This complete guide to horse trail riding can help both casual beginners and seasoned equestrians discover the benefits of this popular outdoor activity – whether it’s as a sport or a spiritual exercise. Learn important safety rules, how to prepare for your first trail ride, how to pick the right gear for yourself and your horse, and more.
While equestrian sports have their own thrills and rewards, horse trail riding isn’t about bringing home the trophy. As one fan put it, “You stop racing to the finish line, and learn to enjoy the journey – time with yourself, your horse, other horse riders, and Nature.”
Table of Contents
- What is horse trail riding
- What are the Benefits of Horse Trail Riding
- How do I find Horse Trails in My Area
- How do I Pick the Best Trail Horse
- Where can I Find a Good Trail Horse
- How to Choose the Right Gear for Horse Trail Riding
- Supplies to Bring Horseback Riding
- Safe Trails and Travels
As the name suggests, horse trail riding involves riding outdoors. The “trails” can be a forest road, a mountain path, an old railway that has fallen into disuse, or any area that isn’t filled with busy traffic. Horse trail riding is sometimes called “hacking” or “pony trekking.”
Horse trails can range from a short walk around the area to a multi-day trek that spans several miles. You
- Exercise. Even if it feels like you’re just “sitting down a saddle” you actually get a really good workout while riding your horse. You use a lot of muscles while maintain balance and posture, from your core muscles to your back, legs, and shoulders. It also improves joint stability and flexibility. In an interview with Healthiest Best, sports medicine expert Dr. Alison Stout – who has been riding since she was nine years old – recommends horseback riding as a form of physical therapy and exercise.
- Stress management. Horseback riding can be very calming. You are able to spend time outdoors, surrounded by healing nature. You stop worrying, and focus on riding and guiding your horse. In fact, equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a recognized treatment for those who struggle with anxiety, depression or trauma. The bond you form with the horse, and learning how to trust and listen to each other, especially through long hours riding on the trail – can be very healing.
- Quality time. People of all ages and equestrian skills can enjoy horse trail riding. That’s why it’s a great bonding activity for families and friends!
- Nature discovery. Many horse trails will take you through parks, scenic spots, and country roads that are off the beaten path. You can just savor the sights, or use the opportunity to combine horse trail riding with other nature hobbies like photography and birdwatching.
- Socialization with other horse lovers. Equestrian clubs will offer events where you explore the trails with other enthusiasts. This is a fantastic way to meet other people who share your interests.
Google for horse trail maps for your area, or contact your local equestrian club for information. If a property isn’t specifically designed as a horse trail, but you would like to explore it or need to cross through it, contact the owner or manager of the property. It’s also important to research the public horseback riding rules in your community and state. If you are going to ride a long distance, you will also need to know the policies of camps or rest sites.
We have listed three websites to help you find a riding trail.
In a nutshell, a good trail horse has the experience, training and temperament to safely take you through any type of trail condition. So in this case, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a purebred or a crossbreed, or if it perfect or flawed conformation or features. You’re looking for a horse who you can trust on the trail.
According to equine experts from the Utah State University, here are some features to look for in a good trail horse.
Training and Experience
- Good training base. Responds to simple commands like backing, turning, trotting, etc.
- Exposure to different terrain. It can cross water either through jumping or at a walk, and knows how to navigate fallen tree trunks and bushes. It isn’t oversensitive to branches or shrubs brushing its body. It can also cross over bridges including rickety wooden planks.
- Discernment of terrain conditions. It confidently knows how to shift its pace and balance while walking on different types of terrain, from soft mud to hard gravel. It instinctively adapts to conditions, such as walking more carefully while it is snowing or raining.
- Experience with imperfect trail conditions. It can turn even on a narrow trail – and even turned quickly, in case there is an emergency.
- Familiarity with trailers. It is familiar with trailers and knows how to slowly enter or come out of it without jumping or startling. If it shares the trailer with other horses, it won’t bite or kick.
- Calm and focused temperament. Nervous or anxious horses are more likely to startle or get distracted, and any misstep can cause injury to you, themselves or the people around you.
