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On The Trail Survival Guide

Even if you haven’t had a big wreck with your horse, you’ve imagined what can happen out on the trail. You’ve felt your stomach tie in knots as you headed up a steep hill, passed through deep water, or worse, seen a friend slip or fall with her horse. Those moments of fear aren’t bad and shouldn’t be dismissed says natural horsemanship trainer Julie Goodnight. “Fear is a natural response,” she says. “It can keep you alive. With horses, it’s always important to think ‘what is the worst-case scenario?’ If you know what can happen, you can make plans to avoid it.”

Here, Goodnight has outlined potential tragedies that can happen because of faulty tack or fastening, because of what you’re wearing, or because of who you’re riding with. Read on to find out what can happen and what you can do to avoid the scenario. Keep in mind—ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to horses and safety. Once you know what may happen, you can take the necessary steps to ensure your safety and health for your horse. When you know what steps to take to be safe, you can envision a safe and relaxing ride.

Before You Ride

Check Your Cinch
Problem: Your saddle becomes loose and swings beneath your horse.
Worst-case scenario: You’re going along the trail at a brisk pace when you realize you haven’t checked your cinch for almost an hour. And you can’t quite remember—did you check the cinch after stopping for a lunch break? Your saddle slips to the side—taking you with it. Your try to untangle yourself from the saddle—which is now upside down and hanging below your horse’s belly—but your foot is caught. Your horse is moving faster as the “attacking” saddle chases him. You’re terrified as you’re being dragged down the trail. If you’re lucky, your worst problem will be a horse that’s terrified of being saddled for the rest of his life. If you’re not so lucky. . . .

Solution: Goodnight says she’s seen many saddles slip and flip during her years as a horse trainer and trail guide. That traumatizes a horse for the rest of his life—he’s afraid of a saddle after it slips and that’s a difficult and sometimes impossible fear to un-train. Avoiding this wreck is simple—take time to check your cinch (or girth as it’s sometimes called) and know where to check.

How to go about it: You may have been taught to check your cinch at a point parallel to your horse’s elbow. The horse is concave in shape on his side, so the cinch will almost always feel loose at that point—it’s a false reading. Check the cinch between the horse’s front legs at the point where the cinch crosses your horse’s sternum—that’s hard bone. You’ll get a true feel for the looseness or tightness there. To be sure, straighten your index finger and place it between your horse’s haircoat and the cinch. Reach in from the side closest to your horse’s tail so that when you pull your fingers out, you’ll leave the horse’s hair flat and avoid causing him to be sore. If you can push one finger in up to your first joint, your cinch is tight. If you can easily push two fingers—or one finger farther than the first joint—between your horse’s body and the cinch, your cinch may need to be tightened. If you can’t get your finger in at all, the cinch is probably too tight—causing your horse to feel undue pressure.

Keep in mind, how tight your cinch should be depends on how your horse is built. If your horse is round and doesn’t have high withers, you may need to ride with a tight cinch to be safe. If your horse has high withers and is somewhat thin, your cinch won’t need to be cranked. You may be safe if you can fit two fingers in up to your first knuckles.

You’ll want to check your girth before and after mounting because your weight compresses the saddle and the pad and may allow for extra room. Plus, when your horse warms up and his muscles tighten during exercise, he begins to sweat and air rushes away from his body and out of the saddle pad. All these factors create space between your horse and the cinch. You may have heard that horses hold their breath during saddling to create more room between their bodies and the cinch. Goodnight says horses don’t plan ahead for a way to escape pain, but they do remember if someone has cranked up their cinch too much at one time. If your horse braces against the cinch, consider tightening his cinch in smaller increments so he doesn’t flinch and tense then relax and loosen the pressure later on.

Get in the habit of checking the cinch each time you mount up and again about 20 minutes into each leg of your ride. Tip: to remind you to re-tighten your cinch after you break for lunch, put your stirrups up over your saddle horn or, if you’re riding in an English saddle, leave a billet hanging down. You’ll see the strange set up and remember to adjust your gear before moving on.

