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Trail Riding Etiquette

Pleasure trail riding like all aspects of equine use has its rules and regulations pertaining to trail use and manners. How a person rides a trail can determine not only his own enjoyment but the safety of himself, his own horse and other trail users too.
With the high demand for trails throughout the nation, there are very few trails dedicated for horse-only use. On the average and especially in highly populated areas, most trails are “multi-use” or “combined usage”.

One of the first rules of trail etiquette is to make sure that the trail one is riding is a horse trail! Most trail systems use international trail symbols — a stick-type figure on a horse. This sign designates a trail for horsemen. If the sign has a red slash over the figure, this means the trail is closed to horsemen. And other trail systems use a combined sign. One that shows all users with the exempt ones having a red slash over them.

Some trail systems use not only international symbols or combined signage but accompanying signs that could state “No horsemen beyond this point,” “Horse trail this way”, etc. In some parks and trail systems you’ll not only have signs but general directional/conditional use postings designating who can the trail, in what direction, times open and so on. I’ve ridden some trail systems where speed reading was required in order to read all the trail rules. If one rode any faster than a slow walk, you won’t have time to read all those signs!

Most multi-use trails are six feet wide. Some are 10 and even 12 feet wide because they double for fire roads and firebreaks. In other areas, especially national forest and other federal lands, trails are only one or two feet wide which is why a rider, like an automobile driver, should always ride on the right side of the trail. Stay on the right side of the trail tread regardless of trail width or direction, up or downhill. If all trail users stay to the right (including hikers and bikers), trail accidents and head-on collisions can be avoided.

The right-of-way rule is that biker yields to hiker. And both biker and hiker yield to horsemen. Although this is considered a trail rule, common courtesy and common sense should prevail and apply on all trails and in all situations.

Uphill traffic has the right-of-way — regardless if its hiker, biker or horsemen! Downhill traffic should yield by waiting at the top of the climb or at the first safe spot to stop. If I’m just starting down a hill and see another trail user starting up, I’ll wait at the top of the hill or if I’ve gone a few feet down turn around and retrace hoofprints to the top where I’ll rein Sig around and we’ll wait for the uphill user. After all, I’m going downhill and the uphill user has his momentum going uphill. Why make him stop? This is especially true if on narrow trails where the passing could be tight and a safety problem. Wait at the top where its safe for both you, your horse and the other user to pass each other. And on 10 or 12 or 16-foot wide trails, everyone can go down and uphill at the same time passing safely by staying on the right side.

Often a rider can’t see the whole down or uphill trail so to be safe, I use a small bell on my center cinch. Nothing loud. Just a little tinkle to catch a person’s (or other animal’s ear). And a bell is really GOOD sense in bear country.

Bikers are probably the most upon-you-all-at-once of any of the trail users. Bike riders often don’t see other trail users until it’s too late. They’re busy watching the trail directly in front of their tire and don’t look up to see what they’re coming upon. Or they swoop around a corner. So, always trail read. Look ahead. Look above. Look beside. Look behind. Keep aware of what’s on the trail and if you see a bike or hiker off in the distance, remember they are there. By being aware of what’s around you, you won’t be caught off guard!

Today more and more hikers can be found on trails. A hiker can be anyone from a dedicated cross-country backpacker to a Sunday walker out for a leisure stroll. Individuals, families, groups and troops can be found walking on trails so when meeting — be polite. SMILE. Say hello.

For some strange reason there are a lot of equine trail riders who won’t hardly speak to another horseman much less utter a word to other trail users. Friendliness if the best avenue of acceptance on trails. The better the trail meeting or experience between other trails users and us horsemen the better chances for use horsemen to be accepted on present — and future — trails. And we need all the chances and acceptance we can find to stay on trails!

If a hiker happens to have a backpack, a talking backpacking hiker is going to spook a horse a lot less than a non-talking backpacking hiker. A horse knows what a normal person looks like but a person with a backpack can suddenly become a threatening tower of what-is-it. So start a conversation with the backpacking hiker BEFORE reaching him and definitely when passing him. Let the horse know that this what-is-it is actually a funny-looking person with a huge hump on his back. And if it talks, it can’t be all bad.

Most other trail users are intimidated by the size of a horse. And they just don’t know what to do or where to go! So say “Hi” and tell ’em what to do. If the hiker is on a hill trail, have him move to the downhill side of the trail and stand there — continue carrying on the conversation with him as you ride by. On flat trails, have him move to the left side of the trail so you can stay on the right side and continue carrying on a conversation.

Never, never, never have a hiker or backpacker or biker or other horseman or anybody step behind a rock, a tree, a bush or out of sight. If the horse has seen him, he’s looking for him! And with the sudden disappearance the horse can become more nervous and upset. To a horse, that disappearing what-is-it could suddenly bounce out and eat ’em. Even if completely out of sight, a snapping twig or a rustling branch as a horse goes by can spook the animal. So keep the other trail user in open sight — and TALK.

Have hikers or backpackers in groups, packs or families follow the same rules as above. Or better yet, move off the trail yourself and let them pass. Always pass in safe areas which may mean you, the horseman, may have to backtrack a few feet.

If someone wants to stop and pet the horse and the horse is agreeable, let them. It’s good public relations. A lot of hikers may never have touched a horse before. And with groups of kids, they love talking to and petting a horse regardless of dirty and sweaty the horse is!

Where I ride in Ed Levin County Park, Santa Clara County I often come across a pack of Boy or Girl Scouts hiking. Ranging in pack size from half a dozen to as many as 20 kids it’s often the first time many have ever seen a real, live horse. And usually they’re all over the trail like ants!

