You love your home trail rides, but are ready to branch out. You have your eye on that county or state park, or private facility near your barn. You don’t plan to spend the night, just go for a day trail ride. But it’s still an adventure. To enjoy it to the max, plan ahead with this easy, eight-step trail guide.
Step 1: Target the Trail
Select a trail that you can trailer to in an hour or less, so you don’t waste the whole day on the road. Investigate your county’s trails. Contact your county parks department, and ask about horse trails in individual parks. Ask who else may use the trail, such as hikers, cyclists, and motorized vehicles, and factor the information into your planning.
Find your county website, then go to the parks page. Check when the site was last updated to make sure the information is current; don’t rely on any information more than a year old. After you check county trails, look into any state parks within an hour or so drive from your barn.
To find local gems (including privately owned trails), talk to trail riders in your area. Contact local trail and equestrian clubs and associations, and chat up the owners of your local tack/feed store.
Conduct online searches, but keep in mind that riders differ on their definition of "trail." You might be dreaming of groomed, five-feet-wide trails, while your online source might enjoy exploring barely there wildlife routes.
Invest in current trail maps; don’t use a map more than two years old. (Check the publishing date on the corner.) If you’re heading to a public land, call the relevant agency, and ask for their latest park and trail maps. (While you’re on the phone, ask the person to recommend the best parking area/trailhead and most direct route to get there.)
Tip: When your maps arrive, photocopy the sections showing just the areas on which you plan to ride to save your original maps from wear and tear.
Smaller parks and open space typically offer limited equestrian trails of just three to five miles long, round trip. (These trails may loop out and back into staging areas or offer there-and-back rides.) But don’t rule out these trails; they’re ideal for your first haul-out rides, as you and your horse get used to the routine.
And, there’s no such thing as a "too short" trail. It’s better to ride a short trail and return to your trailer fresh and eager than ride a long trail that leaves you too exhausted to drive home.
Consider trail terrain. If your horse is soft, take it easy on hills and rough terrain. Find trails that are comfortable to ride, yet expand and deepen your trail experience.
Look for trails that offer training opportunities. Cross streams, go through mud, hop over a log. Even these seemingly small challenges can help prepare your horse (and you) for more rigorous rides.
Step 2: Determine Restrictions
When you’ve determined your destination, ask when the trails are open. Most public trails are open dawn to dusk. These hours are often enforced by patrolling the parking area, and ticketing rigs parked there after dark. Ask about any parking and/or trail-use fees, and whether you must pay in cash.
If you’re planningto ride on a privately owned trail, ask what papers the facility requires, such as a current health certificate and/or a negative Coggins test for equine infectious anemia. If you ride a stallion, find out the rules. Some facilities ban stallions. Others allow them on trail, but not in the overnight-camping facilities.
Step 3: Plan your Route
When you’ve targeted your trail, plot your route on a roadmap (such as one from Rand McNally, Thomas Brothers or your roadside-assistance company). (Note that online map sites, such as Mapquest, show the shortest distance, but not necessarily the best route for trailer towing; stick with the latest edition of a printed map.) Plan the best route, and note how long it’ll take to get to your destination.
Avoid peak traffic for more time on the trail. In some areas, it can take an hour to go 20 freeway miles simply because of traffic congestion.
Step 4: Find a Riding Buddy
Find a compatible riding buddy. Consider your trail style. Do you like to meander down the trail to enjoy trail treasures, such as a fawn hidden in the grass? Do you stop and take lots of photos? Find a buddy who also enjoys taking it slow.
Make sure your buddy’s horse is also compatible. Consider gaits. Does your horse plod along or swiftly cover the trail in a ground-covering running walk? Also consider in-line positioning and preference. Will one horse follow another? Finding a leader for your follower, or vice versa, is ideal. But on the trail, switch places for short distances to teach the horses to accept other trail positions.
Step 5: Pack Up
For your horse’s comfort, bring at least five gallons of water and a watering bucket. (If it’s a hot day, bring 10 gallons.) Use any extra water to rinse off your horse’s back after a ride.
Note that just because a day-use area has a faucet doesn’t mean it works. And "streams" may be seasonal or dry creek beds.
Also bring a full hay net, and hang it outside the trailer. It’ll keep your horse happy while you munch your lunch!
Pack human and equine first-aid kits; small ones for the trail, larger ones in your truck. You can purchase human first-aid kits at your local drugstore. In each kit, tuck your and your horse’s medical histories (especially allergies), and contact information for your doctor and your horse’s veterinarian.
Pack your saddlebags and truck/trailer the night before. (For a day-ride checklist, see page 18; for saddlebag sources, see "Hold Everything! Special Section, July/August ’06.)
Step 6: Tack Up
When going on an offsite day ride, there are two ways to prepare your horse: pre-hauling or post-hauling. With pre-hauling prep, you’ll groom and saddle him at the barn then, at the staging area, simply unload him, adjust the saddle, tighten the cinch, bridle him, and head down the trail. With post-hauling prep, you’ll haul to your destination first, and groom/tack up at the staging area.
Pre-hauling prep works best if you’re going just a few miles to the staging area. It also teaches your horse to trailer carrying a saddle, just another step to educating a good trail horse.
Post-hauling prep is best when you’ll be traveling longer than 15 minutes, for your horse’s comfort. It also teaches your horse to stand quietly tied to your trailer while you ready him for a ride. Plus, it gives him an opportunity to look around and get used to all the strange sights, sounds, and smells.
Step 7: Park Smart
When parking at the trailhead/staging area, turn your rig around so it’s facing out. This will allow you to exit easily when the area is full. If parking will entail a lot of maneuvering, unload your horse, and tie him to a secure hitching rail, or appoint a horse holder from your riding group. Short starts and stops are tiring for your horse, and hard on a loaded trailer.
If the area is open, with few other rigs, stay to the sides so others won’t have to drive around you. Leave at least 12 feet between rigs so horses can be tied to the side of each trailer. If your horse kicks, tie a red ribbon on his tail and the back of trailer. It’s your responsibility to keep others safe.
Carry two collapsible red road cones; set one in front of your rig and the other behind it so no one parks too closely. This will allow room for loading your horse and exiting the area if the lot becomes full.
Keep the area clean. If it comes with the horse, it goes home with the horse. Take manure home with you in large plastic garbage bags.
Step 8: Be Courteous
Be courteous both on the trail and at the trailhead/staging area. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you’ll also help prevent complaints from non-equestrian trail users, which will help keep trails open to equestrians.
Equestrians have the right-of-way on trails, but use common sense. If you see a cyclist coming downhill, stop at the bottom, and wait for her to pass. Conversely, if you see a hiker trudging uphill, stop at the top, and wait for her to pass. And if you meet another trail user at a bridge or water crossing, let her go first.
If you’re unsure how your horse will react to a non-equestrian trail user (such as a cyclist), hold up your hand, and loudly say, "Stop! Let me get my horse off the trail." Then ride to the edge of the trail, and wait for her to pass.
Leave gates exactly the way you find them, open or closed. If another user opens a gate for you, thank her as you ride through.
Talk and smile to other trail users. If they seem confused about what to do when they come upon you and your horse, ask them to stand to the side of the trail, but keep talking, which will help avoid a spook.