There's no such thing as travel insurance for trail riders, but today's equipment can make a huge difference to your safety and visibility on the trail. If you're a savvy, experienced trail rider, there's a good chance that you already own and use many of the items discussed here. But you might be inspired to add some of the items to your collection.
Here, we'll first discuss items designed to protect you, the rider, as you tackle trails mild and wild. These include foot/leg gear, headgear, gloves, vests, visibility enhancers, no-hands lights, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Then we'll cover items for your horse. These include stirrups and specialized tack, plus reflective items you can attach to your tack and even directly to your horse to enhance visibility. All can help make your trail-riding experience safer and more enjoyable.
Along the way, we'll also give you a checklist of safety items for the trail and safety-gear resources.
You likely don boots to protect your feet both in and out of the saddle. Depending on where you live, you might add chaps or half-chaps to protect your legs from brush and thorns. Other standard protective apparel includes a long-sleeved shirt and bandanna to protect your arms, neck, and face from sun, wind, and blowing dust, and perhaps a wide-brimmed hat to help protect your eyes, nose, and lips from the sun. These are all good choices, but today, you have more options than ever before.
Foot/leg gear. No matter what your riding style, boots and chaps will help protect your feet and legs from branches and brambles, thorns, snakes, and - if you spend any time leading your horse - the unpleasant effects of a wayward hoof, tall, wet grass, and other on-the-ground hazards. You can wear tall boots or short boots, chaps or chinks, or the increasingly popular combination of short paddock boots and half-chaps. (Chaps and half-chaps are available through State Line Tack and other riding-apparel stores and catalogs.)
Whatever footgear you choose, look for comfort, protection, some ankle support, and, for maximum security and comfort in the stirrup, some traction and shock absorption. Ariat International pioneered the athletic riding boot in English, Western, and trail-riding models; other reputable bootmakers have followed suit; for a partial list, see the resource guide on page 60.
Make sure your boots have good heels and one-piece soles to help keep your feet from sliding all the way through the stirrups. Here's why: Say you're riding down the trail and your horse spooks, throwing you off balance. Your low-heeled (or no-heeled) footgear shoots through the stirrup. You lose your seat and fall off - but your foot is caught up in the stirrup. Your horse takes off down the trail - dragging you by your foot over every hard bump, which can lead to injury and even death.
In addition to proper footgear, specialized stirrups and stirrup accessories (which we'll discuss in a minute) can also help prevent dragging incidents.
Headgear. Old-time trail riders didn't have our advantages - they would've loved today's lightweight, ventilated, comfortable, and highly protective equestrian helmets. You can add a waterproof cover to ward off rain, a net cover if biting insects are a problem, and a warm fleece cover that will hold in the heat and also keep your ears and neck warm.
If you miss the shade that a wide-brimmed hat or a good baseball cap provides, try one of the long, wide, sport visors from Cashel. (They go for about $11). You can attach these soft foam visors to any safety helmet, and they'll provide full shade for your eyes and face.
Salamander makes a visor system that attaches to any helmet, and is popular with many outdoor enthusiasts. It's made from lightweight, closed-cell foam inside poly cloth, and attaches to the helmet with hook-and-loop strips. These visors go for less than $20 from The Distance Depot.
Important note: When helmet shopping, look for headgear that's ASTM-approved and SEI-certified. (Check the label.) The American Society for Testing and Materials (www.astm.org) tests and sets the standards for equestrian helmets. The Safety Equipment Institute (www.seinet.org) certifies helmets that meet the current safety standards; its website lists manufacturers of those helmets.
Gloves. Gloves are essential for trail safety. Unless your "trail" is a cow track through your own back pasture, you'll likely handle branches, wire, and rocks. Well-made riding gloves also allow you to keep a good, safe, grip on the reins. In hot, sunny weather, gloves protect your hands from burning and blistering. In cold weather, they help keep your hands warm and fingers flexible. Polarfleece gloves will keep your hands warm even if they're wet. SSG makes a variety of gloves for riders, many priced between $15 and $30.
Don't try to put everything you carry into your pockets or your fanny pack, and don't try to put it all into your saddlebags, either. You and your horse can share the gear. Ask yourself which items you would absolutely want to have with you if you and your horse were to suddenly part company - and carry those items on your person. (Which one of you should have the first-aid kit or the cell phone?)
