Because there are no “official” rules for trail riding, like there are for driving, here are some commonly accepted practices that we need to remind ourselves of every once in a while. And while the word “etiquette” implies good manners, trail etiquette is as much about safety as it is about courtesy. Horses are herd animals and prey animals and this is the driving force behind how they think. Most horses do not like to be “abandoned” and can get upset if they feel this is occurring. When they encounter something which they perceive as frightening, their natural prey animal reaction is to jump (and run). Much of what is listed below comes from an understanding of these facts.
- Horses are social animals but don’t appreciate a strange horse galloping up on them. Please slow down when approaching another rider and ask to pass. Or, a horse galloping away from them, the old “I’m being left behind instinct” may take over. Avoid cantering or galloping on busy trails.
- If you have a horse that even considers kicking at other horses approaching from behind, warn the unsuspecting rider by tying or braiding a brightly colored (red) ribbon in their tail. If you are following a horse with a red ribbon, obviously it would be safer to maintain a little more distance between you, but also you might be extra watchful for signs of forewarning: pinned ears, swishing tail, hind leg at the ready, etc. Remember that your horse could move to avoid the kick and put you in its path instead.
- Most trails are single track (one horse at a time). Be considerate when passing. Come to a walk. Either ask politely to pass–allow them time to find a spot appropriate to step off the trail–or remain at a safe distance and continue to follow. and pass on the left. If you are being passed, move off the trail and let the other trail users know when it is safe to pass your horse.
- Downhill riders will yield to uphill riders. Always turn your horse to the down hill side. He can see his front feet and won’t step off the trail. He cannot see his back feet or where he is putting them as well, so you want to keep those on the trail.
- When leading and/or riding with anyone behind you:
- Before you start out in a group, determine which gait is acceptable to everyone on the ride. Once you initiate a gait change, continuously check (by sight and voice) that everyone is doing okay. If the pace is too fast for anyone, slow down.
- Establish a method for downward transitions. Horses can pile into each other during unannounced slowing or stops. Use a hand signal or your voice to convey your intentions to the rider behind you. That rider should relay the message to the rider behind him and so forth.
- Don’t lope/gallop in a group. Fast gaits tend to “hype up” horses, which, in turn, can cause serious problems that even an experienced rider may find difficult or dangerous. All it takes is for one horse to act up at a fast pace, and the whole group can get out of hand.
- Increase following distances when traveling down a heavily wooded trail so branches swept aside by one rider don’t hit the next horse and rider.
- Keep an sharp eye for upcoming obstacles and warn others. If you must duck to avoid low branches, warn the other riders to be ready to duck, too. Just as your horse will be more vigilant in the lead, it’s your job to scan for any hazards and warn the group.
- Keep track of slow-moving horses in your group so they don’t fall too far behind. If they do , they may become anxious and even resort to rearing or bucking. Moreover, it’s not wise for riders of slow movers to make a practice of trotting up behind the group to catch up. It is best to keep the group at a pace that’s comfortable for everyone.
- Take turns leading so every member of the group will benefit from taking the positions of lead horse, middle horse and last horse.
- When you reach a watering area, take turns and don’t crowd. Wait for everyone to finish before moving off. And remember your Leave No Trace ethics: do not destroy additional water front so you can all water at the same time. Use only the obvious area where animals come down to drink.
- You want to maintain a distance of about one horse length between horses while going down the trail. This leaves you time and space to react safely in the event of an accident in front of you.
- Mares in season and stallions can present special problems on the trail. They require an extra level of attention on the part of the rider and the others in the group. If you are riding one, be extra vigilant of her/his behavior. If you are not, but they are part of your group, keep an extra eye out on these animals. Ideally the rider on either of these animals would be an experienced horseman.
- For your safety and the safety of others around you, pay attention to your horse and keep him under control. Know your horse’s limitations. Keep a peripheral eye on the rest of the horses and the environment around you. Being prepared for anything to happen which can often prevent a bad wreck.
- Think like a horse, especially if you are the leader of the group. If you look at objects on the trail like a prey animal (is it unfamiliar or potentially dangerous) you can help prepare yourself for anything. Once again preparation and awareness can be the difference between a controlled flight and a bad wreck.
- Keep nasty horses in the back. If your horse is unruly, he should bring up the rear where his poor behavior will not be witnessed by the other horses and cause them to get upset as well. And, if you are lucky, he may learn a thing or two from watching calmer horses in front of him all day.
