15 Tips for trail riding with your Horse

For equestrians, riding on the trail is a joyful and freeing experience. Spending time on horseback is a lot of fun, and trail rides can help strengthen your bond and build trust with your equine companion. Whether you are riding to a nearby trail, or trailering your horse to a new location, be sure to prepare to make it a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience for all. Keep reading to see some essential tips for the safety of yourself, your horse, and everyone else out on the trail.  


happy people on trail

1. Prepare your horse before hitting the trails

It’s a good idea to expose your horse to all kinds of obstacles before heading out on a trail ride. Is your horse solid when things like plastic bags blow about in the wind? Can your horse tie safely, walk through water, and let a person, bicycle, car, or another horse pass them without acting up? If not, these are great things to work on at home, or in an arena before exposing your horse to these things in a new environment 

2.  Think about your horse's fitness

Have you ever injured yourself after a strenuous workout? The same thing can happen to horses. Trail rides require the strength and stamina to walk long distances, or up and down hills in warm and cold weather. Your horse should also be in good physical fitness to help avoid injuries and behavioral problems out on the trails. 

horse tack

3. Check your tack

Comfortable, proper fitting tack (saddle/pads/bridle, etc.) is essential for you and your horse’s comfort and safety. There’s nothing worse for you or your horse than riding long distances in an uncomfortable saddle – especially in gear that doesn’t allow you to distribute your weight evenly.

Broken equipment can also lead to disaster, so be sure to check everything before you mount up – especially your cinch/girth. (For non-horse readers, this is a connector that attaches to the saddle on both sides underneath the horse, behind their front legs, to help keep the saddle securely in place.) 


4. Use the buddy system

Whether you’re hiking, biking, or horseback riding, there is safety in numbers. In an emergency, it’s good to have a friend in case they need to go and get help. Horses also tend to feel safer in the presence of other horses, so this can help them feel more comfortable and relaxed on the trail. 

5.  Bring a cellphone and keep it attached to YOU

If you fall off your horse and need help, you’ll be glad your phone isn’t in your saddle bag. Especially if they decide to bolt away from you. 

6. check the weather and avoid red flag days

Like people, horses can also experience heat stress. Not all parks and open space preserves have water troughs available, so if you’re trailering your horse, be sure to bring a bucket of water with you. Do the math to prevent heat stress in horses, by adding the temperature in Fahrenheit with the relative humidity:

  • Below 120 = Low risk.
  • 130 - 150 = Your horse will likely sweat. Take caution and be sure to provide adequate hydration.
  • 150+ = heat stress is more likely. Stick to light work, avoid the hottest times of the day, and watch for signs of overheating.
  • 180+ = Unsafe to ride.  In these conditions, your horse has lost the ability to regulate their body temperature. 

people riding together

7.  timing is everything

On hot days, think about riding earlier in the morning when it’s cooler outside. You also don’t want to get stuck on the trail after dark (and some agencies issue citations for being on the trail after dark) so make sure you can get back to the trailhead or staging area before sunset.

8. Have a map handy

One of the best ways to feel more comfortable out on the trail is to know where you’re going. Check the trail map before heading out and bring a print-out or download the map to your phone to have it handy at trail junctions. If you enjoy hiking, you might also consider testing out new trails on foot before bringing your horse out to get a better feel for what to expect.

horse ears listening

9. stay present

Your horse relies on you to be their leader, so make sure you are paying attention to their body language, as well as what’s going on around you. Having situational awareness and knowing what’s coming ahead or behind on the trail (such as bikers, hikers, or other horses) can help you prepare your horse. If they seem worried or startled, try turning them to face whatever is behind them, or ride them in a circle (if there is enough room) to get their attention and prevent spooks. Never ride with earbuds that prevent you from hearing what’s happening around you.

horse pinning its ears at another horse

10. Make sure your horse can behave around other horses

Whether you are riding with friends, or passing other equestrians on the trail, it’s important that your horse doesn’t try to bite or kick other horses. Most horses enjoy traveling in a herd, but like people – not everyone gets along well with others. If your horse acts up around other horses, practice riding your horse with others at home or in an arena to get them used to being in a group before hitting the trail. 

11. Respect others

Santa Clara Valley is home to a variety of open space preserves, parks, and trails that allow multiple users, including hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. Everyone is out on the trail to have fun, so treat everyone with kindness, patience, and respect. Everyone is welcome at Open Space Authority preserves, but not everyone is comfortable around horses (or knows how to behave around them) so try to be helpful - you might make someone’s day!

Though hikers and bicyclists should always yield to horses, do what is safest for you and your horse. If someone is coming towards you quickly, they may not be aware of proper horse/trail etiquette. Be aware of others and stop to take a short break and continue once they have passed. If the person is coming from behind you and horse seems concerned, turn them so they can see what's coming.

trail ride at sierra vista

12. Be prepared for horse emergencies 

Whether your horse comes up lame, starts to colic, or gets injured – have a plan! Your first step is to dismount and examine your horse carefully. Check all four hooves for rocks, look for injuries, and make sure there are no signs of heavy breathing. For serious emergencies try to move your horse into the shade. Know who to call to come help – preferably someone with a horse trailer or who knows how to safely drive your trailer. If you can, call your horse's veterinarian. They will likely advise against getting back on your horse, especially if they are injured to the point of lameness or showing any signs of physical distress. 

13. Be prepared for rider emergencies

If you fall off while riding with a friend, stay still on the ground while your buddy assesses the situation to see if it is safe for you to get up. In the event of an injury, always call 9-1-1. If you're not sure how serious the fall was, there are a few things you can check, including:

  • Can they wiggle their fingers or toes?
  • Do their pupils look uneven? 
  • Are you noticing slurred speech or uneven facial expressions?
  • Ask basic questions, including: What’s your name? What’s your horse’s name? What’s my name? What day is it? Where are we? 

14. pack for two

Make sure to bring what you and your horse need, including food, water, and emergency supplies. Some horse emergency kit basics include:

  • Hoof pick
  • Duct tape
  • Pliers
  • Halter and lead rope
  • Bandages and gauze
  • Antiseptic spray or antibiotic ointment
  • Horse boots

kitty monahan enjoying a trail ride on her horse

15. Don't forget to have fun

Safety should always be top priority out on the trail, but make sure to relax, have fun, and enjoy the ride. Horses can sense nervousness, and when we get stressed, it can make it tighten our grip on the reins or stiffen your body in the saddle. If you find yourself getting tense, take a deep breath and try to take in the beautiful scenery with your equine companion. 

Happy trails!

December 13, 2023
For media inquiries contact:

Charlotte Graham

Public Information Officer