University of Vermont AAHS


By Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Spring 2003 issue of Caution:Horses]

Wrangler training is as much a part of spring in the trail riding industry as daffodils and peach blossoms for the rest of us.  Each spring hundreds of young people make their way to dude and guest ranches all over the United States to begin summer jobs as summer trail guides.  The success of their summer and the programs in which they are working will depend greatly on the advance planning and the skill of the management behind the planning.  Seldom can summer staff make up for a severe procedural deficit.

The following information has been taken from several sources and compiled into guidelines that are reliable in attaining a safe guest ride procedure.

Horses should be appropriate, healthy, and novice level, as customers often do not know how to rate their own skill.

Each guest, even children, should sign a release but parents should sign for the child as well.  An attorney well acquainted with personal injury law should approve the release for the state in which it is used.

Although helmets are preferred, if helmet waivers are used they should be a separate document and should explain the dangers of riding without approved, protective headgear.  The waiver needs to say that a properly fitted, currently dated, and approved helmet was offered.  This statement needs to be true which means that the organization must have the right number of helmets available for the waiver to be valid.

No minor should be permitted to ride without a helmet.  Since the minor lacks the capacity to sign a contract he cannot sign a waiver.  The parents cannot sign for him.  It is not like co-signing for a car.  If the child does not make the payment the parent can pay.  If the child is seriously injured or killed the parent cannot step in and take his place.

Oddly enough, there is considerable evidence that even with western programs that if the wranglers wear helmets and helmets are available on stands, nothing need be said.  The guests will simply pick up a helmet and wear it.  It is all in the orientation.  This has been tried at Lone Mountain Ranch in Montana in the program run by Mary Reed and they have nearly 100% helmet use by guests and helmet use is not required.  But the wranglers wear helmets.

Every ride should be geared to the skill of the least experienced rider.  At ranches where riders’ skills can be evaluated rides can be structured to guests with various skills.  In other situations it should be assumed that all guests are novices because there will be at lease one extremely novice rider on every ride and the ride must be geared to his skill since he cannot adapt.  The other riders can.

It is a good idea to keep family members or companions together as a great part of the joy of a scenic trail ride is to share it with your family or traveling companion.  This often means putting an experienced rider farther forward than would otherwise happen.  That is far better than putting an inexperienced rider back in the pack.  It must be remembered that the inexperienced rider will be mechanically performing the control skills and will have neither timing nor balance.

Each horse should have its own properly fitted saddle and bridle.

There should be a regular procedure for inspection and repair of equipment.

There should be an orientation talk explaining the horse and its nature and how he operates.  This will be the first of several times the control skills are addressed.

Guests should be mounted in an enclosure, away from tied horses and away from the tacking up area.

Guests should be matched to horses AND saddles.  This is one of the reasons it is best just to have novice level horses.  It is critical that the saddle fits the horse.  It is also critical that the saddle fits the rider.  It is also critical that the rider fits the horse.  With all that to adjust, it is simpler to have all novice horses so that the level of the rider, which seldom can be really well ascertained, anyway, does not have to be a factor.

The cinch MUST be checked three times.  Once right before mounting, once right after, and again 10 or 15 minutes into the ride.

Riders should be organized so that the least experienced person is right behind the lead guide and the most experienced person is in the back.  The principal reason for this as any trainer knows is that the vast majority of horses are quieter the farther ahead in the line they are.  This means that putting the less experienced farther forward also helps steady their horses.  It also keeps them close to the lead guide.

The lead guide needs to be on the steadiest trail horse as this horse will see things first and all the horses behind it will be influenced by its behavior.  This is not the position for a horse in training.

Some rides are mounted back to front so that the more experienced riders are the ones who spend the most time sitting and waiting for the rest of the riders to be mounted.

Stirrups should be adjusted as riders are mounted.  Begin with the stirrup even with the anklebone and drop down an inch or two for the very thin.  The stirrup may be raised an inch for the heavy.  The stirrup should NEVER hang down below the level of the natural heel, that is, where the heel of the rider is inside the boot.  This is a common fault of Western riders and it will cause extreme lack of stability.  A heavy rider needs a shorter stirrup.

In the enclosure the guest should have explained and see a demonstration of the control skills which should include the following:

Starting the horse
Stopping the horse
Steering the horse
Shortening the reins – this is the first of two steps of an emergency stop which is a nice skill to know as well.
Maintaining correct spacing – the rider should see the heels of the horse in front of him between the ears of his own mount.  The hocks are a warning.  The tail means trouble.  Getting more space can be achieved by shortening the reins and putting pressure on the reins till the correct distance is reached then releasing.

Each rider must go through a skills test.  It need not be long but unless a rider has a chance to demonstrate whether or not he has understood the instructions, the trail guide does not know either.  Without this one runs the danger of being on the trail with someone who cannot begin to follow the simple instructions.

We recommend one guide for every six riders for commercial guest rides.  The reason is that a guide cannot see well farther than six riders.  The lead guide needs to be looking out where he or she is going.  Some head wranglers that take a lot of guests out will put an experienced guide in front and they will ride drag so that they can see what is going on.

If the ride uses outriders (not our favorite choice) that ride up and down the ride, they need to use caution as an outrider’s horse can cause a lagging guest horse to speed up suddenly if the outrider’s horse passes quickly.

