How to Stay Safe on a Trail Ride

Three Parts:Planning for the RidePreparing Your HorseHitting the Trail

Trail riding entails riding a horse on a trail through a wilderness area. It's an exciting way to get close to nature and spend time outdoors. Trail rides may span an hour or two, or they can involve overnight camping.—It's up to you and your riding companions. Trail riding poses potential dangers, but it can be done safely and can an unforgettable experience.

Part 1
Planning for the Ride

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    Know your abilities. If you're planning to ride alone, you should be an experienced trail rider. If you are inexperienced, it's important that you avoid going alone, and either ride with an experienced rider you know or as part of an organized trail ride. Riding alone puts you at risk of injury, getting lost, or getting exposed to the elements.[1]
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    Plan your route. Regardless of your level of experience, it's important that you know the route that you're planning on taking. This will help reduce the risk of getting lost. You should purchase a map of the area in advance, study the route you intend to take, and bring the map with you for reference.[2]
    • Bring a map that is waterproof. That way, if you get caught in a downpour, your map will still hold up.
    • Don't rely on technology like smartphones or GPS for navigation. If you're riding on a trail in a wilderness area, anticipate the likelihood that you will not have good reception.
    • Familiarize yourself with the animals and insects that are native to the area you'll be riding. Know in advance whether any animals may show up that would startle your horse, and be aware of the insect situation to make preparations (like long sleeves and bug repellent). You can find this information by searching online for the area you'll be riding in.
    • Tell others where you're going, what route you'll be taking, and when you expect to return. That way, if anything should happen, your friends or family members will know both where to look and when to start looking.
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    Prepare for ride conditions. Before you head out for a trail ride, you should anticipate any conditions you might encounter on the trail. That means planning for the weather, of course, but it also means planning for issues like riding in the dark if you plan to be out late.[3]
    • Wear comfortable clothes that will keep you warm if it's cold out, or cool if it's hot out.
    • If there's a chance of rain, bring a rain jacket.
    • Bring and wear bug repellent.
    • If there is any chance at all that you may be out at night, bring reflective clothing (especially if the trail crosses any roads) and a flashlight or headlamp. You should also slip an extra set of batteries into your pocket, just in case.
    • Remember that your horse will get warm on a hot day, too. For a quick and easy way to cool him off on the fly, simply tie a long rope around one or two rectangular sponges. When you cross a stream or other source of water, dip the sponges in the water and wring them out on your horse's neck and shoulders.[4]
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    Wear safety gear. In addition to dressing for the weather and environment, it's important to wear the right safety gear. A hard hat should absolutely be at the top of your list, no matter how experienced a rider you are. You may also want to consider wearing a protective vest, which will help protect the organs and bones in your abdomen if you fall off your horse.[5] If you're riding with an organized trail riding service, they may provide you with some equipment, but not other pieces. Some services may require you to provide your own gear. Find out what is offered, and what you'll need to bring.
    • Wear bright orange if there is any chance you will be out in the woods near hunters.[6]
    • You should also wear sunglasses, no matter what season you'll be riding in. Too much exposure to the sun can cause long-term vision problems, and being unable to see where you're going can make it unsafe to ride.[7]
    • Opt for rider-friendly sunglasses that will not shatter (those made with polycarbonate materials are best) and will fit comfortably under your helmet.[8]
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    Pack a first aid kit. If you're out in a wilderness area, there's a risk that both you and your horse could become injured. Be sure to bring a first aid kit that can treat you both, should an emergency arise. A proper first aid kit should include:
    • cotton wraps/dressings
    • surgical tape
    • gauze pads in various sizes
    • a sharp, clean pair of scissors
    • antiseptic wipes and/or rinse
    • saline solution
    • latex gloves
    • clippers
    • a rectal thermometer
    • the phone number for your horse's veterinarian[9]

Part 2
Preparing Your Horse

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    Match your horse to you. If you're a new rider, you should avoid trail riding on a high-energy, athletic horse, as his drive matched with your inexperience could cause an accident. Similarly, if you're an experienced and adventurous rider, you may have a hard time riding a slow, elderly horse with no sense of curiosity.[10]
    • If you're not sure how to choose a horse that will fit your needs and experience level, talk to a trainer at the stable or someone who works with a trail-riding group.
    • Choose a horse that is capable of carrying someone with your height and weight. Again, if you're not sure how to size up a horse for your body, talk to someone who does know.
    • Make sure your horse is physically conditioned for the kind of riding you intend to do.[11]
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    Desensitize your horse. If you are riding your own horse, you should get him used to riding around other horses and animals before entering a wilderness area. Conversely, if your horse has only ever been on rides with other horses and will be riding solo with you for the first time, gradually build up his comfort and confidence levels by taking short rides together on a regular basis.[12]
    • Introduce your horse to new riding situations gradually and over time. Don't expect a horse that's never been on a trail to suddenly "get it" while in the woods.
    • Make sure you have mastered the basic skills of riding with your horse before hitting the trail.
    • Do not bring a wild, unruly horse onto a riding trail. It endangers your safety, the horse's safety, and the safety of anyone else who might be on that trail.[13]
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    Know the other horses. If you're riding with a group, it's important to know whether any other horses that will be on the trail with you have any issues. For example, a horse that is prone to kicking could endanger the rider(s) directly behind him, which would affect how closely the subsequent rider(s) would follow behind.[14]
    • If your horse kicks, tie a red ribbon to its tail. This is generally seen as a universal marker of kicking.
    • If you are riding behind a horse with a red ribbon, give extra space. Remember that any rider should put at least one horse length between their horse and the horse directly in front. If the horse in front has a red ribbon or is known to kick, you should double that distance and make sure your horse doesn't tailgate.

