By Jennifer Willey
Hooray! Spring is here and we are all gearing up to hit the trails! Per usual spring can also equal lots of mud. Riding trails you haven’t seen all winter can be tricky because you don’t know what’s happened during those months. Your first trail ride of the season can be quite the adventure! Downed trees and erosion come to mind, but one thing we can be pretty sure of is that there will be mud.
We know mud is not ideal footing for riding horses, however there are times when we need to ride through it. Mud is usually not a super big problem on flat terrain, but what about when you come up to hills? Common sense says the likelihood of the horse slipping increases with the grade of the hill. To ride it or not, is the question.
The short answer for whether or not to tackle a muddy hill is to use your best judgment. However there are many factors that weigh in when it comes to making the call.
• How steep are we really talking? If you have to lie on your horse’s neck with your face buried in the mane to stay perpendicular to the ground, a muddy day for this ride is probably not your best option.
• How secure and experienced are the people with you? Muddy hills are not great rides for beginners because, if a horse does slip, it can scare the rider enough to cause a fall.
• How about your horses? Spring rides can be interesting even without mud. If you have a horse that has a tendency to leave the ground, this trail is not for you.
• What’s at the other end? Sometimes the bottoms of hills have deep mud-puddles or you could get almost to the top of a hill and find a hole or some other impediment making it difficult to get around.
• Does everybody have a breast collar? Riding hills is when this handy piece of equipment becomes a necessity. Make sure it’s adjusted to correctly so it will actually do its job. See http://cha-ahse.org/videos_cha.html to find out how to fit a breast collar correctly.
So let’s say you’ve used your best judgment and decided to give the hill a go. Now what? What’s the best way to get up and down? First, I can say for sure that you should not be in a hurry for this job. Take your time and do not rush your horse into it. It’s important to recognize the difference between a horse calculating his next step and balking. There is an old saying “There are times when you can trust a horse, times when you can’t and times when you have to.” Well, this is one of those times that you have to.
Give your horse enough slack in the reins to use his head and neck for balance and this also helps him to see his footing better. You want him in control of his body, do not hinder him by over-cuing! You still need to be in control of direction, as you should be looking ahead to the best footing, but let those reins out so he can extend his neck.
Make sure to do these hills one rider at a time. Do not do a hill like this as a group. Each horse and rider combination should complete “the mission” before the next one tries. The last thing you want is one horse slipping and the rest of the group getting run into. Also leave the top and bottom clear for passage.
Try to determine the driest footing or the mud with the most debris. Dead leaves, sticks and pebbles can act as traction as opposed to pure mud. Not to be confused with large rocks and boulders with wet hooves. Wide hills are easiest taken from left to right or right to left, like a switchback. Meaning, you start at one side and pick a spot further to the other side, instead of walking straight up or straight down.
Walk, only. Ride with care – you are more likely to bow a tendon in the mud than you are to slip and fall. The deeper the mud the more challenging it is for the horses. And of course, hooves fling mud all over the place…be prepared to come home with mud in your hair and all over your back!
About the Author: Jennifer Willey is a CHA Master Instructor. She currently teaches in Minnesota.