Trail Etiquette for Equestrians

 Who has ever been on a trail ride were the lead horse is moving on? Or they take off with out any warning? Do you and your horse have good manners on the trail? So often we hear about trail etiquette when passing strange horses on the trail, but seldom do we hear about the trail etiquette amongst friends. Do you know your "job" when you are the leader of the group of riders? The use of the trails is a privilege, not a right. Please preserve this for others as well as yourself by obeying the rules and showing courtesy. For your safety, no one should go out alone. Pleasure trail riding like all aspects of equine use has its rules and regulations pertaining to trail use and manners. How a person rides a trail can determine not only his own enjoyment but the safety of himself, his own horse and other trail users too.  Here are some helpful hints to ensure you have a safe fun ride.

A trail ride with a few buddies should be enjoyable. And even a small group on a casual outing will benefit from established guidelines and a sensible trail leader. If you're that leader, here are a few do's and don'ts to help make your ride safe and pleasant,

  • Don't assume every rider--or horse--in the group is comfortable with changes of gait. If youíre going to walk, then only walk Ė donít walk then jog every 20 feet or so. Itís tiring on the horses and isnít a peaceful ride. Before you head out, determine which gait is acceptable to everyone on the ride.
  • If you want change gaits, check that everyone okay doing so. Without this common courtesy, your group might be enjoying the scenery or chatting amongst themselves only to find that they are violently jerked backwards by the unexpected gait change. This is very dangerous to the riders and could lead to an unintentional jerk in the horseís mouth as riders grab the reins for balance. Besides, the horse should get its cue from his rider, not the horse in front of him. If the pace is too fast for anyone, slow down. Make sure that everyone in your group has safely cleared any obstacles, including puddles, streams, jumps, ditches, paved roads and rocky areas, before you trot or canter. While your horse may be on safe footing, a follower may not be in the same position.
  • In the same respect, give a verbal or hand signal to your group when you are slowing. Unless an emergency occurs, never stop abruptly since this can cause a pile-up with tragic results caused by a kick to a horse or its rider.
  • Do establish a method for downward transitions. Horses can pile into each other during unannounced slowing or stops--just like a cartoon, but not so funny when it happens in real life. Convey your intentions to the rider behind you. That rider should, in turn, relay the message to the rider behind him or her, and so forth. When the last rider gets the signal, she slows first, then the second-to-last rider, and on through the group. As leader, you'll slow last. Often a rider can't see the whole down or uphill trail so to be safe, try using a small bell on center cinch. Nothing loud. Just a little tinkle to catch a person's (or other animal's ear). And a bell is really GOOD sense in bear country.
  • Do look for changes in the trail and terrain. Increase following distances when traveling down a heavily wooded trail, so branches swept aside by one rider don't hit the next horse and rider. Keep to a safe pace over tricky footing and on difficult trails.
  • Do keep a sharp eye for upcoming obstacles, and warn others. If you must duck to avoid low branches, warn the other riders to be ready to duck, too. If you spot a hole in the trail, make sure the other riders see it, too. Just as your horse will be more alert in the lead, it's your job to scan for any hazards and warn the group.
  • Do trade positions within the group. Each member of the group will benefit from taking the positions of lead horse, middle horse and last horse in turn.
  • Don't allow slow-moving horses to fall too far behind the group. If they do, they may become anxious. Moreover, it's not wise for riders of slow movers to make a practice of trotting up behind the group to catch up. This can startle or stir up the other horses in the group. Best to keep the group at a pace that's comfortable for everyone.
  • When it comes to gates, bridges and crossings, the whoever-gets-there-first rule prevails. But again, common sense and courtesy should apply. If one doesn't have to wait very long, hold the gate open for other trail users. That way you can close the gate and know its been re latched -- properly. And if the gate was open when you came to it, leave it open.
  • Wait for all the horses in your group to get a drink of water at streams before you ride off. A horse is a herd animal and, although thirsty, may not take the time to drink when all of his friends are leaving him.
  • After break stops, do not walk off until all riders are mounted and well situated in their saddles.