The idea of the “wrangler horse” that is an animal that is too fractious for a guest is a bad selection to take on any ride.  Any fractious horse can disturb other horses and cause an accident.

Procedures for ride management need to be established in advance and followed consistently

It is better to always take a rear guide.

To open and close gates since the lead guide should not expose the front of the ride (Remember who is behind the lead guide.).

To assist in an emergency.

To be extra eyes on the trail

If the cinches were not checked the third time in the enclosure at the barn, the rear guide can check them on the trail.  He or she needs to tie his horse well away from the others.

A rear guide is in a better position than a lead guide to see a slipping saddle or a rider off balance.

When stopping the lead guide should turn his horse   sidewise in the trail as a barrier to the other horses or turn to face the other horses so that his horse will stand quietly.

No guest should be permitted to carry anything on the trail.  Small cameras may be placed in a guide’s saddlebags but never slung around the neck of a guest. Watch out for necklaces or anything else that could choke.

A guest who does not mind his or her spacing or a guest that hold back in order to trot up can both cause an accident or a runaway ride.  What begins as one horse going faster translates to horses going really fast only a few horses farther back.

A “walking trail ride” must mean just that.  Not only must the lead guide walk but the guests must walk as well.  If the ride is well managed the horses will become accustomed to the procedure and there should not be a problem.  Horses that are allowed to routinely trot to catch up will assume that it is permitted and it can become a problem.

Some horses do not belong on a guest ride string because they represent too high a risk:

Horses that are known to blow up when cinched up are high risk, as it may be too hard to get the cinch or girth tightened.  These horses identify themselves and if there is an appropriate procedure it may be possible to accommodate them but with inexperienced staff there is a high risk of a mistake.

Horses that are round barreled and low withered are hard to fit with a saddle that will stay in place.  An unbalanced rider will be at risk on a horse such as this.  A three-prong breast collar will allow some slippage and a rider may fall.  It is best to leave these horses to experienced riders.

Horses that insist on a certain place in the line or next to a buddy are a bit of a risk as well.  People will make mistakes trying to place a rider.  When a mistake is made it may not be noticed until the ride is away from the barn.  (This is when it is handy to have the guides mounted on horses that can be used to switch with guest when needed.

Unsound or excessively old horses are not good candidates for trail rides.  Unsoundness and age are not substitutes for gentleness and training.

Obviously horses that are spooky are not good choices.  The same goes for horses that are simply nervous, inexperienced on the trail or in general reactive.

Young horses should be avoided as well.  Certainly no horse under five and better horses that are at least 8 and have seasoned trail experience in the environment in which they will be used.

All horses should be accustomed to the trails that the organization uses and to all the expected hazards.  In many areas of the country this now means mountain bikes, four-wheelers, backpackers, fishermen and other things.  As much as possible the guides should know that each horse would tolerate the things that can be expected on the trail.  THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE OF THE LEAD HORSE.  As long as the lead horse does not spook, there is a good chance that the others will not either.  However, there is no excuse for taking a guest out on a horse that has not been exposed to the types of hazards that can be expected on the trail and preferably to the trail itself.

Horses with a history should be eliminated from the string.  Once a horse has indicated a capacity for misbehavior it is a bad candidate for a string of trail horses.  Examples of behaviors that should be cause for elimination include bucking, rearing, running away, jigging, kicking, biting, striking, or refusing to stand still under saddle.  One indication is enough.  That is all the warning that is needed.  Can a horse be retrained?  Maybe, but how does one know if the retraining was successful?  If the behavior never shows up again, it was successful.  If it does, then it wasn’t successful.  Most organizations probably do not want to be the text case for that scenario.

At least one guide should carry a means of summoning help, either a radio, cell phone, or satellite phone.  Guides should also know where the dead spots are for service.

Each ride should be equipped with emergency gear that is appropriate for the area and the ride.

Guides should have appropriate emergency first aide and CPR training.  This will differ with the situation, terrain, type of ride, and length of ride from the one-hour scenic ride to the several day backcountry ride.

Rides should also be appropriate to the skills of the guests.  If the guides do not know the guests and there is no way to know the guests it must be assumed that the guests are novices.  Experienced riders can adjust, novice riders cannot.

When returning with a ride all guests should be assisted in dismounting.  Step-down dismounts should be discouraged as guests can catch a foot in the stirrup and fall.  A mounting block is a good assist for mounting but it is a bad idea for dismounting.

Guests should dismount at a safe distance from each other, at least 12’ from the nearest horse.

Guests should depart the horse area immediately.

Trail riding is one of the most enjoyable experiences one can have on a horse.  It is certainly one of the most popular.  It is also one of the most dangerous.  The minimal instructions given to riders makes it all the more important that the wranglers make sure the guests can follow the instructions.

To think that we can give a few instructions to people who may have never been on a horse before or at best only been on a few scenic trail rides, and then expect these novice riders to be able to follow all the instructions is silly at best.  If this were possible all the riding instructors would be out of business or at least they would only have to give one or two lessons.

The time that wranglers spend on pre-ride demonstrations and pre-ride skills test is well spent not only for riders’ safety but for their own protection as well.  The wrangler can then say that he or she had reason to believe that this guest could control this specific horse on this day on this trail, which covers the clause requiring matching rider to horse in many of the equine activity statutes.

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