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ABC’s of Trail Riding


As Published in the April 2015 edition of West Coast Horsemen

I spend the majority of winter and spring on the road teaching riders how to enjoy their animals through trail riding and camping. Just last month I had the pleasure to be a speaker at the Back Country Horsemen of California Rendezvous in Angels Camp. While there I was asked for my version of the alphabet. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

A is for Animals –Feeling the smooth muscles of a solid horse beneath you is just one of the many highlights of trail riding. But is your horse or mule ready for the trail? A few of the things that I want my animals to master before they go out are; neck reining, backing, leg yields, and mounting from both sides.

B is for Bowline – Whether you’re day rider or back country camper, a staple piece of knowledge that you should have is how to tie the king of knots; the bowline. This absolutely secure knot won’t slip and is useful for everything from setting up camp to tying your horse during lunch. Learn it.

C is for Cowboy – They were pragmatists and you should be as well. Use tack, gear, and equipment that work best for your intended purpose, not what looks at home in a western theme shop. That authentic western roping saddle is going to weigh down your already hard working horse on the trail.

D is for Duct Tape – If can’t be fixed with duct tape, all is lost. This miracle material was created during WWII when the military needed a strong, flexible, and waterproof tape for field repairs. A length wrapped around a pencil is small enough to easily stash in your saddle bags and handy for mending most of the broken things you’ll encounter.

E is for Equitation – Webster defines it as “The art of riding on horseback”. It’s a practice that every trail rider should constantly strive to improve their skills and in large part determines whether you’re a rider or a passenger. Be a rider.

F is for Fitness – The rigors of riding affect not just our mounts but also us as riders. Gradually work your horse into shape and keep them in condition. Getting yourself into shape will help your mount travel down the trail and keep you vigorous for those wonderful long days in the saddle.

G is for GPS – These navigational aids can be a lifesaver. However, in the hands of the inexperienced, they’ve earned the moniker of “yuppie 911”. More people than ever are venturing into the backcountry without even minimal survival skills. Many carry gadgets they think of as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Many of them will need to be rescued from their own incompetence. Before you trust your life to a brick of electronics learn how to use a compass and read a map.

H is for Helmet –Long time riders as well novices have accidents. Horse riding is statistically more dangerous than downhill skiing and motorcycling. Avoid becoming a statistic by wearing a quality riding helmet. Every ride. Every time.

I is for Insects – It’s not the bears, cougars, and wolfs to worry about. Insects and bees have ruined many more rides than any of the previously mentioned critters. A well-placed sting can cause the calmest of horses to launch into a bucking fit worthy of the finest rodeo.

WCHapr2015-1J is for Journey – Whether your ride is a quick excursion away from the office or a backcountry expedition, chasing the end of the trail is a wonderful way to spend a day or a week. It’s not necessarily the destination; it’s getting there that’s the best part.

K is for Knife – All good horse folk should carry a sturdy blade. Not only is a knife handy for the quick un-tying of a stubborn knot it’s also indispensable for making dinner at camp. A blade 3-4 inches long will get to last of the peanut butter while also short enough to easily stash in a pocket.

L is for Low Impact – You can pretty it up by saying “Leave No Trace” but it still boils down to reducing our impact by preserving and protecting the world around us. If you pack it in, pack it out. If you find trash left behind by others pack that out too.

M is for Mountains – Watching meteor showers from a snug camp beside an Alpine lake in a remote mountain meadow and staring in awe at a night sky alight with fire and stars is an experience one rarely finds in an arena.

N is for Nearside Nonsense – Horsemen are taught to and traditionally mount from the left, or nearside, of the horse. Since you never know what obstacles might present themselves you should be able mount your animal equally well from both sides of your riding animal.

O is for Obstacles – Most riders eventually progress beyond the groomed bridle paths of suburbia to wilder areas that are home to a variety of obstacles ranging from downed trees and stream crossings to hikers and bicyclists. Teach yourself and your horse how to handle these hurdles before you get too far from home.

P is for Ponying – The art of being able to lead another horse while you’re mounted is a skill that both you and your horse need to know. Ponying a young horse alongside a solid trail mount is a wonderful way to introduce him to the sights and experiences that he’ll eventually experience on his own. Learning to safely pony will help you when it’s time to graduate into the world of back country and wilderness trips.

Q is for Quick Release – In the case of a panicked or trapped beast a knot that quickly releases with a firm pull on the end of the rope is a very desirable trait. There are a number of knots that have a “slippery hitch” variation that comes apart in an instant. Take the time to learn them.

R is for Rider – A rider actively influences their mount at all times. A rider is an effective leader and makes the horses’ job easier by using clear aids and a balanced seat. Riders are alert to their surroundings and often can stave off trouble before any outward signs are visible. A rider is what we should all aspire to be.

S is for Spook – Horses and mules survive by being alert to danger and running quickly. Teaching your horse to stand still when startled will help keep you in the saddle the next time a “horse eating monster” suddenly appears.

T is for Tying High and Tight – When you’re ready to try camping with your mule one important skill you should learn is how to tie a safe highline. A highline keeps your horse safe overnight. Allows him to move around, and even lie down, and lets you get a good night’s rest without worrying about your mount.

WCHapr2015-2U is for Urban Trails – Though many of us are loath to admit it, most of us ride front country areas more so than the back country wilderness we crave. Front country trails are a wonderful place to build the skills and confidence to make your treks to more remote settings much safer and more fun.

V is for Variation – When you use your compass the difference between true north and where the needle points is called variation, or declination. The variance can be significant and if not accounted for can cause you to be very late for dinner. Learn how to use your compass and ensure that you’re back in camp before the pie is gone.

W is for Walk – We’ve all been in situations where it was scary to be high above the ground on the back of a horse. Being fearful is part of the human condition and there’s nothing wrong with it, in fact being a bit fearful may just keep us from pushing too far beyond our skills into a danger zone. When your confidence is a bit shaky there’s no shame in dismounting and walking until you’re able to get back in the saddle again; anyone who says otherwise is silly.

X is for Xenophon –Athenian, and author of “On the Art of Horsemanship” published in 360BC. Xenophon’s treatise is the oldest known text on horsemanship and those principles that he described have been used by horse folk for the past 2,300 years. From modern day trainers to the foundations of dressage his insight has formed the equestrian world as we know it. A copy of this seminal work belongs on every horse owner’s bookshelf.

Y is for Young – A young horse, like an inexperienced rider, is a very teachable creature. The two creatures shouldn’t be too close together as they will most certainly teach one another bad habits. If you’re a novice rider a mature horse with training and trail experience behind him will have most of the buggers already worked out of his system and can help teach you many of the joys of trail riding.

Z is for Zip. That wraps it up for this month! Thanks for following along with this lexicon of trail rider topics. As always for more in depth information on the topics listed above please visit; the world’s largest directory of horse trails and camping areas.