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Riding the Trail

Adapted from the My Horse University Trail Riding 101 Online Course


Riding With Other Horses

Trail riding in a forest with friends

Riding in a group is safer than riding alone. When riding in a group, keep safety in mind and don’t crowd other horses. Never ride up on a horse at a faster speed. Make sure and allow at least a horse-length to the horse in front of you. When transitioning to a faster gait, don’t take off in the group. Horses are herd-bound creatures; and if one horse takes off, the other horses’ natural instinct is to follow.

Establish an order to the group. Some horses do better in the front, and others do better in the back at a slower pace. Horses or riders with less trail experience should be placed in the middle of the group. The more experienced riders and mounts should be placed in the front and rear of the group.

The lead rider of the group should notify the other riders of upcoming hazards and changes in pace so that they are aware. Before trotting or cantering (loping) off, he/she should ask the other riders if they want to trot or canter (lope). Also, when slowing down, they should hold up their hand to signify stop. They should also warn the other riders of any low branches, wildlife or other users on the trail.

Left: In many ways it is safer to ride in a group when trail riding, but keep safety in mind at all times. Source: Flickr_jdj150

In the case of an accident on the trail or a need for an equipment adjustment that requires dismounting, the lead rider should block the trail with his or her horse while the sweep or rear rider tends to the situation. In a situation requiring first aid, the most trained person in first aid (such as those who have taken a first aid course, a nurse, or other emergency responder) should tend to the rider or horse needing assistance while the lead rider blocks the trail.

If you want to pass members of your group, then it’s polite to inform them as to what side you are passing on. If another group of riders want to pass your group, then find a clear spot in the trail to pull off and let the other group go by.

Some organized trail rides do not allow stallions to be ridden with the group. Many times, mares may become disruptive when exposed to stallions, especially if they are in heat. If stallions are being ridden with a group, they should be kept in the front. Stallions should be ridden only by advanced riders with a great deal of experience handling and riding stallions.

Trail Rules

Shared trail sign

Familiarize yourself with the rules of public trails or group riding areas. Trail rules are usually available on the park’s website or at the park entrance. Depending on where you are riding, the rules may vary. In some public trail riding areas such as state or national parks, you may not be allowed to tie your horse to trees nor can you camp. Some parks will require you to obtain a permit if you are camping overnight.

Other rules may include making reservations and showing proof of health papers or Coggins test (test for Equine Infectious Anemia) upon entering the park with your horses. Rules such as riding with a safety helmet or no smoking in the barn or on the trail may also apply.

Other restrictions include:

  • age restrictions on children riding without adult supervision

  • riding bareback

  • riding double

  • running your horse in the camp area or on the trails.

When riding in groups or on organized rides more rules may apply. Always be respectful of others when trail riding and follow the rules. Trail riding on public land is a privilege, and following the park rules is important so that trail riders can continue to use public land. Photo Source: Flickr_bmann

Just for Kicks Horses that are prone to kick should be kept in the back of the group. If your mount kicks, tie a red bow to its tail to warn other riders. If a mare becomes more aggressive when she is in heat, consider using an estrous (heat) suppression method such as administering an oral supplement like Regu-mate® (a prescription drug that suppresses heat in mares) to help lessen her bad behavior.

Group of trail riders

Horses that are not accustomed to ponies may be more inclined to kick out at them. This is extremely dangerous for the rider of the pony since he/she could be within easy range of the horse’s kicks. Monitor your horse around smaller equids, including ponies and donkeys, and monitor any aggressive or wary behaviors they may display. Just as you should never say, “My dog doesn’t bite,” never say or think, “My horse doesn’t kick.” Always expect the unexpected!

Horse and ponies being ridden together. Source: Flickr_Colin_Purrington

Horse and rider crossing paths with a dog

Sharing the Trail Many trails are designated to be used by a multitude of users. Equestrians often share the trail with hikers and possibly ATVs and bikes. There may be designated days and/or times that certain types of users have access to the trails. Remember that when you encounter other users, be considerate. Most people don’t have any experience with horses other than watching them in movies. They have no understanding of how a horse might perceive them. In some cases, they may be fearful or even resentful that you are on the trail. In all cases, take time to make this a learning experience for your horse as well as your fellow trail users. Be sure to answer any questions they may have about how to safely pass your horse. Keep your horse under control and attentive while they pass by.

