Horseback Riding 101 - Tips You Should Know Before You Go
How to dress, what to take along, rules of the ride and even "behavior triggers" to watch out for, both horse and human
It's common knowledge within the equestrian community that the longer one rides, the greater the chances of an accident and injury requiring medical care will occur. The Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection and Critical Care noted that 81% of 679 equestrians studied had experienced at least one riding injury in their lifetime requiring medical care. In the pediatric population, as high as 21% of young riders are injured in any year. The horse riding injury admission rate to a hospital is 16.6% higher than the next activity—All Terrain Vehicles (ATV)/motorcycle riding at 12.0%*
Clearly, the message here is that horseback riding can be an exciting yet potentially dangerous sport. Fernanda Camargo of the University of Kentucky and the above noted article stated that up to 64% of injured riders said they could have prevented the injury. The main reason being because of a mistake by the rider or handler. What was missing? Better knowledge of horse behavior.
Bottom line, it doesn’t matter what level of expertise you feel or you actually have in relation to horses and riding, there are common factors to be considered by all. I rode motorcycles for many years and one of the main factors told to me by the very experienced was, “If your head or heart aren’t fully prepared, don’t even start the engine”. Thus, I can say I never went to the hospital for a motorcycle injury, but I have from my horse. Why? Because I thought I could just ‘get on and ride’. My consideration of head and heart didn’t take into account my horse as an individual or her prey animal instincts. With horses and humans, ‘head and heart’ is just the beginning.
Horse-anality - every horse has one!
An important factor in the horse-back riding venture is understanding the horse-anality you are dealing with. Equines have their own inherent traits that are common to the species, gender and each breed carries its own reputation. For example- Mares are moody, Geldings are lazy, Stallions are crazy. Quarter horses are level-headed, Arabians are hot blooded and flighty, Clydesdales are cold blooded and gentle, Thoroughbreds are high strung and energetic. Taking some time, after you have properly equipped and prepared yourself, to size-up and connect with your horse before you mount goes a long way in avoiding an accident. You don’t have to be an Olympic competitor who trains for years to appreciate safety and horse knowledge.
"It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret." ~ Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Let’s look at some things to consider in getting ready to ride.
Dress the part. Personal safety is first. Wear appropriate leather boots that cover your ankle, long pants and most important of all, head protection. So often people feel it is ‘uncool’ to wear a helmet but you can mend a broken bone not a broken head. It is not just your equipment that is important, but your horses too. A correctly fitted saddle for the horse you're riding, adequately tightened cinch, comfortable bit and bridle and proper hoof protection is essential for the comfort and safe venture for your steed.
Be prepared to stay a beginner - for quite a while! Once you step into that stirrup for the first time or the hundredth time there is always something to learn. Stay apprentice minded and know its ok to make mistakes without judging yourself or your horse. Even after you feel you have mastered one level, the next will bring additional frustrations and difficulties as your continue your horseback journey. Think about and try various disciplines to find out what ‘fits’ you and your horse's personality. Some just want to trail ride while others prefer the arena and dressage, jumping or reining. No matter what you choose there is always more ways to improve your skills.
Your horse as a teacher - Every horse has something to teach you. Whether you ride many horses or just one or two you have the opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with the equine mind and body. Auditing riding clinics, watching videos and reading books will all add to your horsey knowledge and help your saddle skills.
Find a mentor, professional and horse friends. You are who you hang around with so find riders you want to emulate.Get all the knowledge you can - from nutrition, to health care, to training - it is essential for you to be surrounded by kind, compassionate people who always put the horse first when they make decisions.
Don’t get caught up in “I got this” facade. This happens to everyone at least once in their riding career. After you feel you have made all the mistakes and learned from them, you can develop a false confidence. You begin to take more riding risks. This is usually the stage where accidents happen. When I felt too comfortable was when my accidents happened.
Focus, Focus Focus - Once your attention goes elsewhere, the cell phone, daydreaming, drinking any alcohol, etc, so does your horse’s. If their attention is not on the leader (you), it ends up getting distracted and the trouble starts. Your study should be for a better balance and coordination in saddle, if you truly want to be the best for your horse.
Once you are in the saddle and in the arena or on the trail, there are some etiquette tips to be cognizant that will prevent some bumps and bruises!
There are few things that will ruin a perfectly beautiful event with your horse more than poor etiquette. This encompasses other riders in and out of the arena, hikers with or without their dogs, joggers, mountain bike riders, anywhere horseback riders and others share the ground.
