A Guide for First-Time Trail Riders
Advice for New Riders Considering a Trail Ride
I'm sure the experienced riders out there don't think twice before leaving the confines of the ring to head out on the trail. Some people though—newer riders—may not be so confident. Here are my thoughts on the subject.
Why Ride Outside of the Ring?
The obvious reason is that is fun! Not only is it fun for us to explore on horseback, it can also do wonders for our horse's mental well-being to get out of the boredom and monotony of ring work.
Riding out is good exposure for your horse to see and experience new things that they wouldn't in the ring. Riding through the woods, across streams or up and down hills are great training opportunities, not to mention, they will help with your horse's physical fitness.
How Do You Know If You Are Ready to Ride Outside the Ring?
Riding out in the open can be nerve-wracking if you have never done it before, so how do you know if you are ready to give it a try?
Do you have a solid balanced position with a straight line from shoulder, hip to heel? This is what keeps you balanced and is even more important on uneven ground.
Can you stand on your stirrups and lean forward without your lower leg sliding back? For negotiating hills, it may be helpful too. If not, stand all the way up to lighten your seat and lean forward (which you would need to be able to do without your lower leg sliding back). Remember, your lower leg is what is holding you on!
Do you have access to a calm, experienced horse to ride on the trails? If you are a new rider, I hope to assume that you are riding a safe school horse. We want your first trail ride experience to be a good one, so we want it on a horse that has been out on the trails before—preferably one who is known for being a great trail horse.
Do you have other people to go with? Noone should ever trail ride alone. Even the most experienced riders on the safest horses should not ride out alone. You just have no way of knowing what might happen and when you might need help. Not to mention, horses being the herd animals that they are feel more comfortable in the presence of other equines—preferably other calm and quiet ones like themselves.
Where Should You Go?
If your farm has trail access right from home, that is a great place to start. It will most likely be the place where you will be most comfortable and so will your horse.
If you don't have trail access at the farm, ask other riders where they go and ask them if they can recommend a good place for a first-time trail rider—somewhere with easy terrain, and somewhere you aren't too likely to encounter spooky stuff like mountain bikes or things like that. Make sure it is a place that won't require you to have to cross any roads or ride alongside traffic.
Now That You Picked a Place
Plan a day with your riding friends and plan to go on a trail ride. Hopefully, one of your friends has ridden on the trails before and can be the fearless leader.
Make sure that everyone is aware that this is a first-time trail ride for some of you and that you are looking to just have a relaxed, calm experience. In other words, this will involve mostly walking and only going faster if all the riders in the group feel comfortable and want to. Trail etiquette is to ride to the level of the least experienced rider in your group. By doing so, it will keep everyone happy and safe.
Don't plan on a ride that lasts for hours and hours. Just an hour or two is the perfect amount of time to go on your first trail ride.
Wear a helmet. You should be wearing one all the time and trail riding is no different. If you are a nervous rider and own a body protector, you can even wear that too. There is no shame in taking as many safety precautions as possible.
Dress for the weather and wear layers. If hunting is allowed where you are riding and is in season, wear blaze-orange to make it known you are a horse and rider, not a deer!
Carry a cell phone. Obviously, if things are going well, you might want to snap a couple of pictures or selfies. Mostly though, have your cell phone just in case something happens and you need to call for help.
Know where you are going. If you are unsure make sure to have a map. Start out early in the day so you don't have to worry about running out of daylight. Lost in the dark woods is no fun!
Other Things to Consider
Depending on where you are riding, if your horse is barefoot, he may need front shoes or boots to ride on rocky or hard trails. Be aware of where you are headed and if you need to take any of those sorts of precautions. It would really put a damper on your first successful trail ride if your horse comes home with sore feet.
If you are planning on riding for over an hour, that is probably longer than your normal time in the saddle. Make sure your saddle is comfortable enough for that. You can always buy a nice, soft seat saver to cushion you, or if necessary, you might want to trail ride in a different more comfortable saddle. Switching the saddle for your comfort is totally fine assuming you take the necessary time to see that it fits your horse's back comfortably!
The Joy of Trail Riding
Trail riding is great fun when you have the necessary skills and are prepared. Hopefully, this will give some newer riders the pointers they need to be brave enough to give it a try! I think you and your horse will both be glad you did!