Trails are often shared with hikers, people walking dogs and bike riders. (image right).

Trail protocol calls for other users to yield to equestrians. When encountering other trail users, hold up your hand and firmly say, “Stop, Please!” while maintaining eye contact. As they pull over to the side, pass them with care, and be sure to say thank you for their consideration. If a biker is approaching from a blind spot, you may hear the biker before you see him or her, so pull to the side to avoid a collision. If you are leading a group, warn the other riders of oncoming users so that they can be prepared.


Crossing Waterways Cross waterways only in designated crossing areas. When riding in groups, cross in a single file line so that you disturb only a small portion of the creek bed.

A group of horses crossing a river

Remove any tie-down or martingale from a horse’s head prior to crossing water. You want to ensure your mount can raise its head above water if needed.

Don’t let your horse paw at the water. This is usually a prelude to the horse lying down and rolling. If your horse does try to lie down, remove your feet from the stirrups immediately. Continue kicking your horse in the sides and pulling up on the horse’s head to get out of the water. If you are riding with other horses, have them quickly cross to the other side of the stream to encourage your horse to get out of the water.

Horses crossing a river. Source: Flickr_LidLicker (Image left)

Although tempting, don’t take your horse for a swim. You want to keep your horse’s contact with the water to a minimum in order to decrease manure contamination and riverbed disruption.

Horse is wearing a martingale

A horse fitted with a tie down

Above left: This standing martingale attaches to the reins to restrain excess head movement. Take care to remove this when crossing waterways. Source: Flickr_jdj150

Above right: This tie down consists of a headstall that is connected to the breast collar. Like the martingale, remove this when entering water with your horse. Source: Flickr_Aidan.Morgan

Private Land Private land should be ridden only with permission from the landowner. Many equestrian groups work with landowners to help maintain private trails for equestrian activities in their community.

When riding on private land, observe the following courtesies:

  • Make sure you leave all gates as you found them.

  • Don’t disturb livestock or pets.

  • Ride only in designated areas and respect all landscape.

  • Be mindful of fences, both new and old, that may be hidden in tall grass or brush.

Be sure to show your appreciation to the landowners either through a thank you note, help in maintaining their trails, or sponsoring or attending a special landowner’s event.

Leave No Trace Enjoying nature and the natural surroundings from horseback is the ultimate joy of trail riding. It is crucial that riders take responsibility for keeping their surroundings as pristine as possible. While it is understood that a 1000-pound animal will make an impact on the trail, you want to keep that impact to a minimum and only in designated areas. Some good rules of thumb to follow:

  • Always keep your horse on the designated trail. Don’t go exploring off-trail.

  • Cross water only in designated crossing areas and do it as quickly as possible.

  • Don’t let your horse swim or spend unnecessary time near the banks and streams.

  • Carry all trash and extra feed out with you.

  • Don’t ride when the trails are extremely wet.

  • Prevent your horse from “taste-testing” the plant life.

Tread Lightly is a non-profit organization that promotes responsible outdoor recreation through ethics education and stewardship. Visit their website and take their free online short course on Trail Lightly! Awareness!

Preserving Trails With hard economic times and urban sprawl, both public and private equestrian spaces are dwindling. Many groups in the equestrian community are working towards preserving land for equestrian use. It is important that all equestrians are organized and present at meetings involving park and trail use and maintenance. Organizations like the American Horse Council and the Equestrian Land Conservation Association with your support can have a strong voice in these discussions.

Not only is it important to be proactive on the national front, but you must also take a hands-on approach in your own community. Many parks need help in maintaining trails. Under park supervision, you can organize a group to clean up brush, felled trees, and debris along trails and campsites. Attend local meetings that concern trail usage and become knowledgeable about any “rails to trails” programs in your state. Ensure that the equestrian voice is heard when new trails are being developed and help ensure that equestrians keep access to their old trails.


Rails to Trails Conservancy: a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.

American Horse Council: promotes and protects all horse breeds, disciplines and interests by communicating with Congress, federal agencies, the media and the industry.

Equestrian Land Conservation Association (ELCA): national organization to preserve land and promote access for all types of equestrian use.

Additional Resources Safety Guidelines for Horseback Riding on the Trails - eXtension Article

Selecting a Trail Riding Destination - My Horse University Article

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