Courtesy = Safety when horseback riding
Courtesy is equivalent to safety when it comes to horses. Although ignorance is incomprehension of the potential consequences if you are not using common sense and respect. While riding in a national park I have experienced a jogger bumping into my horse as he passed by, an unleashed dog running and barking right towards me, other horseback riders zipping past me at a gallop and mountain bikers flying across my path in front of me. In an arena I have had my horse kicked in the face and the knee, had my horse freak out over the chaos of pre-show practice with an arena full of riders . As a result my wrist has been broken, my nerves shot, I’ve gotten many soft tissue bruises and ruined many a ride.
So who is at fault in all of those episodes? My answer is everyone is, including me. My blunder in not being prepared all the time in the event of a mishap (perhaps becoming too relaxed on my horsey adventure) and everyone else's for being ignorant of a horses innate character.
Rider Fined by Judge after Horse Spooks
In a study on horse related injuries and causes published in 2018 over half of the riders reporting were rated as intermediate and out of 35 causes of injuries the top 3 were, in order of affect, a spooked horse, human error and a green horse. So how do I keep from becoming angry at the other’s human error that resulted in my spooked horse or my injury and the negative verbal encounter with the jogger, dog walker, mountain biker or rider? How can I expect a hiker to know what a red ribbon in a horse's tail means or the dog walker who’s loose dog is just another predator to my 1,000 lb flight prey animal? Even if it is clearly their transgression, the way I conduct my etiquette lecture does reflect on all the horseback riders on the planet.
There's a story about an encounter in England. A horseback rider was fined for throwing her riding crop at a businessman's car after he hooted the car's horn as a warning to her as she rode down a country lane. She turned her horse around to confront the driver, forcing him into reverse. She then rode off and when he tried to overtake her, she hurled her riding crop at the car in a fit of anger. The driver pulled his car over further up the road, called the police and claimed the crop had caused £1,700 ($2,200 U.S.) worth of damage to the windscreen and bonnet. He told the police the rider had used the crop as a weapon against him and asked them to arrest her. So who’s fault would you say this was? The court fined the rider and charged her to pay for the repair of the car- $2,200!
Riding etiquette for the arena:
Be Present- While in the arena and mounted, stay off your cell phone or having loud conversations with others in or out of the arena. Do not lollygag on the rails to talk with friends or shout at another rider across the arena. If you must, leave the arena until you can be focused on your horse and your discipline.
Entering or mounting in the arena-Take a minute before you enter to assess the traffic and then go in the direction most horses are traveling. Close the gate after you enter or ask someone to assist you. If you decide to mount after you are inside, move to the center of the arena. Watch for others riding and stay clear of their path.
- Right of way and passing another rider- In the arena certain horses and riders have the right of way. If jumps are in use, the horse and rider approaching the jump always have the right of way. If you’re on foot, mounted riders have the right of way. When approaching another horse, pass left shoulder to left shoulder to its rider. That means the horse coming toward you will be on your left. If you are going in the same direction and you want to pass a slower horse, announce your intention and pass on the inside. Say “Inside!” which allows the rider you’re about to pass to expect your horse to go by, possibly preventing a collision.
Ribbons of significance- There is a color coded system to help keep riders safe by letting another rider know of a horse’s quirks.
Here’s how it works. The ribbon is usually tied at the base of the horses tail dock for easy visibility.
Riding etiquette for the trail
Safety Check- Does your horse have the temperament and training for riding on public trails with dogs, mountain bikes and joggers passing closely by or getting into thick brush? Once a young woman's horse got his legs caught in some vines, spooked and threw the rider and ran off. The horse was lost for almost a week before he was found.
Are you wearing your helmet and have light first aid close by or access to call someone? Once on the public trail we came across a jogger that took a misstep and broke his leg. We made sure 911 was called and stayed with him until help arrived. Also, make sure your horse tack is in perfect condition and the horse tagged by the tail with a ribbon for flagging others if there is a caution.
Trail Rules of Respect- No cantering/galloping on crowded trails past pedestrians as that endangers everyone. Never assume you have the right-of-way, pause, make eye contact and then pass. Move to the right to allow faster trail users to pass. Announce your intention to pass other trail users, and reduce to a walk in order to pass safely. Pass on the left only, if possible. If your horse needs to relieve himself move off the trail and/or kick the droppings off the trail.
Group Riding- Use appropriate hand signals for turning, slowing, etc., and give verbal warnings for dangers on the trail (e.g. holes, low branches). Designate a lead rider in advance, discuss pace, stops and position of horses depending on temperament.
Be an Equine Ambassador- Remember that hikers may not be familiar with horses or their reactions. Your horse may be their first up close experience; what you do is a reflection of the local horse community. Be polite, stop and let them touch or look at your horse, if safe, and answer questions they may have. My mare does tricks and I would often allow the children to see her bow, pick up a sack, give them a cheek kiss or smile. It always amazed the on-looker that horses are so clever!
