10 Tips for a Successful Spring Ride
Avid Trail Riders look forward to spring, and relaxing forays into nature that come with the season. But all too often, improper preparation for the first ride results in injured horses or riders. Here, Backcountry Basics author Mike Kinsey, a South Carolina horseman who'e well-versed in riding the rugged outdoors, shares 10 hints to help riders and their four-legged friends ease into a successful and safe trail-riding season.
1. Gear Up
Before you start training with your horse, give your gear a once-over. Clean, oil and inspect each piece, keeping an eye out for dry, rotted leather, loose California screws, rusted buckles, missing straps and frayed cinches. Making repairs or replacements before you venture out increases your odds of avoiding an emergency fix on the trail.
2. Tune Up Your Trailer
At least several days before you plan to head out, schedule some time to have your trailer inspected, including the brakes, bearings, tires, wiring, lights and floor condition.
3. Check Your Horse’s Hooves and Health
Schedule to have your horse’s hooves trimmed and possibly shod, depending on his hoof, the condition of the trail you will ride and expected riding intensity. If necessary, worm, vaccinate and update your Coggins paperwork.
4. Start Slowly
A pasture horse on hay all winter may look chubby and may not have much energy. Low energy isn’t all bad, as it may mean fewer behavioral issues. Grain-fed horses, however, may not only be out of condition, but also exhibit the playfulness that can lead to injury if the rider doesn’t adjust appropriately (See Tip 5).
Either way, overly fat horses will need conditioning to tune up their cardiovascular system before heading out for long rides. Begin training with short sessions, allowing the horse to gradually tune up without too much stress. Stable-bound horses will need significantly more conditioning than their pasture-dwelling counterparts, who have had to maintain some mobility to access grass hay and water.
5. Regain Your Horse’s Focus (Round Pen Exercise 1)
Safe trail riding begins with basic respect, which is demonstrated when your horse acknowledges your leadership and complies with your cues. Working in the round pen until your horse quits playing, ignoring you, or otherwise signaling disrespect with threats, such as ear pinning, tail wringing or kicking, is a great way to regain his attention and remind him of his manners.
The purpose of round pen work is to bring your horse’s mind to you, not to wear him out. After you’ve worked in both directions and have regained his attention, tie him for 30 minutes, then unsaddle and turn him out.
6. Get Back to Basics
Tuning up a horse for spring riding is similar to tuning up a kid returning to school—you can’t expect a student to excel in math if he can’t even focus on standing in line. Starting your training sessions in a snaffle will give you more control (such as the ability to do one-rein turns) until your horse is ready to focus on more advanced cues.
7. Refresh Under Saddle (Round Pen Exercise 2)
Once you’ve gained consistent control from the first round pen exercise, saddle your horse and work him in both directions. Tie one rein to the inside D-ring of the saddle to keep his head tipped about 20 degrees to the inside, and work 10 to 50 laps in each direction, depending on the horse’s training. Different horses need different refresher training, so be patient. The goal with this exercise isn’t to hit a certain number of laps (the numbers above are just a suggestion), but to gain respect, attention and cooperation. After working in both directions, tie him for 30 minutes, unsaddle and turn him out.
8. Ride in the Round Pen (Round Pen Exercise 3)
Ease into a controlled ride with a third session in the round pen, after first repeating the second exercise. Slip on a halter over the bridle, tie your horse, snug the cinch and mount. (Note: If you feel unsafe mounting your horse while tied, seek out a trusted horseman for help. I’ve found horses that are not compliant with tying also struggle with other aspects of handling or riding, which could be dangerous on the trail.)
Sit quietly until the horse stands quiet, then give a leg cue near the rear cinch, asking the horse to move his hindquarters over. If he’s unresponsive, use light, consistent bumping until he moves. Wait about 30 seconds, then repeat the cue with the opposite leg, asking the horse to move his hindquarters in the opposite direction. Repeat this three times, allowing for time to stand quietly between each cue.
If the horse is relaxed and compliant, unbuckle the halter and ride out, circling the round pen at a trot for two laps each direction. If he becomes distracted, regain his focus by keeping his feet busy. Use work as a consequence of not paying attention, and standing still as a reward. Remember: Telling your horse to do something is much more productive than telling him not to do something.
9. Pick Your Partner Wisely
Having partners who ride off on the trail while you’re struggling for control only deepens frustration for your horse and yourself. You can prevent a lot of accidents on the trail by pairing with buddies who complement your needs and skill level.
10. Saddle Up and Ride Out
The day of the first trail ride, start an hour before it is time to trailer and repeat the third round pen session. By this time, if you have consistently insisted the horse respect you, and firmly and fairly corrected him when he doesn’t look to you for guidance, the session should be much shorter. You should be well on your way to a rewarding trail season—enjoy the ride.
Learn more about Mike Kinsey at startemright.com