40 Tips for the Trail Rider

Lynn Palm offers 40 tips to trail riders as they hit the lush green trails or sandy beaches with their horses.

When trail riding, never hit the trails without a buddy, and never leave a buddy behind.

Lynn Palm offers 40 tips to trail riders as they hit the lush green trails or sandy beaches with their horses.

Trail riding is an excellent way for riders and horses to bond and work on communication aids in a new environment. Training outside the box is something that AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm does with all her horses in training, especially the competition horses. It is an opportunity to strengthen the bond by overcoming new obstacles together and encountering situations not found in an arena setting. However, riders must always be prepared to confront the unexpected when out on the trail.

Here is a list of 40 tips for the trail rider to be prepared, confident and successful:


  • Before hitting the trail, you and your horse should have mastered basic skills in an arena, such as stopping and turning, as well as having control at all gaits.
  • Make sure the distance and duration of the trail ride is within your horse’s current fitness level.
  • Keep tack in good condition to prevent anything from breaking on the trail.
  • Groom your horse thoroughly before trail riding.
  • Put protective leg wear, such as polo wraps or boots, on your horse. I love to use Professional’s Choice boots!
  • Use insect repellent for both you and your horse.
  • Remember to check the weather before you ride and dress accordingly.

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  • Riders and light-skinned horses should use sunscreen to protect against harmful UV rays.
  • Before leaving the barn, trailer or campsite, make sure your horse’s shoes are tight and tack is fitting properly.
  • Plan your route and stick to equestrian-approved paths.
  • If you plan to stop and tie your horse, take a halter and lead rope with you.
  • Make sure you let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Also let a friend or family member know where the keys to your various vehicles are. They should be accessible in case anyone is injured.
  • Do not go on the trail without some warm-up for you and your horse. I always do stretching exercises to loosen up and longe my horse on a 20-meter circle for at least 20 minutes.

On the Trail

  • Never hit the trail without a buddy, and never leave the buddy behind.
  • Wear a certified helmet that fits snugly and always buckle the chin strap.
  • Always carry a fully charged cell phone or satellite phone, first-aid kit (EquiMedic has the best first-aid kits on the market), flashlight, water, hoof pick, map, compass and GPS receiver. Take advantage of the technology available to you!
  • Carry an ID and put identification information inside your helmet. Be sure to include your name, address, phone number and emergency contacts.
  • Be prepared to confront common problems that can go wrong with your horse such as lameness, laceration, colic, tying up and snake bite.
  • Know how to monitor your horse’s vital signs and be able to administer first-aid to both horse and human.
  • Make sure to rest and walk after periods of trotting. Don’t over do it!
  • Use your manners! Be friendly to other people you encounter on the trail.
  • Leave one horse length between horses, two if trotting.
  • Pass on the left at reduced speed after giving the person you are passing a verbal heads up.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings and think ahead so you don’t put yourself or your horse in a dangerous situation.
  • Be a proactive rider. Avoid riding on footing that can be hazardous to your horse such as roots, holes and debris.
  • Change positions within your group and do transitions often. This will help the horse wanting to be at the front all the time, as well as keep the horse concentrating on you and not the outside environment or other horses.
  • If your horse spooks on the trail, it is OK to get off the horse to address the spooky obstacle. It is safer to deal with a sticky spot on the ground than under saddle.
  • To encourage your horse to be willing and obedient on the trail, be his leader! This means you, the rider, are always in control. Move your horse the opposite way he wants to take you. If he goes left, go right; if he goes right, go left; if he backs, go forward; if he goes forward without you asking, stop and back a few steps. This works the horse’s mind and reminds him that you are the leader. As your horse’s leader, he will trust you!
  • When approaching new obstacles that might frighten your horse, stop and let your horse address them in a safe manner. Let him swing his head to see it from both eyes and let him smell it. Take your time. Once your horse learns to trust you, the next obstacle you address will take less time to accept.
  • If your horse gets too close to a tree or obstacle and might hit it, slightly turn his head pointing his nose toward it and use your inside leg aid (leg closest to the obstacle) to yield him away from the obstacle. If you use too much rein aids, you will actually turn him more into the tree.

