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Trail Safety Tips

By Teddy Franke

At some point every rider experiences that surge of energy that comes as you steer your horse towards home. The response can range from mildly energetic to flat out uncontrollable as your easy going trail horse suddenly becomes Secretariat on a beeline for the barn. This dangerous situation becomes a true runaway when a horse is so focused on returning to its comfort zone that it ignores any direction from its rider. Your horse needs to recognize you as the leader, and respond by unconditionally following your directives. Here are a few tips to help you gain the control you need.

  • Establish good habits. The safest thing is to get your horse into the habit of walking back to the barn. Start by going out a short ways. Then ride home at a walk. Next add more distance. Understand that horses are creatures of habit and they often learn something either positive or negative in only a few repetitions.
  • You make all the decisions. This is equally important on the ground and in the saddle. Take into account your horse’s age and attention span and then set parameters in whatever you’re doing. If your equine partner chooses to step outside those guidelines calmly put him back into line. If left alone a horse can travel a long way by creeping one step at a time. The main thing is to stick to your guns. YOU are the lead horse in your herd of two.
  • Work on “whoa”. Practice in a setting where the horse is comfortable.  Start with a preparatory cue to signal that the stop is coming. Plan these cues in advance, and be consistent. I like to rock my pelvis back, and shift my legs slightly forward. Next I use the word “whoa.” Initially you may need to use your hands for reinforcement. Eventually your horse should learn that “whoa” means a rest. It’s a good idea to back up a few steps after a stop. This is especially helpful on a horse with a lot of energy. Be sure your hand is the last thing you use. Remember, never pull hard on a horse’s mouth. It’s OK to resist any pull that they might put on you, but they should always be able to get release by softening their face.
  • Don’t babysit your horse. If you find that you have to constantly hold pressure on the reins the horse isn’t respecting your leadership. On a loose rein, ask for a walk. If it takes right off in a trot then stop, back up, and try again! After a few repetitions it will take longer and longer for a horse to build to the trot. The horse learns quickly that trotting is counterproductive when you want a walk. Soon it will be happily moving on a loose rein as fast as it can without breaking into a trot. Later you can use the same principal to slow the walk down if you so desire.

If you can get some of these things down, a runaway is unlikely. If you do find yourself in that situation remember to stay calm with your eyes up. With one hand grab the mane. Use your free hand try to pull the horse’s head in a circle, or if a circle is not possible on the trail you are on, do a pulley rein to stop straight. See http://cha-ahse.org/store/pages/212/CHA-Horsemanship-Videos.html to find a video on the emergency stop from Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA). It’s a good idea to ask for help from a knowledgeable professional if you feel like you’re in over your head.
Teddy Franke is a CHA certified instructor from north central Oregon, he manages Badger Creek Ranch Camp and is a co-owner of Surrendered Heart Horsemanship.