- Used to different stimuli. The horse should be able to calmly deal with stimuli, whether it’s a barking dog or a large group of mountain bikers.
- Patient. The horse should be able to stand calmly while you’re mounting or dismounting, while it is waiting behind other horses, or while it is being tied to a trailer/tree/fence post.
- Easy to calm. It’s normal for any animal to react to sudden loud sounds or snort at unfamiliar stimuli, but your horse should be easily reassured with a few quiet words or a pat on its neck. Avoid a horse that frets for long periods.
- Willing attitude. While this personality trait is harder to quantify, and will only be clear after you spend time with the horse, it can make a big difference in your trail riding experience. A willing horse enjoys being outdoors on the trial. Its ears swivel to catch sounds, points its nose at the trail ahead, and seems energized once it is out of the gates. It enjoys its work!
- Prominent withers. This is the area between the horse’s shoulder blades, and is usually the basis for measuring the horse’s height. Prominent weathers can help improve saddle stability, which is crucial for both your and your horse’s safety. If your horse does not have strong withers, you will need to get additional tack.
- Appropriate height and weight. This is actually dependent on the riders’s own body mass. Ideally, the horse should only carry about 18 to 25% of their body weight to prevent muscle soreness and early fatigue. This includes any additional load you’ll be carrying, like gear or supplies.
- Sound footing. Look at the hooves for a normal wear pattern. Also check for visible lameness while walking or trotting.
- Good vision. This is very important for trail horses. Poor eyesight can lead to missteps and also make the horse more anxious to stimuli.
- Good gait and gait training. It should be able to move well, maintain its pace, and keep pace with other horses.
- Here are some places or people you can approach to find trained trail horses.
- Equestrian clubs
- Local veterinarians or farriers
- Local equine publications
- Horse breeders (contact local breed associations for a directory)
- Specialty websites like Equine.com
- Rescue organizations
- Be sure to personally check the horse and compare your options before buying a trail horse. Here are some tips for selecting the right one:
- Watch and ride. Spend some time observing the horse as the handler talks to it and rides it, before you ride it yourself. It can give you an idea of the horse’s behavior and personality, and how it responds to people.
- Try different trails. When you ride the horse, see how it handles both familiar paths and unfamiliar trails, just to see how it responds when it’s exploring an area where it doesn’t usually go. If it’s impossible to do this at the seller’s location, ask if you can get a trial period (you may need to leave a deposit and sign a contract).
- Check papers and references. If you’re buying from a breeder, ask for names and contact information of former customers. Also double check the horse’s documents, including registration papers and any health records.
- Arrange for a vet visit. You can ask your own vet, or any other third-party vet, to inspect the horse before you purchase.
For your safety and comfort, it’s important to invest in high-quality horse-riding gear. Remember that you’ll spend hours on the trail, and shoddy gear will not only quickly degrade in the elements, but may lead to strain and injury – both for you and your horse.
This is the most basic of horse-riding equipment. Make sure that it fits well, or it will rub the horse and eventually lead to pain and trigger behavioural issues. Sometimes the anxiety or skittishness isn’t caused by the animal’s temperament, but discomfort from riding gear!
First, pick the right size. The measurements are pretty standard, ranging from a mini halter for foals or miniature breeds to larger halters for adult horses or larger breeds like draft crosses or Arabians.
Don’t just look at the height of your animal, but the size of their heads. And since manufacturers may have different specifications, it’s better to actually get measurements rather than base your purchase on general categories like small/medium/large.
To measure, get a cloth band or string, and then measure your horse’s face. Start with the area of the noseband (about two-thirds between the nostrils and the eyes) and then side of the cheeks.
Some halters will have adjustable throat latches and nosebands, which is a much safer bet if you’re ordering the halter online rather than having it custom-made or fitted at the local shop. But either way, when the halters arrive, don’t remove the tags until you actually try it on your horse.
To check if the halter fits well, see if your horse can eat or yawn, or bend forward or flex his neck, without feeling restricted. You should be able to insert about two to three fingers between the throatlatch and the jaw. The halter shouldn’t be too loose either, because it can snag on branches or gate latches, or even slip off.
