When you imagine a horseback riding vacation in your mind, you might think of horse and rider loping on the beach with the wind flying through your hair or riding horseback in a meadow filled with wild flowers bordering the trail. No one wants to visualize a spooked horse running back to the barn, sans rider. When scared, a horse’s natural instinct is to bolt and run back to the safety of the ranch or herd of horses. The trail guide, cowboy or wrangler does not want an “incident” taking place during your horseback riding holiday. The following are 10 horseback riding mistakes to avoid in order to have a safe horseback riding vacation.
1. Inappropriate riding clothing
Have you ever been on holiday where you didn’t expect to go horseback riding? Perhaps you were on vacation in a tropical location and only packed shorts and sun dresses. When in doubt, it’s best to travel with one pair of long pants suitable for a horseback riding vacation. Horseback riding in shorts is uncomfortable even in the warmest of weather. Never ride in long flowing clothing that could get caught on the horn of a Western saddle. The same goes for riding with lose strings on shirts and pants that could get caught up in the tack (riding gear.)
2. Poor footwear
Horses are big animals. It hurts when a horse accidentally steps on your toes. It is absolutely essential that you do not ride in open toed shoes, sandals or flip flops. Ideally, wear cowboy boots when on a horseback riding vacation. Shoes without a heel can slip forward through the stirrup – a dangerous situation for the rider if they fall from the saddle or are dragged along side the horse.
3. Horseback riding without a helmet
There’s a reason guests sign a liability release when they visit the stables during a horseback riding vacation. Accidents happen to even the most safety conscious equestrians. Did you know that safety helmets are 80 percent effective in preventing injury on horseback? Many ranches in the United States require riders to wear a helmet regardless of age or experience. Certainly, young children should always ride with a helmet. Whenever possible, I take my riding helmet on a horseback riding holiday, even overseas. Please note that a bicycle helmet does not offer the same level of protection as ASTM/SEI-certified equestrian helmets.
4. Holding the reins incorrectly
Think of the two reins from the bridle (the leather straps leading from either side of the horse’s bit to your hands) like your steering wheel on a car. If you pull one rein to the left, the horses head (and body) should follow. I tell beginning riders to imagine holding the reins like an ice cream cone; if you tip your wrist, your ice cream will fall out of the cone.
Whether you are riding English or Western, you’ll want to choke up on your reins when you ask the horse to come to a stop. Don’t hold the reins above your head or pull back above your shoulders (as the rider on the left is doing) in an attempt to stop the horse. If riding Western, slide your left hand toward the horse’s neck while tightening your reins and you’ll have better control.
5. Hysteria on horseback
I’m the first to admit that horseback riding can be a frustrating experience the first couple of times. There is a lot to learn in the riding arena and out on the trail. Regardless of your frustration level, yelling, screaming or swearing at your horse is not going to help the situation. In fact, your horse will be confused as well. Please keep in mind that most animals are not able to process complete sentences. When a horse hears a rider say, “please stop! You are going too fast.” The horse has no idea what you are asking it to do. Saying “whoa” and pulling back on the reins at the same time tells the horse to stop. When the horse does as directed, loosen the reins to reward the horse for following your commands.
6. Dangerous distractions
Horseback riding should be a place to re-connect with nature. Silence your cell phone and leave backpacks and purses back at the ranch. If foul weather looks eminent, check to see if the ranch has rain slickers. It’s best not to ride with plastic rain ponchos, as they can flap in the wind and scare the horses. The same holds true for backpacks; horses may be spooked from unfamiliar noises such as backpacks slamming the backs of the riders, thus scaring the horses.
7. Miscommunication while riding
Riders be advised that horse commands are not universal. What means stop to horses in the United States might not hold true in other countries. Always ask for a run down of horseback riding commands no matter how experienced the rider. For the novice equestrian, remember that holding on tightly with your legs is often the command for moving forward to the horse. If you are trotting or loping (cantering) and banging your legs against the side of the horses flanks, the horses response is to sped up. Be clear with your communication while horseback riding.
8. Not leaving a horses length
Have you heard the term “leave a horse length between you and the next horse?” There is nothing worse than feeling your horses front or back hooves leave the ground when you least expect it. If you notice your horses ears moving flat against their head (or your neighbor’s horse) this is not a good sign. It means the horse is angry. Flat back ears may be a sign that the horse you are riding is about to kick the horse behind them or reach ahead or aside to bite the horse nearby. In general, horses do not like to feel crowded. Always leave a horses length between you and the horse in front of you and behind.
Insider tip: If you see a horse with a red ribbon tied on their tail, it typically means that they require more space and may kick the horse who rides up closely behind them.
9. Disrespecting your guide
Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, troop leaders and school teachers are familiar with the term “when the hand goes up, the mouth goes shut.” The same holds true on a horseback ride. When your guide, wrangler or cowboy raises his hand after loping, this is the signal to slow down. Do not let your horse get in front of the trail guide. It is the wranglers job to provide a safe environment during the guest’s horseback riding vacation. Listen to your guide at all times; especially when crossing a street, creek, river or negotiating obstacles such as downed tree trunks.
10. Not checking your cinch
Think of the cinch (girth when riding English) on your Western saddle like your seat belt in your car. The cinch is what keeps your horses saddle properly placed on his back. While your guide or wrangler will always check the horses cinch before you mount the horse, often times the cinch will loosen up during a trail ride. If the cinch is too loose, the saddle will begin sliding to the side; re-adjust the saddle and tighten the cinch.
11. Grazing while riding
I know I said this blog post would offer 10 horseback riding mistakes to avoid. Consider this last tip the bonus round.
Have you ever been on a horseback ride where the horse stopped to eat every other step? This is particularly frustrating to the young rider with limited upper arm strength. I call this the “salad bar” effect where the horse nibbles a little here and a little there, stopping for a snack whenever the mood strikes. Some ranches will put mesh covers over the horses muzzle to prevent them from grazing out on the trail. Remember when I mentioned to hold your reins as if you were holding an ice cream cone? Keep this technique in mind when a horse attempts to drop its head to eat. Pull up sharply on the reins, careful not to spill your ice cream!
What other horseback riding mistakes have I missed? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.
Follow me on Twitter @Nancydbrown and @Ridinghorseback for all things related to travel and horseback riding vacations.
Article and photos by Nancy D. Brown.