Part 3
Hitting the Trail

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    Double check the cinches. Many horses puff up their chests when riders fit cinches in place. This can lead to loose cinches as the ride progresses. For this reason, it's generally a good idea to check the cinches after you've mounted the horse, and again about 5 to 10 minutes into the ride. You may also want to check the cinches around halfway through the ride, just to be sure.[15]
    • Loose cinches can lead to accidents and injuries.
    • Checking the tightness of the cinch above the horse's elbow can give you a false sense of that cinch's status. For a more accurate measure, check how tight the cinch is where it crosses the horse's sternum, between his front legs.
    • To check the cinch, slide your finger underneath the cinch from the back moving forward (to ensure that when you remove your finger, the horse's hair will lay flat). You should be able to fit a single finger up to the first joint on that finger. If you can fit anything more, the cinches may be too lose. If you cannot fit that far, the cinch may be too tight.[16]
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    Know the trail rules. If you're on private land, you'll probably only encounter other riders, if you encounter anyone at all. On public lands, however, you may cross paths with hikers, bicyclists, and even off-road vehicles. Because of this, it's important to know the trail protocol to help ensure everyone's safety.[17]
    • If riding in a group, form a single file when another rider is approaching from either the front or the rear.
    • If you come across hikers or bicyclists, reduce your horse's trot to as slow a walk as possible and stay to the side of the trail so that they can pass if they need to.
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    Approach risky situations carefully. Out on the trail, there are many situations you cannot control. There's no way to change the trail conditions, but you can change how your horse approaches those conditions.
    • If the trail becomes rocky, slippery, or otherwise slick or unstable, approach slowly and with caution. Try to keep your body centered in your saddle to reduce the chances that your shifting body weight might make your horse lose balance.[18]
    • Use caution when crossing any streams. In swiftly-moving water, a horse can easily have his legs swept out from under him, causing him (and you) to fall. The risk of this happening greatly increases the deeper you wade in, especially once the water gets approximately halfway up the horse's side.[19]
    • Even muddy trails can cause a horse to slip and fall, potentially pinning you underneath him.[20]
    • If you are riding through a terrain where you cannot clearly see the ground (through tall grass, for example), slow down and approach carefully. Even if the ground is stable, you may encounter rodent holes that could cause your horse to stumble or trip.
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    Use controlled falls. Obviously it would be best if you did not have to fall at all. But if your horse does rear back and knock you off, or if you simply lose your balance, it's important that you try to use a controlled fall to minimize the risk of serious injury.[21]
    • Do not stick out your arms to break your fall. This will likely result in a broken wrist, arm, or both.
    • If you cannot turn in time, try to use your shoulder or thigh to absorb some of the shock when you fall. If at all possible, you may want to cover your face before you hit the ground (and the rest of your head, if you're not wearing a hard hat).
    • Try to tuck and roll as soon as you hit the ground. This will reduce the impact in any single part of your body, and instead will spread the blow out as much as possible. It may sound strange trying to spread the injury out, but remember that a lot of small scrapes and bruises will be a lot easier to recover from than one big, hard impact.
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    Learn how to restrain your horse's rear leg. If your horse gets stuck by a porcupine or otherwise injures his hoof, he may not be able to make it back to the trailhead. Treating an injured rear leg is difficult, as you can easily get kicked by a nervous, flailing horse. The easiest way to restrain a horse for such a procedure is by tying up one of his rear feet.[22] You may never have to restrain a horse, but it's good to know how to do so, should the situation ever arise. To restrain your horse:
    • use a soft cotton rope so that you do not cause chafing or brush burn
    • make sure the rope is long enough for your horse's body so that you will not be in a position where you might get kicked
    • place a length of rope in a loop around the base of the horse's neck, and tie the loop with a bowline (this knot will not tighten up, reducing the risk of your horse choking)
    • take the loose end of the rope down along the horse's body and feed it between his hind legs and out behind his rear (but stand to the side so that you do not get kicked)
    • gently put the rope's end around the back of the horse's pastern (aka the forelimb, roughly equivalent to the shin)
    • bring the rope back alongside the horse, retracing the path that the rope took on the way to the rear leg
    • slide the rope through the ring you tied around the horse's neck
    • use this rope system as a sort of pulley to lift the horse's rear foot off the ground[23]


  • Relax have fun!
  • Some horses don't like water. If you know that your horse doesn't, stay away from water. If you don't know how your horse reacts around water, approach with extra caution.
  • Your horse may stop to take a drink. There's no problem with that, but be prepared for your horse's head to lean down so you don't lose your reins.
  • A hot horse may try to roll in the water. That is dangerous, since the horse could hurt himself or you. If your horse stops and starts pawing the water, get his head up so he doesn't roll.
  • Always bring a fully-charged cellphone in case of emergency. If you get hurt, and you're all alone, you are going to need to call someone.


  • Be alert of your horse and surroundings. Inattention to either or both can result in an accident, or at least a bad scare.
  • Never trail ride alone. You should also let others know where you'll be and when you expect to return, no matter how short a ride you intend to go on. Otherwise, if you are injured, you may be left to fend for yourself.

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Categories: Riding