You should have at least two well-fitting halters, so you have a spare if one gets broken or lost. You may also want to have more than one kind of halter – one for riding and a loose halter for grooming.
Halters come in different materials, too. Leather is the most common, because they are durable, affordable and can be repaired. You can also get premium halters made of soft padded leather, and even have it monogrammed.
Nylon halters are durable, easy to clean and come in bright colors, but because they are unbreakable they can actually put your horse in danger if he is caught or trapped. Rope halters have an old-school feel, but you will need to know how to tie special knots.
There are also convertible halters, which allow you to adjust both the fit and may even have detachable padding. This allows you to adjust it according to your needs – riding, grooming or even shipping or transporting your horse.
Aside from holding the bit, the bridle is like a medium of communication between you and your horse. It’s how the horse senses your hand movements and pressure, which helps it understand what you want it to do.
The bridle is made of the headpiece, the browband which holds it in place, the throatlatch which goes around the ears and throat, the cheek pieces, and the noseband. Some bridles will also have a flash— a thin strap that is connected to the noseband and then secured under the chin, in order to keep the horse from moving its tongue over the bit. However, the flash is not necessary and is actually growing less popular.
You can choose between a Western bridle (which doesn’t have nose bands or browbands) or an English bridle. The English bridle is more common for trail riding, because it helps you give more control over your horse. This includes:
- Double Bridle. Also called the full bridle, it has a bridoon and a curb bit, two cheek pieces, and two sets of reins. This is best for experienced riders, and can help you give the most precise commands.
- Snaffle Bridles with Figure Eight Nose Bands. This is often used in equestrian sports like polo and cross country riding, because the construction does not constrict the horse’s breathing even during heavy physical activity.
- Snaffle Briddles with Drop Nose Bands. The noseband is placed along the lower nose, which also keeps the horse’s mouth closed.
For trail riding, you can use any type of bridle you fancy! The most important consideration is that it is light weight and comfortable, so your horse can enjoy the ride as much as you do. If you’re willing to splurge, you can also find ergonomic bridles that relieve pressure points and ease discomfort during long trail rides.
While this is purely for aesthetic purposes, most people like to match the bridle with the saddle – in which case, you will want black or shades of brown. But if you want to get trendier and brighter colors, go ahead. Horse trail rides don’t have the rules or the specifications required in equestrian shows or sports.
This is the mouthpiece that is placed between the horse’s teeth. There are rings on both sides, which hang outside the mouth.
There are many different kinds of bits, with varying degrees of “softness” or “hardness”. When you first buy a trail horse, ask the seller what kind of bit it is used to wearing, and either get a similar one or change it very gradually.
- Straight bar. A soft or mild bit that has no joints that can cause pressure on the tongue of the horse
- Single joint bit. A center joint presses on the horse’s tongue to help reinforce signals or commands. However, it’s important to be gentle to avoid causing pain or discomfort
- Double joint bit. The two links on the side place the pressure on the sides of the horse’s mouth rather than the tongue
- Waterford bit. Instead of a cord, it is made of links or small chains. It is gentler on the horse’s tongue, but still prevents the horse from pulling against your hands
- Happy Mouth / Flavored bits. This bit is covered in plastic and may have a little flavor, to encourage a horse to accept and get used to wearing it
- Roller bit. Has metal pieces that the horse can roll or play with his tongue, which can help reduce jittery or frisky behavior, or prevent it from leaning against the bit
Harder bits that exert more pressure – such as the Twisted Bit or Port Bit – should only be used with discretion, and by experienced riders. Before switching to a harder bit to correct or control behavior like leaning forward or resisting the bit, check if it is caused by other issues such as mouth infections or corrected with other training methods.
Reins must be comfortable enough so you can hold them in a relaxed position during a long trail ride, be long enough so your horse can move freely, and flexible enough so you can quickly shorten it and give fast, direct cues when needed.
Expert trainer Julie Goodnight recommends getting high-quality heavy reins made from leather or rope. The weight of the rein helps the horse feel your hand movements — including subtle signals. That also means that you can give commends without making large gestures, which will be less tiring for you in the long run.