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  • Use your body position to help maintain your horse’s balance while traveling uphill (tilt upper body forward, extend arms up the horse’s neck to give him his head) and downhill (lean upper body back, push feet forward in stirrups so legs are in front of the cinch/girth, and hold reins approximately three to four inches higher than usual).
  • At a water crossing, pond, river or lake, stop and offer the horse water.
  • Try to know the depth of a water crossing before attempting to cross it.
  • Always remove a tie-down or martingale before crossing a water obstacle in case you encounter a deep spot. These devices restrict your horse’s head so much that he won’t be able to swim.
  • Socializing on the trail with your friends can be fun, but remember to always pay more attention to your horse and his body language than to a conversation.
  • Always have your horse walk on the way back to the barn to prevent him from learning to rush home.

After the Ride

  • Make sure to cool your horse down properly to relieve and prevent lactic acid buildup in the muscles.
  • Check to see if your horse sweated evenly under the saddle pad to make sure your saddle doesn’t have any pressure points that can make your horse uncomfortable or cause long-term problems.
  • Rinse or hose off sweat and always offer fresh clean water.
  • Do a visual and tactile evaluation of your horse. Check his legs for swelling or any cuts he might have from the ride. Treat accordingly.

10 thoughts on “40 Tips for the Trail Rider”

  1. Excellent article! But the photo shows riders without helmet and Lynn stresses to ride with. Just a thought.

    An article about a carry-on the trail first aid kit, combining items for both horse and rider would be a thought, plus a fully stocked one for at the trailer – banamine is a good thing to have for a colicy horse!

    Keep up the good work. I really appreciate my reining turned trail horse – he is safe and well trained.

  2. 20 minutes of lungeing before a trail ride seems excessive to me. I try to start at a walk with short periods of long trot to warm up my horse on the trail.

    As for wearing polo wraps and protective foot wear, what happens when these articles get wet ? If you go through mud before you hit the water you will have a real mess and I can’t think it would be good to leave them on your horse’s legs for the duration of the ride if they are wet and muddy. My mare is shod all the way around but other than that wears no leg protection here in Canada. That said we don’t have poisonous snakes to worry about.

  3. I agree with Pat Davis, 20 minutes is not necessary if you start out at a slow walk and allow for a normal warm-up.
    I have done hundreds of miles of trail riding and the only time I had to longe a horse before a trail ride was when the horse was new to trail riding and was a little excited and nervous.
    I also do not use leg warps. Here in the southwest thorns get stuck in them.

  4. Another suggestion, add identification on your saddle for your horse in the unlikely event you get separated. I use a small luggage tag snapped to the D-ring of the saddle. Includes his name, barn he is boarded at, phone number, and vet name and number along with my name and cell phone number.

  5. There will be a lot of heat accumulating under the leg boots, which I don’t think is good for the horse’s legs. Leg boots are fine for a training session, but not for a several hours’ ride, let alone to be worn all day.

  6. Longeing your horse for 20 min?? Wow, that is excessive. I also believe you need to keep the leg wraps off. In Competitve Trail you get docked points for abrasions on the leg as the horse needs to learn to pick up his feet when going through rougher country.

  7. If you lean back when going downhill, you put extra pressure on the loins of the horse, which makes it difficult for the horse to collect in order to go downhill safely. The rider should sit still and lighten seat pressure.

  8. I think a 20 minute workout is a great plan. Maybe not trotting or circling per se but absolutely go through a checklist of maneuvers you may have to perform out on a trail, such as backing up, lateral movements, front end yields, hindquarter yields, squeezing between obstacles, and whatever you can think of. It is worth 20 minutes to see what frame of mind your horse is in so as to make for a fun, safe ride.

  9. Instead of lunging, I do some lateral flexion from the ground and in the saddle. Also disengage the hindquarters from the ground and in the saddle. Take a minute to stand relaxed. Then off you go!

    On the uphill and downhill, I always think of “can I stand in the stirrups” a good balanced position. This would translate leaning back a little going uphill, gives traction on the horses rearend and frees up frontend, and on the downhill, it may feel a little like leaning forward with feet underneath you, not braced in the stirrups.

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