Analyze Your Bridle
Problem: Your bridle comes off because you don’t have a throatlatch or your rein breaks away from the bit.

Worst-case scenario: You’re loping across an open meadow when suddenly you realize you have no contact with your horse’s mouth. You’re holding on to your reins as your bridle drags along the ground beside you. Your horse senses your panic and takes off faster—and heads straight for the tree line. Without reins, you don’t have a way to steer your horse through the approaching trees. Will he rub you off because you can’t maneuver quickly? He knows how wide his own body is, but you probably can’t trust him to judge how wide he is while you’re on his back. How will you stop without your trusty rein aids? The trees are getting closer. . . .

Solution: Make sure your headstall has a throatlatch and it’s properly connected. Also take time to analyze the screws or leather pieces that connect your headstall to the bit and your bit to the reins. Goodnight says losing one rein isn’t as traumatic as losing your entire bridle. Still, if your horse isn’t properly trained, you may have trouble stopping without pulling the bit through his mouth. Plus, stopping for repairs during a ride is never a fun way to spend time.

How to go about it: Goodnight recommends purchasing a headstall with a throatlatch included. She says many riders who show in Western classes ride without the throatlatch attached so that their horses look refined. But out on the trail, your horse can easily pull off even a split-eared headstall if there’s not an extra fastener around his jowl. Put on your horse’s throatlatch and make sure you can fit three fingers vertically aligned between your horse’s jaw and the latch’s leather.

While you’re checking your bridle, look closely at the connections between leather and metal—that’s where you’ll first see wear and breaking. Replace any worn leather before you leave for a ride. Also check your bridle’s Chicago screws to make sure they’re tightly fastened. Consider dotting the back of the screws with super glue to ensure you won’t lose a rein (just make sure you know you won’t want to change your tack set up later).

Double-Check Your Halter & Bridle
Problem: Leaving your halter and lead attached beneath your bridle may leave dangerous loops for your horse to step through or tangle on passing brush.

Worst-case scenario: You’re almost ready to stop, rest and eat some lunch. You’ve left your rope halter on—with the lead in place—beneath your horse’s bridle to make sure he doesn’t get away in the wide-open spaces. When you stop, you’ll take off his bridle and allow him to rest and graze. As you approach your lunch site, you realize your halter’s lead has come untied and hangs down near your horse’s lower chest. Since you’re almost at your stopping point, you think you’ll fix it later. As you step over a log, your horse places his foot in the swinging loop. He raises his head to find he’s tied to his legs. He pulls against the solid rope and finds no relief. If the halter doesn’t budge, your horse could break his neck. You’re out of balance and risk falling as your horse continues to bob and fight the connection.

Solution: Goodnight says she’s not against riding with a halter under a bridle, but recommends using a flat, nylon break-away halter instead of rope. She also recommends detaching your lead while you ride. “A rope halter may feel uncomfortable for your horse if it rubs beneath other layers,” Goodnight says. “Plus, if you have a heavy rope lead swinging from the rope halter, your horse may become insensitive to any pressure on his face. He’ll feel a constant downward pulling pressure all the time—which fights the cues you’re giving with your rein aids.”
How to go about it: Choose a flat halter that fits your horse well. When you put the bridle on over it, make sure to adjust the bridle. It may suddenly be snug with the extra layer beneath it. You’ll know you need to loosen your bridle if you see more wrinkles than usual at the corner of your horse’s mouth—where the bit and bridle meet. Instead of attaching your lead and tying it anywhere on your horse’s neck, choose a lead with a snap and simply detach and store away in your saddlebag until it’s time for a break.

Take Off the Tie-Down
Problem: A tie down interferes with your horse’s balance.
Worst-case scenario: You’re riding down a steep hill toward a deep-water crossing. Your horse slips sideways as you head down the hill and needs to correct himself and take a step up to be back on the trail. He could correct himself easily if he wasn’t tacked up. You outfitted him in all the gear that came with him—including his tie down. With a tight strap connected from the bridle to his body, he can’t use his head to balance his bodyweight. As he attempts to climb back onto the trail, he stretches the tie down and slips again. You’re sliding toward the water. With his tie down in place in the water, you’re in even more trouble. Your horse must keep his nose above water to breathe as he attempts to swim across. The tie down keeps his nose under water. If you can’t find your knife in time to cut the line, your horse may drown. . . .

