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. equinenet­work­

Julie Good­night (http://juliegood­ 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 (

Heidi Me­locco (www.whole-pic­ 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.

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