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In some parts of the country it’s still below freezing.  But here in the high desert, in a single week we went from snow to 90 degree weather.  While that’s not exactly summer (summer is 110 degrees), it’s definitely trail riding weather.

There’s been a lot in the news recently about trail safety, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because so many backyard horse owners have taken up riding as a hobby in their later years.  Maybe it’s because so much of the empty land we could ride in has turned into housing developments, and the only trails available to us are now designated “mixed use,” which means we have to share them—usually with hikers and bicyclists, but all too often with arrogant off-road bikers or quad drivers who don’t care if they spook your horse or not.  Maybe it’s all of those things.  But the bottom line is the same: it’s harder to stay safe on a trail ride than it used to be.

Western saddles have a multitude of straps and strings and metal rings that makes it easy to carry canteens and other items.  Photo by Charles Hood.

Western saddles have a multitude of straps and strings and metal rings that makes it easy to carry canteens and other items. Photo by Charles Hood.

The first suggestion about trail safety is usually, “Don’t ride alone.”  I violate this one all the time, but I’m also careful to take precautions.  For example, I never cross the paved road at the bottom of our dirt road, so if my husband arrives home from work and my horse is here, all tacked up, but I’m not, he knows I’m somewhere on “our” side of the road.  I often don’t know exactly where I’m going when I head out, because part of the fun of trail riding is going somewhere I don’t usually go—taking that old trail across the streambed to see what wildflowers are in bloom—not the destination itself.  That’s why it’s vital to tell somebody (or leave a note) where you might be.  Make boundaries, and stay inside them.

Another suggestion is, “Carry your cell phone.”  Since we live in the foothills, I can’t always get a signal on my cell phone, so there’s no point in carrying one.  If I were a beginner, especially if I rode by myself, I would carry a walkie-talkie.  My husband and I own property in the Sierras, and I carry a two-way radio.  He carries the other one.  Make sure to introduce it to your horse first, so he’s accustomed to the noises it makes.  Either keep it in your pocket or buy one with a clip, so you can wear it on your belt.  It won’t do you much good if you put it in a saddle bag and you and your horse part company.  He doesn’t know how to make it work.

Whether you ride English, Western, or Aussie, always clean your saddle and bridle after you return from a ride—that way you’ll know if anything needs replacing, so you don’t have to carry extra tack with you in case of an emergency.  But metal parts can give way unexpectedly, and since the most important piece of tack is probably your reins, consider carrying an extra set.  Again—you carry it.  Wear a fanny pack if necessary, and if you fall off, try not to land on it.

During the summer, especially if you plan to be gone for more than an hour, ride early in the morning or in the early evening.  And if you live in rattlesnake country, keep in mind that they like the cooler temperatures as much as you do.  Carrying a canteen of water is also a good idea.  Just longe your horse first, with the canteen attached to the saddle, so it doesn’t scare him if you decide to canter and something starts slapping his shoulder.

Other safety items to keep on your saddle (or in your fanny pack, if it’s not getting too heavy), are a Swiss army knife or other tool that will also cut wire in case your horse stumbles into some rusty barbed wire, a hand mirror to send signals (use the sun) if your horse dumps you and high-tails it home, and a roll of vet wrap that sticks to itself in case your horse scrapes his shins on something.  If you ride in really remote areas, you should probably use a Western saddle, leather or synthetic, so you can tie a blanket behind it in case you have to spend the night out in the open—and make sure the blanket rests on the saddle pad, not his rump, or your blanket will be sweaty and wet.  Add matches in a “zipped” plastic bag and a small flashlight to your fanny pack, and put a halter and leadrope in your saddlebag along with a lightweight jacket.

It’s trail riding weather.  Let’s go!