So you feel like you understand and ‘get’ arena and trail etiquette, so what's next on the list? How about some horse trigger etiquette?
Equine Triggers- Trigger points can cause the horse to associate a specific stimulus with a fear-based response, often leading to evasive or reactive behaviour. If you or something causes trigger a reaction in your horse from time to time, consider it an important part of the training conversation you are having with your horse.
Visual Cues Toward Eminant Trigger
What are some of those triggers and can we avoid them. A picture is worth a thousand words and here is an excellent example of what to look for in a horses face. Compliments of The Willing Equine
Under Threshold, relaxed and attentive. Her muscles are relaxed. Mouth is soft. Eyes are soft. Her ears are perked forward because she's watching something going on, but it doesn't alarm her in the least. If she were to elevate her head, and harden her facial features she would show me that whatever she was looking at was beginning to alarm her.
At Threshold, rapidly approaching Over Threshold. Her eyes are wide open and hard. Muscles tensed. Muzzle/Chin tight and hard. Ears abruptly forward. This is the point where she will continue to escalate or will calm back down.
Over Threshold, "flight or fight" hasn't kicked in as she's trying very hard to follow my lead. She's however about a fraction of a second away from hitting the red zone and becoming dangerously reactive. Tight, hard, wide open eyes. Rigid forward ears. Tense body. Snorting/Flared nostrils. Tight mouth. Preparing for flight most likely.
Some of the things that may cause the deer response are: quick movements, new objects such as a tarp or even a creek ( I had my horse spook at hay string once), sudden noise such as a cell phone ringing or siren, unbalanced rider, ill fitting saddle, a new horse, etc.How can we help avoid a fear reaction in our horse? The best method to prevent is to be prepared. If you notice your horse reacting in a concerned way, such as the facial reactions described above, tail swishing, stomping, jigging, it is best to stop. You can either dismount or sit calmly then avoid the stimulus or reassure your steed that all is well.
Remember the earlier story about the young lady who threw the crop at a car? As seasoned or new horseback riders, most of us are aware of the basic horse courtesy rules and sometimes just chose to ignore them. So how do we diffuse our own emotion during an incident. That, my horse friend, is located in an organ called the amygdala.
The Amygdala Hijack
The term "amygdala hijack" was coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman used the term to recognize that although we have evolved as humans, we retain an ancient structure in our brain that is designed to respond swiftly to a threat. While at one time this was designed to protect us, it can interfere with our functioning in the modern world where threats are often more subtle in nature.
The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped masses of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe, that among other functions, is involved in the fear circuit in your brain. This structure is responsible for the fight-or-flight response that causes you to respond to threats.
While out riding, if you're faced with what feels like a threatening situation, the thalamus, which receives incoming stimuli, sends signals to both the amygdala and the cortex. If the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split second decision and begins the fight-or-flight response before the cortex has time to overrule it.
This cascade of events triggers the release of adrenaline (epinephrine), which leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. You may experience a racing heart, shaking, sweating, and nausea as this happens. In this way, the amygdala triggers a sudden and intense unconscious emotional response that shuts off the cortex, making it hard for you to think clearly about the situation.
If you are on or near your horse, he will sense your heightened body fight or flight state and also react which can be life saving in a truly threatening situation, but unsettling if you were simply triggered by a spider hanging in a tree!
Shrink your Amygdala and Respond
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain's “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body's response to stress.
It is best to practice this mindfulness or deep breathing before an event so you can feel the effect and realize it’s impact. To help diffuse the flight-or-fight response, do deep breathing. Breath deeply, slowly in through your nose and out your mouth, for four counts, or for six. Or try square breathing: in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. Play with it to see what feels best.
Your horse, as an empath
If your horse responds by spooking at something or someone, your immediate deep breaths will help not transfer more fear to your steed, and assist you in addressing the offender with some calm.
After you have gained back some composure you can face up to the offender with some educational insights. A simple question like-“I know you love letting your dog run along the trail. “Did you realize that by your dog being off the leash, it is an incredible threat to a horse, who is a prey animal?” “Your horse has a lot of energy, and apparently I got too close. Are you aware of a simple measure that can flag others to respect her ‘space’?”
"There's nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse."
Not sure where this quote originated from, but it has been repeated by so many people from all over the world. Whether you ride a horse or just spend time on the ground with them, it is a special event. They are honest in their emotions and allow us to ride on their backs and feel powerful and carefree!
The only thing that could disrupt that wonder would be a mishap. By being educated and aware of the horse, yourself and your surroundings the blunders can be non-existant or at least few and far between.
Roy and Dale Rogers sang it best
“Happy trails to you,Until we meet again. Happy trails to you,Keep smiling until then.”
Happy and Safe Trails to you and your equine friend!