Safety in Numbers
Learn how to stay safe on group rides — whether you’re riding your own horse or on a riding vacation — with these guidelines from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
RRiding in a group changes how you’ll plan for your ride, whether you’re riding with one friend, a small group of friends, a large group, or with a professional outfitter. You’re in this together; each horseand-rider team must feel safe in the group. It can be anxiety-provoking to head out on a ride with horses and acquaintances you’ve never ridden with before. Will their horses behave? Will all stay with the group? Will some want to go faster or on a route that doesn’t feel safe for you and your horse?
My best advice? Choose wisely; don’t ride with just anyone who has free time. Then plan for safety by setting ground rules, choosing a leader, and discussing etiquette before you saddle up.
Here, I’ll help you organize your ride and consider how every rider can be safe as you ride down the trail.
Step 1. Prepare Your Horse
Your first step to a safe group ride is to prepare your horse. When you’re riding in a large group with your own horse, your horse may be overwhelmed, stressed, and excited to be with so many strange horses.
If your horse seems overwhelmed, put him to work. Turn him left and right, and ask him to listen to you. He’ll soon remember that he knows what to do, and will fall into line and become more comfortable with his new herd.
Train your horse for the type of ride you’ll take ahead of time. If he insists on being in the lead, you have some training to do. Practice riding in different places and in a smaller group before you ride in a large, organized ride.
On a large ride, you need to be able to control your horse and trust that he’ll fall into line where you ask him to be. Start small, and build up to the larger rides. It’s just as nerve-wracking to your horse as it is to you when everything is big and new.
Take your horse away from home and to group events before you ride in a big ride — trailer to horsemanship clinics or even to open shows to make sure your horse is used to being around lots of new horses.
If you’re riding at a commercial outfit, ask what you should know about the horse. Chances are, the horse knows his job and is willing to go down the trail well. You shouldn’t be responsible for training a horse that’s in a professional trail string.
Of course, any horse can react unpredictably, but horses that are used to a daily trail routine know their jobs. Don’t try to override these horses because you know how to ride. Follow the advice of the trail guide and only do what you’re asked to do.
Step 2. Choose a Leader
Every ride needs a leader. The type of trail and the group size will impact how much planning and leadership is needed, but someone should be designated as the leader in any type of ride.
For instance, if you’ll be riding on a flat path through a park for an hour, you may not need much planning. However, if you’ll be riding on steep terrain through the Rocky Mountains and you’ll camp overnight, make sure someone is in charge, and sets clear goals and expectations for the ride. Here’s a closer look. • Small groups: Even if you’re riding with just one friend, someone has to decide where you’re going and how fast you’ll get there. Generally, the person with the most experience is the person in charge — if leadership is needed. If I’m riding with a few close friends, I trust that they can handle their own horses. However, if someone falls off or a horse is injured, it’s good to know who’ll take the lead. It’s also imperative that someone outlines the plan and sets the tone of the ride before it begins. • Larger groups: If you’re riding in a larger group with your own horse, or at an organized horse-for-hire guided ride, planning becomes much more important. Someone with experience should be in charge and make sure everyone feels safe, stays together, and follows the plan. An experienced rider should lead the group, and another experienced rider should follow as the “drag rider” to make sure all stay together. • Commercial outfitters: If you’re paying to ride with a guide in a large trail operation, the leadership is set. Depending on group size, one or more guides may accompany the ride. In large commercial rides,
Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight helps you know how to stay safe when riding with a group on your own horse and when riding with an outfitter.
it’s common to have a guide in front, a drag rider in the rear and a third “sweep” rider in the middle to help out as needed.
Step 3. Set Ground Rules
At the start of your ride, the leader is responsible for setting ground rules regarding safety and etiquette.
Ground rules should include: You must stay together; you must wait for one another; and you must agree on the route and speed. The leader will also decide on the hand signals to use.
The leader must consider all the horses in the group, as well as the riders’ skill levels and personalities. All must agree to ride to the comfort level of the least-experienced rider.
If someone on the ride wants to stay at the walk, the whole group must ride at the walk. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable taking a steep or windy shortcut, the whole group must agree to stay on the safest part of the trail, while staying mindful of Leave No Trace principles.
The leader should also remind the group to stay together through gates, and when riding up and down hills or any trail obstacles.
