I don’t need to tell you that there are no “official” rules for trail riding, like there are for, say, driving. But there are some commonly accepted practices that I think are good 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.
When encountering hikers and bikers
- Ideally hikers and bikers will 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 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.
- I think we all understand the problems that loose dogs can cause, so I will suffice it 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.
- In theory, single riders will yield to pack strings. Be prepared for this not to be the case (see item “3d").
- In theory, downhill riders will yield to uphill riders. Be prepared for this not to be the case (see item “3d").
- Do not try to squeeze by other horses, you are asking for all kinds of trouble. Instead, give yourself plenty of room to go around.
- I generally yield to anyone coming up or down the trail if I can because I know my animals and my riding ability. I don’t know their animals or their riding ability. So I take the safer route and yield myself.
- If it is a narrow trail with no way to move off to let another pass, decide who should turn around.
- 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.
- Unless you know the oncoming horse and rider and their abilities, it is safest to assume that the horse and rider are both inexperienced and be prepared that anything could happen as you or they go by.
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.
When you encounter a short bridge on the trail, walk the horses across one at a time. Allow more than the usual single horse length between each horse over longer bridges.
For your safety and the safety of others around you, pay attention to your horse and keep him under control. Keep a peripheral eye on the rest of the horses and the environment around you. Being prepared for anything to happen 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.
Next time, I'll talk about some additional issues including some Leave No Trace principles. In the meantime, remember that following basic trail etiquette can help ensure the safety of you, your horse safe and others who you ride with or meet on the trail.