Sig, my horse, is always willing to stopping and having his head and neck petted but before allowing that, I usually have to yell at everyone to quiet down, stay in front and move slowly. After dismounting, I allow the kids to come up and pet Sig’s head and neck, look at his “big feet” and keep telling them to only stand in front and don’t go behind Sig because he “can’t see you back there and he really likes to see each and every one of you”.

Having lost his fear of backpacks long ago, Sig’s a marvel at finding those packs with candy bars or apples. He can quickly pick out which kids have ’em and will begin to nuzzle those backpacks. While kids giggle and share their bounty with him (which I feed to Sig), we talk about horses, trails, safety and wouldn’t it be nice someday to own your very own horse. What is a half hour of lost riding time on my part is possible a lifetime memory for someone who got to pet a horse who ate an apple out of a backpack. Not to mention the pictures taken by scout leader or myself for their scrapbooks back home. Memories which will help future adults possibly decide the fate of continued horse use on a trail someplace, somewhere.

With any trail user, always have them approach from the front. And if a horse is nervous have people stay back. Bud, my other horse, isn’t the type of horse that wants to spend time ‘visiting’. He has a job to do and that job is to get on down the trail. So consider your own individual horse and how he reacts to other trail users.

Ride single file on a trail — one behind the other. On wide firebreak or fire road trails, riders can ride side by side as long as they don’t interfere with other users or get off the main trail. It’s nice to ride beside a friend and point out sights along the route.

Usually, a horse will let you know of a following rider. The animal will turn his head to the side to look behind him, raise his head, turn his ears backward and possibly even swing sideways to get a better look at who’s following. Some trail horses will just stop for the approaching horse to catch up and go by. And some like Sig will move to the side of the trail, stop, turn his head and nicker for the other person or rider “to hurry up, I don’t have all day to stand here”.

If passing a horse on a trail moving in the same direction as you, let the rider and horse know you’re approaching simply by saying, “Trail, please”. The rider should then move to the right as far as is safe or simply stop their horse for the approaching rider to pass. Like driving a car, pass on the left of the front rider or trail user, say “thanks” and keep on going. If horses begin to match strides, just relax. One will soon tire of the ‘keep up game’ and fall back. NEVER kick a horse into a gallop to get by. A gallop, lope, trot could upset the horse you’re approaching. Just keep on walking — and talking to your for-a-few-minutes riding companion.

A distance of at least one horse length (about 10 feet) should be maintained between animals on all trails. Don’t tailgate!! When going uphill, keep at least two lengths between horses. On downhill routes, maintain at least three horse lengths between animals. You never want the horse in front to suddenly stop and you tailgate into the rider’s saddle. Like driving a car, stay back and allow room for those sudden stops. If you can count the horse’s tail hairs, you’re too close!

Horses that are buddies should be kept together on rides. Buddies can be real problems if split up. So let buddies be together — in the front or the back.

When it comes to gates, bridges and crossings, the whoever-gets-there-first rule prevails. But again, common sense and courtesy should apply. If one doesn’t have to wait very long, hold the gate open for other trail users. That way you can close the gate and know its been relatched — properly. And if the gate was open when you came to it, leave it open.

At bridges and crossings, go on over if you get there first but if a hiker or biker arrives at the same time, let them go first. Wait about 10-20 feet back from a bridge so they have room to cross and move back over to the side of the trail. Some horses don’t like bridges and it’s a lot easier to work a horse over when you’re alone that when three or four other trail users are waiting to cross in front or behind you.

At paved street crossings, stop before crossing. Look both ways. Then cross the street. Even though auto traffic is supposed to stop for horsemen, it doesn’t — even in crossings. And always remember, horses and riders do not dent very well when hit by cars.

One can even ‘train’ a horse to stop at crossings. With both Bud and Sig, when coming to streets they stop and wait. Sig looks both ways. Bud just waits for a cue to cross. Some horses take quicker to the idea than others but whenever crossing pavement or blacktop, simply stop the horse. Wait a few minutes. Praise the animal. And then cross the street.

In some areas, trails have been placed beside streets. This is not a particularly safe area for riding but it’s often a necessity for getting from one end of a trail to the other. On these trails, ride as far from the edge of the pavement as possible but don’t try to ride in ditches or high weeds. This can be a safety hazard in itself. For cars coming up behind, stop the horse and allow him to look at the vehicle. A vehicle that is moving to fast can be ‘signaled’ to slow down by extending your arm on the pavement side out full length and moving it up and down. Most vehicle drivers know this sign is to slow down. And if a horse is really spooky of traffic (in which case he should have more barnyard work before hitting that section of trail), one can always dismount and walk between horse and traffic with the horse’s head on short reins at your shoulder. Never be to proud to get off and walk. Walking can save you and your horse a lot of misery.

Galloping is an enjoyable exercise for not only the horse, but the rider. Loping along with the wind in your face across a meadow of grasses and flowers can be fun. But it’s not advisable! One never knows what will pop up just around the next bend in the trail (like a family pushing a baby stroller) or from the grasses themselves.

Walking is the acceptable trail gait. After all, trail riding is a pleasure experience. One isn’t out to cover a certain distance in a specific time — if you are, join competitive or endurance rides. With trail riding one is out to enjoy the country. See the trees. Smell the flowers. Catch a glimpse of a doe and fawn darting off into the tree shadows. Neither Sig nor Bud have galloped a half mile in the 13 years I’ve owned them. Both them and I are content to wander along, stop in the shade of a tree and watch a butterfly drift down the trail. Because that’s what pleasure trail riding is all about, drifting along a trail while the rest of the world races out of control…..

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