Step 4. Mount Up
It’s important to mount up and move out in an organized fashion. Horses aren’t couches — it’s not a good idea to mount up, then sit on your horse for a long time while others are still getting ready.
All riders should mount up at the same time or as quickly as possible so that horses can get moving once you’re in the saddle. If there’s a designated mounting area, mount up, then get out of the way while others mount until all are ready to move down the trail.
If you’re riding at a commercial facility, you’ll often get your gear, then mount up at a specific mounting block. Commercial outfits often have specific rules about mounting and ask you to follow their own processes.
Follow the rules, and don’t ride off before it’s time. You may want to warm up, but your horse wants to be with the group, and the other horses will be more relaxed when they feel they’re not missing out.
When I trail ride with my clinic riders at C Lazy U ranch, we often mount up, then organize the rides into smaller groups so that all riders are in a group with which they feel comfortable and to smooth the mounting-up process.
Step 5. Change Speed with Care
The leader will place the fast and slower horses within the ride, spacing out the horses so that riders don’t have to adjust constantly. (If you need to pass or change positions, ask whether it’s okay to pass, and wait for a safe place on the trail.) Then, when it’s time to change speed, it’s the leader’s job to decide when the footing is appropriate for higher speeds and to explain which cues will be given so that all horses can start and stop safely, and at the same time.
The leader should ask all riders if they’re ready to speed up, then use the prearranged hand signal so all know when to slow down. If the leader doesn’t designate a specific cue to slow down, horses may plow into one another on narrow trails.
If the leader knows the trail well — and knows there’s a safe, open, flat area to ride faster — he or she should make sure all are prepared to trot or canter before changing gaits. It’s best to stop before the area, and ask all if they’re ready to trot or canter.
On large group rides, pass the message down the line. The leader starts the message that it’s time to trot, then the message is passed back until someone at the end of the line says, “We’re ready.” Make sure everyone hears the message before the gait change.
Changing speed is safer when you leave enough space between your horse and the horse in front of you. Ideally, a horselength distance between each horse is best. A young or green horse will likely need more space.
Horses in a professional string are typically used to riding nose-to-tail. They know one another and aren’t worried about being so close.
If you’re riding in a commercial operation, you may learn specific hand signals to use when it’s time to start, change speeds, and stop. Usually, the the guides (and the horses) know exactly where it’s safe to speed up.
Step 6. Negotiate Gates/ Terrain
At gates, someone must be designated to open the gate, all must go through in order, then someone must close the gate.
When riders proceed through the gate, the first rider through should go just far enough to allow space for all other riders to fit through, then stop, turn back toward the gate, and allow all the riders to proceed without being rushed.
Horses in the back of the line will get worried if others proceed too far ahead, causing them to feel left behind. All must
wait until the rider handling the gate closes it and has time to mount up and keep up with the group.
This same etiquette applies to moving up or down a hill, or across water or any other challenging terrain. Cross the terrain, allow space for all riders to fit on the other side, then turn and wait for all to cross safely.
Following this simple safety step (and reminding riders of the process before each ride) will keep the horses from worrying about separation from the herd, while showing simple courtesy to the rider in the back.
Step 7. Stop Safely
If someone has an emergency or needs a tack adjustment, you may have to stop the whole ride. Stopping the ride is a big deal — and that’s the time when problems are likely to happen.
If you keep the ride moving, all is usually well. When you have to stop to pick up a water bottle, hat, etc., trouble often happens, especially if you need to stop in difficult terrain.
Prevention is key. Make sure all riders securely fasten their items to their persons or their saddles.
If you must stop, wait until there’s a flat, open area. The leader will decide whether riders will dismount or stay on. It’s often best to keep all riders mounted so that the ride can continue as soon as possible. The leader will help the rider who needed to stop and will supervise the other riders. If the leader must change positions, he or she must designate a temporary leader and make sure the head horse turns and looks at the other horses, so they know they should remain stopped. TTR
For more information on equine behavior and trail-riding tips, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from www. equinenetworkstore.com.
Julie Goodnight (http://juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-T V show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.
On group rides, plan for safety by setting ground rules, choosing a leader, and discussing etiquette before you saddle up. Here, Julie Goodnight leads a group.
Horses who know each other well may not mind riding closely together. Know your horse and the terrain, and adjust your distances accordingly.
Make sure to wait for all in the group to mount up before turning away to setting out — you’ll keep the horses calm when they don’t think that they’re being left behind.