Solution: Make sure you’re using tack that you and your horse really need—don’t use equipment just because it came with your horse or because every one else is using it. If your horse tosses his head and a tie down keeps him more calm and manageable, make sure your gear is fitted appropriately—with enough room for him to move and save his balance. Any time you’re headed toward water that may be deep, make sure to stop and take off the tie down before entering.

How to go about it: If you feel you must use a tie down, make sure your horse has plenty of room to move his head. That’s his balance mechanism. When your horse is standing still and relaxed with his head in a neutral position, lift up on the tie down. It should have enough slack to reach up to your horse’s throat. If it’s shorter than that length, it will interfere with your horse’s balance. Always take off your tie down before entering deep water.


Wear a Helmet
Problem: Wearing a helmet is hot and just not stylish.
Worst-case scenario: The Rocky Mountains are a great place for your first ride of the season. In cowboy country, you decide to wear your hat instead of your helmet. After all, you have a trustable horse. Your helmet is in the truck, but it’s so hot in the sunshine. You think your hat is an acceptable choice. Twenty minutes into your ride, the trail opens up onto a rocky climb. The footing smooth and covered with small rocks. Your trust your horse to move on—and he tries—then slips backward. You lose your balance and roll off of his back onto the hard rock. Your head hits with a thud. . . .

Solution: Goodnight says most trail riders don’t wear a helmet for one of two reasons: helmets are too hot—and not “cool”—or riders trust their horses and don’t think there’s any chance of bolting or falling. The justifications don’t make sense. Wear a helmet.

“When I made the decision to ride a helmet when I do my demonstrations and clinics, it was difficult because none of my peers did the same,” Goodnight says. “I was concerned that it would make me appear un-cool. I also worried about getting too hot and not looking nice later. Then I realized that no one was going to not like me because I wore a helmet. No one else cares that much about you. Now, if anyone comments on my helmet, I tell them that obviously I’m smarter than them and my brains are more important.”

Modern helmets are designed to allow more airflow than their older counterparts. New helmets come in a variety of colors and styles—not just the big black versions you may remember from your younger days.

If you’re still arguing that you have a safe, well-trained horse, Goodnight lends this wisdom, “You’re in an uncontrolled environment with unmanaged footing. Even the best-trained horse isn’t guaranteed not to slip or fall. There’s more of a chance that your head would hit a rock if you do fall off on the trail. It just isn’t worth the risk.”

How to go about it: Look for lightweight helmets designed for horseback riding and that carry the ASTM/SEI seals. The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) includes doctors, engineers and physicists. ASTM sets standards especially for riders—judging the impact that could happen falling from a tall horse at high speeds. The criteria for horseback riding helmets are different than any other sport’s helmet. Workers at the SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) test equestrian helmets to be sure they meet the ASTM standard. Don’t be budget conscious and decide to wear your bike helmet while you ride your horse. The standards are quite different.

Slather On the Repellent
Problem: You and your horse may be mosquitoes’ victims.

Worst-case scenario: While you’re trotting through the mosquito-infused forest, your horse—accustomed to a bug-controlled barn—gets a terrible case of itchiness. Hoping to rid his skin of the pests, he purposefully aims for the bushes. As he brushes off the bugs, you lose your balance and come off, too. Worse, if the wrong bug bites, you or your horse may also come in contact with West Nile Virus. Horses infected with WNV may stumble, stagger, grind their teeth, lose the muscle strength to stand, have facial paralysis, go blind, and suffer effects of encephalitis that ultimately take their lives. If an infected bug bites you, you’ll experience headaches, a high fever, a stiff neck, disorientation, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness, and even paralysis if the bite results in encephalitis.

