Out of Barn's Reach

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Trail riding is one of the most relaxing ways to spend time on a horse. Unfortunately, it can be also be one of the most dangerous. Traffic, wildlife, environmental hazards and imaginary bogeymen can all add up to trouble when horse and rider are out on the trail. If trail riding is one of the options you offer your clients—whether it’s extended rides in the forest or quick jaunts just to break up arena work—safety should be one of your primary concerns.

Why Safety Matters

As we know, trail riding is nothing like riding in an arena, where the environment is fairly controlled. Out on the trail, “many factors that affect safety start to present themselves,” says Bo Winslow, a trail clinic instructor for the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) in Lexington, Ky. This is particularly true in semi-suburban areas where riders utilize “urban trails” that run alongside streets and near homes. In these environments, hazards range from speeding cars to aggressive dogs.

Chad Coppess, a CHA trail instructor and director of Ranch Ministries for Great Adventures Paradise Ranch in Mears, Minn., says it’s important to provide a safe, fun, and educational experience on the trail, not a dangerous one that short-circuits learning.

“By having safety policies and implementing them, you demonstrate a level of professionalism that develops trust with not only clients but with clients’ families and friends as well,” he says.“These elements are important because they provide a framework that creates a safe environment, thus being able to focus on quality education and having fun,” he says.

Reducing the potential for accidents and building trust is also good for business. “The best marketing is still word of mouth. It is the marketing of a positive reputation that will build your business,” he says.

Following Rules

When it comes to being safe on the trail, rules for riding are essential. Trainer Christy Wood, owner of Wood N’ Horse Training Stables in Three Rivers, Calif., has certain guidelines that must be met before her clients are permitted to go out on trail. First is that all riders must sign a release form. If they are 21 or under, they are also required to wear a helmet. Clients must also have some riding experience and be 16 years of age or older. Proper riding clothes are required.

“Riders are also given instruction on how to communicate with the horses and given some practice time in the arena prior to going down the trail,” says Wood. “We fit the rider’s experience with the horse’s energy level. Beginners get our older horses and experienced riders get our younger horses.”

At Wood N’ Horse, riders are not allowed to go out alone on trails. “They must always have a guide,” says Wood. If a boarder wants to ride his or her own horse on trail, Wood informs the rider of any trail obstacles they may encounter that day, like downed trees, loose dogs or service trucks.

Trainer Julie Goodnight, a clinician based in Poncha Springs, Colo., has rules for boarders who trail ride to help keep them safe. “I ask them to leave a message on the community white board in the barn stating the time they are leaving, where they are headed, and when they expect to return,” she says. “We also encourage them to leave this information with a spouse or friend, too, so that someone will instigate a search if they are late.”

Other means of communication can be helpful, as well. For example, Goodnight advises boarders to carry a cell phone on their person—not on the horse—and to take a halter and lead rope along. In addition, she says, “Some people like to wear a whistle around their necks so that if they get hurt and/or separated from horse, they can make a racket to assist in being found.”

Sydney, Ill., trainer Jessica Jahiel, author of “The Horse Trainer's Problem Solver,” instructs clients who trail ride on her property to leave the barn well prepared. “I ask them to dress safely, ride safely, behave sensibly and carry a first-aid kit, a whistle, and a cell phone in a small beltpack,” she says. “It’s comparatively rare to land on your stomach in a fall, so keeping the belt pack in front of you is helpful.” Like others cited here, she also asks clients to “file a flight plan,” letting someone else at the barn know where they are going, when they are leaving and when they plan to be back.

Be Smart

Safe trail riding has a lot to do with common sense. “Ride safe and reliable horses; be diligent about tack check, and designate a leader,” says Goodnight. “Have agreed-upon rules of behavior during the ride. Don’t ride with yahoos or people with untrained or fractious horses. Know the area you are riding in and its potential hazards. Don’t ride alone. And listen to your inner voice of caution; don’t do stupid stuff.”

It’s important to teach clients about trail safety right off the bat, according to Winslow, who notes that old habits of unsafe riding are hard to break. “Your business has the opportunity to be much more successful with good safe trail practices in place,” he says. “Any business that has a good safety record is going in a good direction.”