  • If you have a green horse or rider in the group, be considerate of their skill level. Stick to the pace most comfortable for the least experienced horse and/or rider. If you donít want to go "that slow", save riding with the "greenies" for another day. They will not be offended, for they know they are green and will appreciate your consideration in not subjecting them to a ride for which they are unprepared. Make sure your horse has the temperament and training for riding on congested public trails. Trails are not the proper place for schooling green horses.
  • If a horse/rider is having trouble, stop. Do not just continue on in hopes that "they will work it out." Start the ride with the understanding that if any one wishes to stop for any reason, they should say "stop" loudly and expect that all riders in the group will respond immediately.
  • Remember that horses are herd animals and whenever put together in a group they will instinctively work out their "status." Remind all riders to keep at least one horse distance between them and the horse in front of them. Side by side riding is safe when the trail permits, but only when the horses are acquainted with each other and get along well. Do not simply ride up beside an unfamiliar horse.
  • If one rider must pass another, they should do so on the left and only after confirming with the rider being passed that it is all right to proceed. . The rider should then move to the right as far as is safe or simply stop their horse for the approaching rider to pass. If horses begin to match strides, just relax. One will soon tire of the 'keep up game' and fall back. Never pass at any gait faster than a slow trot. Just keep on walking -- and talking to your for-a-few-minutes riding companion.
  • Advise other trail users of your horse's temperament, e.g. a horse with a tendency to kick should always wear a red ribbon in the tail or a stallion should wear a yellow ribbon. Assume that not everyone will know what these ribbons mean, so be prepared to explain or take the necessary precautions to avoid trouble.
  • Remember that other trail users may not be familiar with horses or their reactions to new experiences. Your horse may be another trail user's introduction to horses; what you do is a reflection of the local horse community. Cheerfully answer questions about your horse. You are an ambassador for the entire equestrian community. -- be polite. SMILE. Say hello
  • Never, never, never have a hiker or backpacker or biker or other horseman or anybody step behind a rock, a tree, a bush or out of sight. If the horse has seen him, he's looking for him! And with the sudden disappearance the horse can become more nervous and upset. To a horse, that disappearing what-is-it could suddenly bounce out and eat 'em. Even if completely out of sight, a snapping twig or a rustling branch as a horse goes by can spook the animal. So keep the other trail user in open sight -- and TALK. Always pass in safe areas which may mean you, the horseman, may have to back track a few feet.
  •  In some areas, trails have been placed beside streets. This is not safe area for riding necessity for getting from one end of a trail to the other. At paved street crossings, stop before crossing. Look both ways. Then cross the street. Even though auto traffic is supposed to stop for horsemen, it doesn't -- even in crossings.  For cars coming up behind, stop the horse and allow him to look at the vehicle. A vehicle that is moving to fast can be 'signaled' to slow down by extending your arm on the pavement side out full length and moving it up and down. And if a horse is really spooky of traffic (in which case he should have more barnyard work before hitting that section of trail), one can dismount and walk between horse and traffic with the horse's head on short reins at your shoulder. Never be to proud to get off and walk. Walking can save you and your horse a lot of misery.
  • If you trailer to a location, do not clean out your trailer in the parking area.
  • A basic good "horse senseĒ. Is carrying an emergency kit, helmet, cell phone, companion and letting someone know your travel plans.
  • If you are using the trails, you should be volunteering at least one weekend a year to help with trail care. Protect our environment, stay on the trail; never cut switchbacks.


  • The first priority is the fallen rider. Let the horse go or let someone else catch him.
  • If the rider is on the ground for more than 1 or 2 minutes, you must determine if the rider needs medical attention. If so, or if in doubt, call 911 immediately.
  • Unless the rider has fallen into water do not move him. Do not remove his helmet.
  • If the rider is unconscious, make sure he is breathing with a clear airway and that he has a pulse. If necessary, start CPR.
  • If the rider is conscious, ask if he is able to move arms and legs. If not, help him stay calm while you wait for help. Provide shade from the sun or warmth if needed.
  • Even if the rider appears uninjured, ask a few simple questions to check for mental clarity. Confusion or short-term memory loss may indicate a concussion.
  • If the rider seems dazed do not allow him back on the horse.
Do not leave an unconscious or dazed person alone while getting help-if he wakes up he could stumble off and get lost on top of being seriously injured.

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