In contrast, inexpensive lightweight reins will just flop around, and you will end up pulling more on it and applying more pressure on the horse’s mouth. Aside from being inaccurate and tiring, you may even injure your horse.
Some of the best reins for trail riding are:
- Split reins. These versatile reins can be easily lengthened or shortened, and you can ground-tie them when you’re in the middle of the trail.
- Continuous-loop reins. These reins are easy to hold onto. You can adjust the length, although it takes more practice than split reins. One tip is to mark the center so you can check if they are even.
In general, a 9 to 10 foot rein is ideal for most horse breeds, though you may want to get a longer one if you have a larger horse or if you prefer to hold your reins loosely.
You have to consider your own riding style while weighing the pros and cons of different types of saddles.
- Western saddle. Western saddles tend to have very thick padding, and have a more versatile and “universal” shape. That’s why they’re a great choice for beginners, families, or any situation where there are multiple riders. However, these saddles are heavier and harder to move around in.
- Hunt Seat. These light saddles are easy to manouver. Since you can feel the horse’s movement – and it can also understand your body cues better – it also tends to lead to a stronger bond and easier communication between rider and horse. Hunt seats are also smaller, so they can be less comfortable.
- Dressage saddles. These have a deep, wide shape that gives you more physical contact with the horse and a more natural seating position. However, these saddles do not have padding, which can be uncomfortable and requires stronger legs to maintain balance. Consider using these saddles only if you’ve had some riding experience.
Under each general category of saddles, you’ll find more specializes saddles designed for different purposes and needs. For example:
- Flexible tree saddles. The light, flexible material is more comfortable for horses, and provides closer contact (for more bonding) and the ability to really move with your horse. It can fit any type of horse breed and shape. This is ideal for more advanced riders who want to go on long trail rides.
- Ranch saddles. This is a sturdy, heavyweight saddle. Originally designed for ranch work, it is durable and has a deep seat and a cantle for maximum comfort and stability.
- Pleasure saddles. These saddles were designed for pleasure riding, including recreational trail rides. The seat is padded, and the fenders help you maintain a proper riding position. Since they are meant to appeal to a wider audience, they also come in different colors and styles.
- Endurance saddles. For serious trail riders, the endurance saddle can be a good investment. The material is light and comfortable, the seats have extra padding, and there are deep stirrups for stability. These also come with several rigging dees and strings for your saddle bags. These were first designed for endurance competitions of 100 miles or more, but are great for anyone who’s interested in long but pleasant trail rides.
- Youth saddles. These small saddles are designed for children who want to try riding larger horses. They emphasize safety and comfort, and easier for youngsters to maintain their balance even when the horse navigates rocky or uneven terrain on the trail.
Saddle pads help protect your horse from the weight and abrasion as the saddle chafes against its back. Look for pads that provide enough cushion and shock absorption, help distribute the weight evenly, and are made of a breathable fabric.
Saddle pads can be made of either natural or synthetic material. Each have their pros and cons: natural fibers like wool are soft, and can absorb sweat, while synthetic fibers often employ advanced technology that help conform to the horse’s silhouette. However, bear in mind that synthetic materials tend to trap heat, so do not use them during very warm weather.
The first thing you need to check is if the saddle pad is compatible with your saddle. You can find varieties for Western and English saddles, and may not fit well if they’re not used with the right one.
You can also find saddles with special features like rub protection, gel pads, or special material like memory foam. Others will be ergonomically designed around pressure points. But the most important consideration is that it fits well on the horse’s back, and doesn’t add pressure to the withers and spine.
If you live in an area that has severe weather changes, get a thicker saddle pad for rainy or winter weather, and a lighter saddle pad for spring and summer.
The girth is a broad strap made of leather, cotton or webbing that holds a saddle in place. It usually has several buckles which can be adjusted according to the horse’s size. Western saddles have a similar accessory, but these are called cinches.
The most important considerations when choosing the girth are durability and comfort. Very tight girths can cause injuries like girth galls and other skin irritations. You can find girth covers made of fleece or quilted fabric, special girths that relieve pressure, or girths with elastic ends for more flexibility.
