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Trail Riding Etiquette

Trail Riders Good trail riding etiquette is all about safety and consideration for fellow riders and trail patrons. That may be the riders you're with, other riders you meet on the trail, or non-riders that you meet, such as hikers, bicyclists, and such. But, there are also aspects of riding that can affect its safety. Not knowing what to do on group trail rides can introduce dangers for other riders due to the way that horses naturally behave. And the responsibilities sometimes change depending on whether you're leading the group or riding within it.

The trails are there for everyone and showing each other respect goes far in avoiding problems. Now, let's focus more specifically on riding. Here are some important points:

  1. When riding in a group, the leader should always ask fellow riders if they're ready to change gaits. If the leader doesn't and jumps into a canter or gallop, the other horses will do the same within a fraction of a second. Unprepared riders will likely end up on the ground with possible injuries. Therefore, if you're the leader, make sure everyone with you is ready for the change BEFORE you initiate it.
  2. If you're in the middle or behind, don't ride too close to the horse in front of you. It could spook him and elicit a quick movement that gets someone dumped or otherwise hurt. Worse, you and your horse could get kicked and severely injured. You both will also need enough room to react and stop if the horse in front does so quickly for whatever reason.
  3. The leader should announce trail hazards so following riders are made aware. The leader doesn't have other riders in front and is therefore better able to see hazards as the group approaches. Important hazards to announce are low branches over the trail; holes in the ground or beside the trail; dogs or other animals approaching; hikers, bicyclists, or vehicles approaching; a bees nest with bees hovering or entering and leaving the nest; rocks, logs, roots, or other tripping hazards across the trail — you get the idea.
  4. Ride to the level of the least experienced rider. If that rider can't canter, don't go above a trot. If there are young children in the group, pay special attention to their safety and not riding beyond their abilities.
  5. When at a watering area, take turns letting the horses drink and don't put too many horses together. If you do, they may feel crowded and nip at one another. Let each horse drink his fill before moving away from the water. When you do move, stay close by so the remaining horses can calmly drink. If you start to move on, the thirsty horses will forego their drink rather than be left by the herd — that's unfair to them.
  6. If your riding group is going downhill and meets a group coming up, let those coming up keep moving while you stop your group. It's harder for the up-going group to get restarted than for the one coming down.
  7. If your riding group meets a large riding group, let the larger group go first. Larger groups are harder to control and they don't need a small group or a single rider to help mess things up further.
  8. When passing other riding groups, horses are usually curious and want to smell one another — don't let them. Letting your horse to "get to know" another horse out on the trail is looking for trouble. For horses, part of "getting to know" each other includes establishing a pecking order. This is best done in a paddock when the horses are by themselves, not in a large group with mounted riders who can get bitten, kicked, or otherwise hurt.
  9. If your horse is a kicker, tie a red ribbon on his tail. If he's a stallion, tie a yellow ribbon on his tail. If she's a mare in season, stay especially away from horses with a yellow ribbon. (While this is common sense, I'm always astounded at riders who completely miss the point.)
  10. If a rider must dismount on the trail for any reason, all riders must also stop so the rider's horse doesn't keep going with the group. Wait until the dismounted rider completes whatever task required the dismount (pick up a dropped item, examine a leg or hoof being favored, etc.) before continuing the ride.
  11. Don't litter the trail with anything, including food.
  12. You'll occasionally come across other trail users that you'd probably rather not see on the trails, such as motor bikers or hunters. Often, these other users understand the unpredictability of horses and will pull over, turn off their engines, and otherwise exhibit considerate and courteous behavior. Be sure to thank them and help maintain good relations. While some riders may not like the noise of motorbikes or the idea of hunting, some of those users don't like to give horses the right-of-way or deal with piles of horse poop on the trails. Our forests and parks are for everyone's use and we must all work together.
Finally, you'll sometimes come across other riders, either in your group or in another group, that don't know good trail etiquette. Expect that could happen and be prepared for the unexpected so as to remain safe. If it appears they would appreciate trail etiquette advice and you can say it in a respectful and constructive manner, you can consider saying something. If you have any doubts, let it go and enjoy the ride — they can learn from someone else.

Happy Trails!

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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