Most horses love going out on the trail. It's a nice break from the usual training regimen. However, stepping outside the box brings its own set of hazards and challenges. Deer, bear, quail, skunk, and other denizens of the trail are rare in the arena, so horses acclimated to a more controlled environment may spook and act unpredictably on the plains or in the forest. Even seasoned trail horses are occasionally surprised by wildlife, bicycles, kids with kites, barking dogs, and other chance encounters.
Does this mean you should avoid the trails? Of course not. But it does mean you should hit the trail prepared for any eventuality.
Cover Your Bases
No matter where you ride, it's always a good idea to wear a riding helmet. On the trail, the ground can be even harder than in a groomed arena. The addition of rocks and logs can make a fall even more dangerous-while slippery footing may increase your chances of hitting the ground. Trees, too, present perils to riders who blaze trails through the brush or happen not to notice the occasional low-hanging branch. A helmet protects your head from such encounters and shelters you from sun, wind, cold, and rain. While you may need a well-ventilated helmet for hot, summer riding, please don't give into the temptation of foregoing a well-fitting helmet all year-round.
Don't overlook the importance of wearing appropriate footwear, either. Riding shoes and boots are designed to provide good traction while walking, but with a tread and heel that won't allow your foot to get hung up in a stirrup should you fall. If you think it would be bad to get dragged in an arena, it's unthinkable what it would be like on the trail. So no sneakers!
Go Properly Equipped
- Dress in layers and carry a rain slicker so you can adjust to weather changes.
- Wear appropriate footwear with a safe tread and half-inch or greater heel.
- Select multi-use tools and tack to reduce weight.
- Carry keys and emergency gear on your person, not on the horse.
- Divide items into utilitarian "kits," such as first aid, tack repair, etc.
- Always take along water, regardless of season.
When trail riding, it's all about options. Since you don't know what you'll run into or what you'll need, you want to be as comprehensive as possible without loading your horse down like a moving van. The more items that can do double-duty, the more options you have with no additional weight. So think "multi-use" for the gear and tack you carry. For example, on my horse, I use a halter/bridle combination. The reins connect to the bit using scissor clips. I can unclip the reins from the bit, clip one end to the halter ring, and remove my horse's bit. Then I can hold the other end of the reins as a lead line while he grazes and I eat a sandwich.
What about getting lost? A horse is often thought of as "a living map." His outstanding memory affords him the ability to remember where he's been. He usually knows his way back to the barn even if you don't. But horses, too, can sometimes get confused. Trailering to a new location often means your horse is in a completely unfamiliar locale. This is when it pays to carry a map, a compass, and the ability to use both. A GPS is also a fine tool, and I carry one of those, too. But electronic devices sometimes break or fail, or their batteries run down, so I carry the map and compass as a low-tech, but reliable, backup.
Although a riding friend often teases me that I'm riding my living map, I've taken my own tumbles and realize I could well find myself separated from my horse in an unfamiliar environment. For that reason, I carry my cell phone, GPS, and map and compass on my person. (I don't think my horse will use any of them if I leave them in his cantle bag and we get separated.) My GPS is also a walkie-talkie and acts as a backup to my cell phone in case there's no signal or it gets damaged in a tumble. Remember, go for multi-use.
Kits, Canteens & Workarounds
Even though I carry those critical items on my person, I still make good use of my cantle bags for other items that are handy to have on the trail. For example, I carry a hoof pick, a first aid kit I can use on myself and my horse, and a multi-purpose tool that includes a knife, pliers, cutters, screwdriver, and awl. I carry several "kits" that are contained in individual plastic zip bags. This keeps them together by function (first aid kit, signaling kit, sewing kit, fishing kit, etc.).
I also carry strips of leather and 50 feet of parachute cord. The cord is light, takes up little space, and can be used as a makeshift lead line or to make an emergency bridle, reins, or both. A strip of leather can be fashioned into a temporary bit. While you may not think your well-maintained headstall, bit, or reins will come loose or break, you don't want to be one of those statistics who ends up miles out on the trail with no plan or workaround. Two people I rode with this year had bridles break during our ride-so it really does happen.
Year-round, I carry a one-quart canteen, riding in any weather. I find myself thirstier in the summer, but it's just as easy to become dehydrated when you're out in the cold, dry air. Taking a canteen also means I have clean water available for cleaning cuts and wounds if either my horse or I get a scrape.
I also take along items I'll need in the event of getting lost or in an emergency. I carry a flashlight with fresh batteries and keep them separate, so I can't leave the light on accidentally and drain the batteries. I include matches and a candle (in case I have to heat something or light a fire), a mirror for daytime signaling, a small weatherproof strobe light for nighttime signaling (with flashlight as a backup), and a whistle. I call this my "signaling kit" and store all the items in a canvas pouch for additional strength, since some of them are heavy.
Additional items are for personal comfort: I dress in layers, so I can adapt to weather changes, and pack an emergency poncho to keep the rain off. The poncho goes down to my knees, includes a hood, and comes folded at a small 5"x3.5"x0.5" thick. I carry several packets of premoistened sanitized hand wipes (nice to use before eating my lunch out on the trail and after cleaning hooves). Two compressed Trioxane packets can provide sustained heat for warming a meal or boiling water. You can find them at any Army/Navy surplus store. They light easily with a match and will heat for about nine minutes. They're also cheap, compact, waterproof, and remain usable for years. A small sewing kit contains needle, thread, and safety pins. I've never sewed out on the trail, but I've been glad to have some safety pins along on several occasions to quickly deal with a tear in a shirt that got caught on an errant branch or was the result of an unplanned tumble. (Are any of them truly ever planned?)
I'll also be adding a few more items to my cantle bags this year. For example, I'll be including a hoof boot in case my horse throws a shoe miles from home. I want one that's not right- or left-foot dependent so I can carry only one, which can be used on any hoof. I'll also pack a small, roll-on insect repellent to foil annoying bugs. (Do not carry a pressurized spray can-it could overheat and burst inside your saddle bag.)
"So," you may be thinking, "Jerry carries lots of junk he'll likely never use."
I may not use all the items I take with me on the trail, but I don't know what I'll need until an event occurs. I've certainly been glad to have bandages for cuts and bruises. I've used the multi-purpose tool several times to tighten or adjust loosening or recently damaged tack buckles, D-rings, and such. I've used the hoof pick after going through thick mud and to remove rocks stuck in shoes. The flashlight came in handy when I returned from a ride later than expected and darkness had already set in. I've not needed the map to get home, but I have referred to it frequently out on the trail to find shorter or alternative return routes when a planned route was blocked, washed out, or unexpectedly closed.
Frankly, it's been comforting to be able to handle unexpected events on the trail with minimal inconvenience. My trail kit is small, light (4 pounds excluding the canteen), and comprehensive enough to cover most eventualities. That's not much to tote for peace of mind. Fortunately, serious trail injuries and problems are not common. But when one happens to you, the statistics don't matter one bit. Having a plan, some basic materials, and a few simple tools with which to work gives you options that can make your ride safer and more comfortable