The rest of the gear can stay on - and with - your horse. Some items, such as reflective gear, should be worn by both of you, because they can make it easier for you to find your horse if he gets lost and for others to find you if you get lost. Here's a safety-item checklist. (For recommended first-aid kit items, see Safe & Sound, January/February '05.)
- Cell phone
- Insect repellent
- Leather boot lace/latigos (for repairs)
- Light sources
- Lip balm
- Reflective devices
- Sunscreen/sun block
- Water bottle with filter
- Whistle (in case you get lost)
For Your Horse
- Fly spray
- Halter/lead rope
- Reflective devices
- Temporary horse shoe
Visibility enhancers. Your horse sees very well at night. (See What's Up Doc, November/December '04). But since humans' night vision isn't all that good, make yourself visible to your riding companions, to other trail users, and to anyone who might come looking for you if you're lost or injured. Visibility is also helpful when you have to cross or ride on roads. Motorists may not be expecting riders, so make it easy for them to see you and stop in time.
You can increase your visibility by wearing reflective or fluorescent clothing. What's the difference? Reflective materials bounce back a light source in daylight or dark night; fluorescent materials increase your visibility only during the day. Reflective and fluorescent clothing, belts, and sashes are available from many companies, including some that specialize in horse equipment. (For reflective devices you apply to your tack or directly onto your horse, see "For Your Horse" on page 60.)
No-hands flashlights. You can carry a small flashlight in your vest pocket, on your belt, in your fanny pack, or in an ankle carrier (such as that made by Cashel Company). But there's a lightweight, hands-free option: a headlamp with a harness that fits over your helmet. Headlamps provide hands-free light and direct the light beam in the direction you're looking. They're not recommended for riding, as the bright light can blind and distract horses and other riders, but if you need to stop - say, your horse gets caught in wire, loses a shoe, or needs a stone removed from his hoof - you'll be glad to see clearly and have both hands free. Long Riders Gear sells headlamps that are inexpensive ($20 to $40), weigh just a few ounces, and can provide light for five hours or longer.
Equestrian safety vest. If you'd like additional body protection on the trails, there are equestrian safety vests like those used by jockeys, eventers, and bull riders. For maximum comfort, look for a model that's flexible and adjustable, with minimal side padding. Before you take that first long trail ride, be sure that your vest and saddle are compatible. A short vest offers less protection than a longer one, but you'll want to be sure that the bottom back edge of your vest doesn't bump annoyingly against your saddle's cantle.
Tipperary, from Phoenix Performance Products, offers off-the-rack protective vests from $239; models from INTEC Performance Gear start at $125. An economical alternative is the INTEC Flex-Rider body protector, available for $105. Most vests cost far more, and add-ons - such as custom sizing, colors, and designs - will typically double or triple the basic price.
Phone It In
The cell phone you already own can be a lifesaver on the trail. If you ride to get some peace and quiet, relax - you don't have to accept phone calls on the trail. You can keep your phone turned off, and turn it on only to make emergency calls. With luck, you'll never use it at all.
Nonetheless, do familiarize your horse with the sound of your phone's ring tone. He may startle when he first hears it. Let him get used to it at home when he's relaxed, not somewhere on the trail when you're waiting for emergency services or your veterinarian to return your emergency phone call.
Other vests: For a different kind of safety on the trail, consider two other types of vests - those with multiple pockets and those with reflective or fluorescent strips. You'll find such vests at sport- and outdoor-supply stores, in outdoor catalogs, and online.
Vests with multiple pockets will hold a number of small, essential items, keeping them within easy reach in the saddle. Look for pockets with zipper or hook-and-loop closures to prevent small items from bouncing out on a ride.
By keeping small items within easy reach, you won't need to contort your body to get that protein bar from your cantle bag, or bend down to get lip balm from your pommel bag. No matter how bombproof your trail horse, taking your attention off the trail, laying down the reins, and twisting around can put you at risk for a trail accident.
A vest that incorporates reflective or fluorescent strips will increase your visibility, thus enhancing your safety. They're popular with riders, hunters, motorcyclists, bicyclists, runners, and joggers.
Sunscreen. Sunscreen, sun block, and lip balm will help protect your skin and lips from the sun, and will protect against dryness. Skin cancer, including melanoma, is a real risk, so look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply it generously to any exposed skin, such as your face/ears, neck (front and back), arms, and even the backs of your hands if you're not wearing gloves.
If you ride in a damp climate and are likely to become sweaty as you ride, choose a waterproof or water-resistant product that won't tend to run into your eyes. Lips sunburn easily, so buy a high-SPF lip balm and reapply it frequently.
