When tackling rugged country, make safety a priority. Think ahead, so you don't put yourself or your horse in a dangerous situation. Tell someone where you're riding and when you're expected back. Don't ride alone. Carry a cell phone on your body, not on your horse, in case you become separated from him.
It can take only a moment for things to "head south" when you get into rough going. You may come across a washout on a trail that was fine the last time you rode it, or a rock slide may have taken out part of a favorite trail.
Stop your horse, and assess a potentially bad spot before you continue and possibly get into trouble. It's not "wimpy" to turn around or to avoid a trail that may pose a danger. In some cases, you may need to dismount and walk your horse through a sticky spot.
Know your confidence and ability level, and that of your horse, before riding in an area where you'll likely face steep hills and rugged terrain. This isn't country for the novice rider. When you do face these trail challenges, follow these strategies from top trainer/clinician Lynn Palm.
Trail Challenge #1: Riding Uphill
When you come to a steep uphill, stop your horse, and determine the safest route. "Footing will play a big role," says Palm. "If it's rocky or rough, walk your horse up for safety and soundness reasons."
When you start up the hill, help your horse using your body position (Photos 1A and 1B). Keep your body weight in the center of your horse's gravity: Tilt your upper body forward so your arms are extended up his neck. Shorten the reins accordingly, but don't keep a tight hold on his mouth. He needs his head for balance and to see well so that he can pick his way safely.
If you feel that you need a little security, hold the reins in one hand and hold onto the saddle horn or pommel with the other hand. This is much less confusing to your horse than gripping with your legs.
Note that when you tilt your upper body forward, your legs will tend to move back, which can encourage your horse to speed up. Instead, keep your legs just behind the cinch/girth, and keep them relaxed and neutral (Photo 1C).
When going uphill, horses are often inclined to speed up, because it's easier for them to power forward with their hindquarters underneath them. The walk is actually the hardest gait, because he doesn't have as much power as he does at the trot or lope/canter.
However, you should choose your horse's pace. If you allow him to speed up on his own, sooner or later, he'll want to charge uphill, which may get dangerous.
Trail Challenge #2: Riding Downhill
It's harder for your horse to go downhill than uphill. Again, your balance is important to helping him negotiate the hill safely.
As you did when going uphill, stop your horse, and look at the terrain before you start down. If you're facing a very steep incline, it'll be much easier, and safer, to ride in on a diagonal track winding back and forth down the hill, instead of just heading straight down. If the hill isn't long or steep, you can usually just ride straight down, provided the footing is safe.
Stay in a balanced position in the center of the saddle, and lean your upper body back while pushing your feet forward in the stirrups so your legs are in front of the cinch/girth (Photo 2A). As your horse steps down, hold your reins slightly higher than normal (about three to four inches above the saddle horn or pommel) to encourage him to keep more weight on his hind end than on his front end (Photos 2B, and 2C). Getting that hind end up underneath him will help keep him from stumbling.
If you feel your horse start to stumble or increase his speed, he has too much weight on his front end. Bring his head up slightly to encourage him to transfer more weight to his hindquarters, and make sure you're balanced and leaning back.
Only experienced riders should ride downhill at anything faster than a walk, and even then, only when the footing is safe. You can use riding in hills to help condition your horse, but trotting or loping/cantering downhill isn't recommended unless both you and your horse are experienced, and you're sure there are no rough, slick places, holes, or rocks.
Trail Challenge #3: Rough Terrain
One of the joys of trail riding in new territory is that you never know what's around the next bend. Of course, this can also present challenges when you encounter washouts, ravines, rocky going, and rough footing (Photo 3A).
Be a proactive rider, and help your horse by watching the terrain ahead of you. Avoid riding on footing that can pose a hazard to your horse, including exposed roots, which can trap a hoof. If you can't avoid a root-covered trail, dismount, and cut the roots if you can. (Carry a sharp knife and small folding axe to re-clear established trails when necessary.)
In rocky terrain, give your horse his head, and let him pick his way through (Photo 3B). Look ahead, try to find the best path, and point him in the general direction you'd like to go. But don't keep a tight hold on the reins; gently guide him, rather than steering him.
Above all, listen to your horse, and trust his instincts when the going gets rough. Don't force him to go through a bad section of trail. He may be resisting because he knows it's not safe.
"In rough terrain, if you let your horse take care of himself, he'll most likely find the best way through," says Palm.
Dismount if you have to, and look for an alternate passage. Your and your horse's safety is the most important thing.
Trail Challenge #4: Crossing Water
Crossing creeks and rivers is one of the thrills of riding off the beaten path. If you use common sense, crossing water can become another accomplishment for you and your equine partner.
If crossing water is totally new to your horse, first teach him this skill at home. This will help build his confidence when you encounter a creek or river on the trail.
Before crossing any body of water, know how deep it is at the deepest point. If there's any question about depth, realize that you and your horse may end up swimming if he hits a hole or deep spot. With this in mind, always remove a tie-down or martingale before crossing water! If your horse doesn't have the freedom to raise his head above water level, he's at risk for a tragic drowning.
If your horse isn't experienced with water crossing, and you know you'll hit a creek or two, plan to ride with someone whose horse knows about water. Let your horse follow the experienced one across. Professional outfitters and backcountry guides often introduce green horses to water by putting them in the middle of a pack string of experienced horses so they learn by example.
As you approach the water crossing, give your horse time to accept it, using his senses of sight and smell. He may want to sniff the water before crossing, or even drink.
But be aware that many horses like to roll in water, and they can drop right out from underneath you if you aren't paying attention. If your horse paws the water, indicating he wants to roll, pull his head up, and keep him walking.