.whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.