University of Vermont AAHS


Trail Ride Safety—Rocky River Style

Mary Nelson
Head of Horseback
Rocky River Ranch
Wimberley, Texas
AAHS Clinician

[reproduced from Fall 2000 Caution:Horses Volume 5, No. 3]

Ok, let's talk trail ride safety! Many riding facilities have gone to offering trail rides instead of or in addition to their lesson program. The problem with this is that although many of the safety issues associated with the two are the same, many of them are quite different, and most instructors do not take this into consideration before they hit the trail with their participants. In a lesson environment you have at least some element of control if something goes wrong. In a trail ride you have very little; therefore you must prepare for every possible situation. My husband and I run a lesson/trail ride facility in the Texas hill country. Our program has been called by the AAHS one of the safest in the country.

One of the reasons our program has gained such respect is mostly because we understand what we do and how dangerous it is and we take every step possible to lower the risks. Think about it this way: In most trail ride programs (ours included) you are taking a person who has ridden once or twice in her life and has a very limited understanding of horses, putting her in charge of a 1200 pound vehicle that she does not understand how to drive and that has a mind of its own, and then shoving her out into the great wide open with 12 to 14 other people just like her! When you think about it this way it’s enough to make even the most experienced trail guides wonder why they do it in the first place! Well, all the reasons we do it put aside, lets talk about how it can be done and done safely. This is how we did it from step one.

(1) Read the book "Teaching Safe Horsemanship." Learn it, live by it and don't edit!

trail-1.JPG (16219 bytes)(2) Get to know the horses that you have. Know what levels of riders they can carry, how much work load they can tolerate, and which other horses they prefer to be next to in line. Above all, don't keep a horse that has a history of dangerous behavior (kicking, biting, barn sour, difficult to handle, spooky etc.) and don’t waste time trying to re-train them. GET RID OFF THEM! You will be glad you did. Our staff rides super quiet horses that can get around through the line, can be tied and can handle having saddle bags, lead ropes, and traffic flags hanging off of them. All new horses are ridden by EXTRA staff members on as many trail rides as possible until we are sure how they will work out.

(3) Get a good staff. Don't try to hire clones of yourself. Try to get a "well rounded" group. For instance, my husband and I are the control freaks, we are also great with "PR", while others are more relaxed and do great with the nervous riders or children. Know your staff, know their strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly.

(4) Go through a detailed orientation with your participants. This should consist of all of the safety rules, a brief nature of the horse speech, proper fitting of boots and helmets, a discussion of what the trail ride will be like (informed consent - rough ground, trees, roads etc.) and what to do in case of an emergency. This entire orientation should be centered on making each participant understand that what they are opting to do is dangerous. Most people do not realize the risks involved in riding a horse. They insist that their entire family wear a helmet when riding bicycles but don't give a second thought to riding a horse without one! This is considered a high adventure activity and will require participation on their part. It is not a spectator sport! We have actually had people back out at this point, but remember, your release form can’t save you if they claim that they had no idea of the dangers involved. Our release form actually names off specific risks involved with our trail ride, such as hard ground and crossing a county road. Make this speech very precise. Take up release forms and make sure they are complete! We do not offer a helmet waiver! If you want to ride you wear a helmet!

(5) "Arena Test" ALL participants. We put the first time riders and the more timid riders on first. This will put them at the front of the line and will also give them the most time to practice before the actual trail ride. We assist them to mount correctly then give them a demonstration of how to start, stop and steer (emphasis is placed on the release after the stop). trail-2.JPG (17042 bytes)We make sure that each person understands beyond a shadow of a doubt that the reins in their hands are their steering wheel and brakes. DON'T DROP THEM! Even a seven year old can understand this because most of them ride bikes. Each person must demonstrate these skills to us in the arena and be able to ride a short pattern around two cones to be allowed on the trail ride. If the staff feels they can perform these skills and follow directions they are put in line behind the lead staff member and will spend time circling the upper 3/4 of the arena while the remainder of their group is tested. Remember, these are the ones who need the most practice time. Everyone must be tested and anyone who cannot follow directions or perform the skills to the staff's expectations will not be allowed to go. Period.

(6) We spread our staff into the line according to where we see potential problems. We staff our rides at one senior staff member for every four participants. We also have younger staff members who are extremely competent and the rides end up being about five staff with 12 to 14 participants. Remember if you have an accident, no matter how small your ride, you must have one staff to attend the victim, one staff to call for help and at least one or two staff to care for the other participants and their horses.

(7) Have a plan for emergencies. Delegate ahead of time who will be doing what in case something goes wrong. Know where the ambulance can enter the property and where the helicopter can land. We all wear orange vests (this makes us trail-3.JPG (17386 bytes)easily identifiable to participants as well as to each other). We have a person certified in CPR/First Aid on each ride, we carry a medical bag, we have two cell phones and know the dead spots on the trail and where to ride to so that you can get out, we have two walkie talkies on each ride, a third stays with the person at the barn who is doing the orientation/arena test for the next group and a fourth is in the office. We also alert the local sheriffs department and EMS as to what we do, where we do it, how often and when.

(8) All of our trail rides are walking only and we demand that each participant stay in line and keep the proper amount of space between them and the next horse. We keep instructions simple and clear such as kick, pull left, pull back etc. We avoid terms and statements that are not easily understood by a non-rider.

(9) Last, but not least, through all of this stress you must make this fun! We try to make sure everyone has a good time and leaves with a new understanding and appreciation for horses! This will be an easy task if you follow the above suggestions, plan ahead and don't settle for less than what you know is necessary and safe! Happy Trails!


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