Solution: Avoid mosquitoes to avoid the virus. Protect your horse with a vaccine against WNV. Protect yourself with long sleeves, bug spray and bug-repelling clothing. Even if mosquitoes in your area don’t have the virus (yet) new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston shows that bites by “healthy” bugs may prime your system and make it easier for you to contract a severe virus variety. To find out more about the mosquito population in your area visit AABB’s (the association formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks and now known by its acronym) web site,, and search for “2008 West Nile Virus Biovigilance Network.” You’ll find up-to-date charts and maps showing where the virus is found; you’ll also find tips to help you avoid the problem.

How to go about it: Get your horse vaccinated each spring and ask your veterinarian what boosters are needed to keep your horse safe throughout the warm mosquito season. Before you get ready for a trail ride, make sure to pack a mosquito-repelling spray for you and for your horse. Ask your veterinarian which brands she recommends for ultimate bug control and safety for your horse.

Watch for Catching Clothing
Problem: Hoodies, loose-fitting shoulder bags or fanny packs, dangling jewelry, and jackets with zippers all can cause hang-ups.

Worst-case scenario: As you dismount for a lunch break, your zipper-closed jacket slips over your saddle horn. With your feet already out of the stirrups, you can’t push yourself up to free yourself. Your horse feels your strange movements at his side and takes a step to the side. When you move along with him, he steps away again then starts to trot and canter to get away from your too-close stance. Your horse is dragging you by your unbreakable jacket. . . .

Solution: Make sure all of your clothing and accessories fit close to your body and that no straps or outerwear layers can catch.

How to go about it: Look for equestrian-specific jackets that have snap—rather than zipper—closures. A snap will come apart much faster than a zipper will break. Make sure to tuck in your shirts and hoods. Tuck the base of loose sweatshirts and any under-layers into your jeans or jods.

Pull your hood out from beneath the smooth protection only when it’s time to put it on. When it comes to accessories, leave your jewelry at home. If you wear a fanny- or backpack, make sure the straps are adjusted so that they lay flat next to your clothing. Consider turning your fanny pack toward your backside so that it’s out of the way as you mount and dismount. Better yet, store all that you can in your saddlebags and hide your needed emergency items (your cell phone with in-case-of-emergency number clearly labeled, knife, ID, protein bar, compass or handheld GPS) in a zip-closed pocket or hide-away satchel beneath your outer layer—or shop for a specially made wallet that attaches to your leg. Check out for non-catching totes.

Personal Safety

Leave Word
Problem: You’re riding alone and no one knows where you are or when to expect you back.

Worst-case scenario: You take off for some personal rejuvenation time. It’s just you and your horse out on the trail. No one knows where you are or when you’ll return—and for a while, you’re glad for that freedom. Suddenly, a summer storm sweeps the sky. A lightening bolt lands too close for comfort and your horse charges off. You’re left behind and you’re far from home. Worse yet, your cell phone was stored in your saddlebags. Your horse doesn’t know how to dial and you don’t know how you’re going to get back to the trailhead and out of the storm. Which way did you come from? You hope your husband will miss you—but he won’t be home until at least 9:00 p.m. It’s getting scary and darker. . . .

Solution: Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll return. Goodnight says “Riders’ lives have definitely been saved when they’ve left word—clearly stating when they should return and when to send help.”
How to go about it: Call a friend—whom you know will get the message—from your cell phone as you set out on the trail or before you leave home. Let your friend know which trail you’ll take and how long the trip should take. Also let her know whom to contact if you haven’t checked in by a certain time. Have a list of park ranger or other emergency numbers ready.

Once you mount up, stick to the trail you told our friend about—and don’t tarry. Make sure to have your cell phone, a GPS or compass, and a protein bar stored on your person—not in your saddlebags. Your horse may not be with you when you need the items. Also make sure to attach some form of ID on your horse—use a luggage tag to list your name and contact info—and your emergency contact’s number. A rescuer may find your horse before they find you—and your friend will know what trail you took. That information will speed up your rescue!

When you’re done riding—and if you didn’t have a problem—call your friend to check in.

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