- Watch the footing, especially on uphills and downhills. Gravel on rocks is like ice. Wet leaves and wet clay trails can be very slippery. Wooden bridges can be slippery when damp, proceed with caution. If you encounter problems, warn any riders behind you.
- Be a good Samaritan. Your help may be needed. But also, once again, horses are herd animals and do not like to be left alone, especially in an unfamiliar area. If you ride off, while someone is trying to mount back up, their horse could panic and take off to catch up with the group.
- Always be prepared for the idiot or the inconsiderate person. Be prepared for someone to take off at a gallop while you are mounting, bump into you from behind or stop dead in front of you.
- Keep your comments to yourself (or pick your battles). Unless the situation is a health risk or puts a life in danger, refrain from passing on your horsemanship wisdom. Many people may not respond well to a “know-it-all” or will resent the implication that they are stupid. Your “helpful suggestions” may cause more harm than good.
- Stay on the correct trail and off private property. Do not damage or move the trail markers. You may be the one lost on the next ride because of it.
- We are guests in the forest, do not leave trash behind or ride on or down areas that will erode and damage the environment. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics:
- Don’t cut across switchbacks.
- Stay on the trail.
- Try not to walk through soft, wet ground. Horses’ hooves are sharp and destroy vegetation.
- Pick up all your trash, including cigarette butts, and pack it out.
- Pick up other people’s trash to keep places as pristine as possible and set a good example.
- Be respectful of those who live there and those who will visit behind you.
- Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
- Do not travel along plucking at the passing flora. It damages the trees, plus, branches whipping back into the next riders’ (and horses’) faces can be extremely unpleasant. If you must push past an overhanging branch, call out and warn the rider behind you.
- The best way to see wildlife is to ride quietly and pay attention. Don’t spoil others fun by loud behavior.
- Discourage your horse from snacking along the trail. Don’t allow him to suddenly stop in the middle of the trail to eat, causing other riders to have to abruptly attempt to stop or turn their mounts. This is a very dangerous habit, especially if he decides to do it from a gait faster than a walk! If you wish to allow snacking, then by all means, find a suitable grassy area–OFF THE TRAIL–and allow him to graze awhile.
- In the spring, evaluate trail conditions before riding, if conditions are such that you are going to damage the trails by riding them – then wait. It might be an inconvenience not to be able to ride when you want to now – but it will ultimately save the Trail Association work later – and help keep the trails open. Please remember that there is a lot of volunteer labor which goes to maintaining the horse trails. Don’t create tomorrow’s problem by riding when you shouldn’t today.
- When encountering hikers and bikers, hikers and bikers should yield to a rider. When encountering hikers or bikers, talk to them and get them to talk to you. Hikers with backpacks and bikers with helmets do not look human. Explain this to them and ask them to speak so that your horse will understand that this “thing” is actually just a person. Ask them to stand off on the downhill side of the trail. Once again, horses are prey animals and often attacked from above, so keep the scary looking thing down low. It can also be easier to control a horse going uphill if he spooks. Stay relaxed yourself and keep talking to the hiker and your horse if he is nervous. Find out if there are more in their party and tell them how many in your party. Thank them for their cooperation and be kind and courteous. We are all out there to enjoy ourselves.
- We all understand the problems that loose dogs can cause, so it will suffice to say: if you can’t control your dog (with your voice from horseback) or he is ill-mannered with other people or animals, leave him at home.
- Carry additional safety items:
- Always carry ID on your person and on your horse in case you become separated.
- Tell someone where you are going in case you don’t come home, even when riding with a group.
- Carry basic survival gear on your horse and at least the bare minimum on your person: cell phone, matches, food, water.
- Following basic trail etiquette can help ensure the safety of you, your horse and others who ride with you or you meet on the trail. It’s common sense and the golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated. But just as importantly, it can help keep the trails open to horses. Trails are being closed to horses because of riders who abused the privilege. It is a privilege as much as your right to ride these trails. Remember that you are always an ambassador of horseback riding and that we all share the outdoors. If non-riders always meet a courteous and polite horseman on the trail, their impression of all of us will hopefully remain positive.
1. Corkery, Jennifer. Horse & Rider Magazine, Oct 2001.
2. Barnett, Russ. OutfittersSupply.com Trail Riding Etiquette.
3. Connecticut Horse Council Trail Etiquette.
4. Minnesota Horse Council. Minnesota Horse Trails Map.
5. Ohio Horse Council. Trail Etiquette.
6. Chris, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer.
7. Equestrian Trails, Inc. Trail Etiquette
8. Clifton Horse Society, Fairfax County, VA. Equestrian Trail Etiquette.