Some common types of girths include:
- Atherstone girth. This is narrower and curved along the edges, for more freedom of movement
- Balding girth. A single leather piece is cut into three strands and then braided. It is durable and allows for more air flow.
- Jumping girth. The oval panel in the center helps protect the stomach when the horse is jumping.
- Dressage girth. These girths have extra padding or lining, and are designed for greater comfort. While they come in different materials and styles, most of them are made of leather.
The breastplate or running martigale helps hold the saddle and harness in place, and gives extra support for horses that have a flat ribcage or large shoulders. Some common types include:
- Hunting breastplate. The key feature is security and stability, since it was designed to secure the saddle even when riding or jumping at high speeds.The saddle is attached at four points, though it is possible to add another martingale attachment along the neck strap.
- Five point breastplate. This is designed to spread out the pressure over a larger area, which keeps the horse more comfortable. Some have (or allow the addition of) sheepskin or elastic inserts, for additional comfort.
- Racing breastplate. This is fitted over the shoulders, and allows for greater movement. It is often made of sheepskin, leather, webbing or other elastic material.
- Breastcollar. This simple breastplate makes use of a chest strap and withers strap which secure the girth on both sides. It is designed so it doesn’t constrict the windpipe or shoulder points.
Be sure to pick the right breastplates for your horse’s size, and to adjust the buckles so that it is secure but still allows for proper movement. If worn incorrectly, it can restrict breathing and cause your horse to get tired more easily.
Saddlebags and Horn Bags
Saddlebags are a must for trail-riding. Even if you’re only going for a short trek, you still need a few essentials, and it’s convenient to have them within arms’ length.
When you choose saddlebags, look for equal weight distribution, durability, and a sturdy material that will resist water and dirt.
While saddle bags can carry light gear and distribute weight across the sides, horn bags can carry a few pieces of heavy gear and distribute weight on the front quarters. That’s because the horse can carry heavy weight better from the front.
Just remember that the combined weight of the saddlebags and horn bags should not exceed 20% of the horse’s weight. The maximum load can vary according to its condition, age, and your own weight and riding experience. It’s always best to pack light, and bring only what you need.
Both bags come in different types of material. Leather is durable and can be repaired – high quality leather can actually look better as it ages. However, it needs more cleaning and maintenance than synthetic materials like nylon.
You can also find paired saddlebags versus single bags carried to one side, cantle bags that are meant to sit behind the saddle and pommel bags that sit in front. Either way, always make sure that you distribute weight evenly.
Saddle Bag Checklist
Veteran trail riders say that these are some essentials to put in your saddle bag on any trip:
- Mobile phone (and extra battery for long trips)
- Map, compass or a GPS system
- Needle-nose multi-purpose tool for repairing or tightening tack or even picking hooves
- Hoof pick to remove any trapped pebbles or rocks
- Extra reins
- Small first-aid kit with gauzes, wound powder and disinfectant
- Insect repellent
- Rain poncho
- Shoelaces, twine or leather cords to fix broken tack in a pinch
- Warning whistle
- Paper towels or toilet paper
- Snacks for yourself and your horse
Pocket knives for Trail Riding
Many trail riders carry pocket knives during their trips. This handy tool can help you through many unplanned emergencies—and do the job of bulkier tools when in a pinch.
You can use it to open packets of food, make repairs, cut rope or twine when you need to make small repairs, or even start a fire (if it comes with a fire steel).
Generally, they recommend a knife that you can attach to your belt so it’s within easy reach. Look for a blade that’s at least 3.5 to 4 inches long, and is very sharp—a dull knife is useless! If you work with very heavy rope, you may need a serrated knife that can cut through heavy materials faster and more efficiently.
You have two choices: a fixed blade knife or a folding knife. Fixed blades are generally safer since you are less likely to cut yourself. Folding knives are compact, and the more premium models also have other tools like pliers or small screws.
Riding Trail Apparel
- Clothes. Always dress for your climate and for comfort. Riding trail aficionados say it’s better to dress in layers, so you can add or remove depending on your need. The temperature can change according to the time of day, or even as you move up a mountain or enter an open plain. Always bring extra clothes, and pack a light waterproof jacket and cap in case it rains.