Insect repellent. Choose an insect repellent according to the time of year, the weather conditions, and the types of annoying insects you can expect to meet on the trail. If you're far from home, ask the locals what works against the local insect populations. Tip: Some people react badly to certain chemicals, so read all labels carefully, and test each product at home before applying it on a long trail ride. You're far more likely to use a product if you know you aren't allergic to it and you don't object to its scent.
For Your Horse
Tapaderos, hooded stirrups, and toe cages. Wide, heavy stirrups provide comfort and safety on trail rides. Easy Care Inc.'s E-Z Ride Stirrups (from $55.75) offer these features, plus the safety options mentioned here. Increase both factors by adding a pair of tapaderos or hoods (to Western stirrups) or toe cages (to English and endurance-style stirrups).
Tapaderos will help keep your toes warm in winter, will protect your stirrups as well as your boots, and are the better choice if you'll be riding through a lot of tall grass and/or brush. They can also be quite costly, so before investing $200 or more in traditional tapaderos, investigate the less expensive hooded stirrups ($100 from Outfitters Supply in leather, $50 from Tarpin Hill in leather; $35 from Chick's Saddlery in nylon) and toe cages. All are designed to prevent your foot from going all the way through the stirrup, to decrease the risk of being dragged, should you fall. Breakaway stirrups, such as those made by STI Corp. (from $305) can also help prevent a dragging.
Synthetic tack. For endurance riders and dedicated night-time trail riders, Gail Hought makes synthetic tack with "glowbelt." Glowbelt is a soft version of biothane that's activated by light and body warmth. It glows white during the day, green at night, and will glow continually while in contact with your horse. Hought makes several headstall designs with glowbelt on the browband, noseband, and cheekpieces, starting at $107. She also makes breastcollars and reins, and cruppers with a glowbelt overlay, and has just introduced a line of reflective biothane tack.
Reflective/fluorescent devices. You'll find reflective devices designed to hang off your breastcollar, bridle, stirrups, and even your horse's tail. Two Horse Enterprises sells Safe-1 reflective products, most made from yellow vinyl reflective tape with "quick-grip" attachments, and most under $20. You can choose leg and tail reflectors for horses, or a four-piece halter/bridle tube kit consisting of reflective vinyl strips on neoprene backing, to be wrapped around your bridle's browband, noseband, and cheekpieces.
You can also buy "package" deals that include leg bands, a tail reflector, a reflective halter, and a halter/bridle kit, starting at $58. A fancier version of those reflective leg bands incorporates five flashing LED lights on each leg (about $20 per pair). Another useful item from the same company: rubber stirrup pads (for English stirrups), with white reflectors on the front and red ones on the back.
Night-riding illumination. Sometimes an afternoon or all-day trail ride can continue into the night, even though that wasn't your plan. It's not just getting lost that can cause you to come home late; taking a detour or getting off to a late start after an extra-long lunch break can have the same effect. Or, you and your riding buddies might choose to go on moonlit trail rides along groomed trails.
Riders are often advised to "carry a flashlight" if there's even a remote possibility of coming home in the dark. Some riders refuse to do this on principle, because they worry that the brightness of a conventional flashlight will make it more difficult for their horses to see at night. But some trails are darker than others, some trails cross roads, and there are times when you might have a very good reason to use a bright light. Fortunately, there are many options available to today's trail riders.
If you need just a little bit of soft light to help illuminate a dark trail on a cloudy or moonless night, inexpensive, easy-to-use glow-sticks (available from outdoor-supply and camping stores) can provide light that won't hurt anyone's eyes.
Unlike flashlights, glow sticks function by an internal chemical reaction, and are one-time-use items. They come in many sizes, styles, and colors. Attach glow sticks to your horse's tack, such as his breastcollar.
Tip: Be sure to read the labels and catalog descriptions carefully to determine the product's glow time; some glow sticks give you a few minutes of bright light, some last for four to eight hours, and some will continue to glow softly for 12 hours.
Jessica Jahiel, PhD (www.jessicajahiel.com) is an internationally recognized clinician and lecturer, and an award-winning author of books on horses, riding, and training. Her latest book is The Horse Behavior Problem Solver: Your Questions Answered about how Horses Think, Learn, and React (Storey Publishing). Her e-mail newsletter (www.horse-sense.org) is a popular worldwide resource.