- Chaps. This is an optional accessory, and worn over pants to protect them from dirt, or thick and heavy shrubs or thickets that can brush against the legs. Some are cut into a flare for better air circulation and movement. While chaps certainly completes the “traditional cowboy look”, these are only essential if you will be riding in the desert or very woody area.
You can find a wide variety of styles and materials, but for comfort and safety, pick a pair that is light, stable, and will let you slide out of the stirrups without any problem.
You need a small tread and heels that measure about 1 to 1.5 inches. Don’t use heavy hiking or snow boots, which will grip the stirrup and can make it harder to move around and may even cause accidents.
Here are your choices/considerations while picking the best pair of riding boots.
- Heels. Pick from high (cowboy) heels, intermediate (walking) heels, or low (roper) heels.
- Toe shape. Round toes are generally used for shows, while square toes look more casual
- Tops. Some styles reach the knee and have lavish decorations, but these are generally used for events. For trail riding, you can choose a mid-calf cut which can help prevent chafing, or ankle cuts which are more comfortable but offer less protection. One popular style is the Paddock (aka Jodhpur boots. https://amzn.to/3dTmHlu) are ankle boots that can be laced or zippered.
- Material. Riding boots can be made of cowhide, pigskin or other animal leathers (ostrich, snake, alligator). You can also find cotton canvas boots which are cool and breathable, and synthetic boots made of vinyl or synthetic leather in a variety of colors.
- Popular brands. Some of the most reputable names include Durango, Ariat, Justin, and Twisted X. However, there are many other brands that offer fantastic quality – just read the reviews!
Some trail riders prefer wearing boots that are shaped like running shoes, since they’re comfortable and give good support to the ankles and soles.
Riding helmets are an important safety accessory, and protects you in case of an unexpected fall. Pick a helmet that has been certified by the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). You should be able to find the label inside the helmet, or look up the brand on the SEI or ASTM websites.
Use the brand helmet sizing guides to pick the right one for your head size and shape. It should fit snugly even before you buckle or tie the straps. Try shaking or moving your head to see if the helmet moves. Some helmets will have adjustable padding or straps to ensure a perfect fit.
If you live in an area with very hot weather, you may also want to invest in a helmet with good ventilation. Another factor is material of both the helmet and the inner lining – plastic, moleskin, velvet, etc. See what feels more comfortable for you.
Top brands include Charles Owen, Samshield, Champion Hats, UVEX, Tipperary, and GPA.
Riding gloves are a matter of preference: some people find them uncomfortable, others feel that it prevents chafing and improves the grip on the reins. They come in different materials:
- Leather. Durable, can keep your hands warm, and conforms well to your hand shape. However, they can be more expensive and need to be maintained or cleaned.
- Synthetic leather. More affordable, but not as durable as real leather
- Spandex or Lycra. Fits well and feels light, but can feel warm in hot weather because it is not a breathable material
- Polyester mesh. Thinner and more breathable than Spandex, and more comfortable for people who tend to have sweaty hands
- Cotton or wool These are breathable fabric and very affordable. However, needs to be washed often and wears out quickly
Before heading out to the trail, pack some of these outdoor essentials for you and your horse.
- Drinking water. Even if your path brings you to natural water sources like springs, you can’t be sure if the water is potable. It is safer to bring your own drinking water, or mark the areas in your map where you can find fresh and safe water supplies.
- Horse treats. Aside from fresh apples, bananas and other fruits, you can stock up on commercial horse snacks – they are smaller and easier to carry around, and won’t perish. A small container of flavored horse nuggets or cookie cubes can help reward your horse or calm it when it is anxious.
- Fly spray. This can help protect your horse from annoying insects that can congregate in meadows, swamps, forests or other outdoor areas. Look for a brand specifically made for horses, because you know the formula won’t irritate their skin or contain toxic chemicals.
- Sunscreen. Look for SPF 50 and both UVA and UVB protection, which will prevent sunburn, sun damage such as hyperpigmentation, and skin cancer. Apply 30 minutes before leaving the house and reapply every 4 hours.
We hope these tips can help you prepare to conquer the trails, and remain safe and comfortable throughout your ride.
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