So, you’ve decided to go to a dude ranch or on another horseback riding vacation, but you don’t actually know that much about horses or riding. You do know that riding can be dangerous. It’s a truism that if you ride you will eventually fall off. Horses can also bite, kick, step on your foot (intentionally or otherwise) and knock small children over while checking their pockets for treats. They’re big animals.
You might, thus, be a little worried about how you’re going to stay as safe as possible. Most ranches and outfitters have safety tips and run orientations, but knowing how to stay safe before you go is a good idea.
Safety Tips For your Trip
- Wear a helmet. Please wear a helmet. You may want that authentic western experience (and there’s nothing wrong with switching to a western hat for a photo op if you’re careful). But head injuries were the most common cause of death among cowboys. Wear a helmet.
- Wear proper footwear. The only time you should not wear boots is if you’re swimming with horses. Otherwise, boots. Every time. Not just when riding, but any time you might come into contact with a horse. Even that little pony in the picture there will hurt you if he steps on your foot. They’re heavy. (Incidentally, it’s even more important to wear proper boots if you end up in a corral with cattle; cloven hooves are sharp. I have a friend who grew up on a dairy farm and he said it hurts more than a horse).
- Never sneak up behind a horse. Never. Horses will react badly to the sudden appearance of a predator (you) behind them, and they will kick. If at all possible, approach the horse from the front and slightly to the side (horses have a blind spot in front of their nose). If you absolutely must approach a horse from behind, call their name until they turn their ears or ideally their head towards you. If you absolutely must pass behind a horse, stay as close to their butt as possible, keep a hand on their butt, and keep talking. Horses don’t kick you to be bad, they kick you because it’s a reflex and they forgot it was their friend back there.
- Always listen to the wranglers on the trail. Always listen to the wranglers. It’s their job to keep you safe. Now, my husband once had a wrangler get him lost for two hours, so…well…stuff happens. Remember that the wranglers know the trail. It’s also worth remembering that your horse knows the trail better than you do. If they balk, it can be for a reason.
- Don’t feed treats without checking with the wranglers. Some horses get nippy if hand fed treats. If you do feed a treat, put it on your palm and hold your hand out flat. Don’t allow small children to feed treats. A horse snatching a treat can accidentally bite you. If your hand is flat, as long as you’re a teenager or adult, they can’t actually get their mouth open wide enough to bite you. (And for the safety of the horses, make sure it’s okay for them to have that particular treat. They can eat some things we can’t and we can eat some things they can’t).
- Don’t lie about your riding ability. Please don’t lie about your riding ability. The end result is likely to be embarrassing at best, serious injury at worst. Ranches rely a lot on the information provided by customers to match horses, and if you tell them you are a better rider than you are they may give you a horse you can’t handle.
- If you don’t like your horse, say something. With the rare exception of some deep wilderness outfitting trips, the ranch can and will remount you if you are not getting on with your assigned horse or mule. Don’t suffer in silence, especially if you don’t feel safe.
- If you are getting hot on the trail and need to remove clothing, flag down the wranglers so they can stop. In some cases the wranglers may ask you to dismount to do this. Please do! Some horses are fine with their rider removing a flappy jacket on their back. Some aren’t. Even an experienced rider will respect this. I’ve had to dismount to remove a rain jacket before, because the horse I was riding apparently didn’t like it. If you have to remove your helmet to remove the layers, dismount.
- Carry water. Bring a sturdy water bottle and an attachment to secure it to the horn. Some outfits do provide water bottles, water bags, horn bags or water bottle holders, but check. A water bottle holder for a saddle is only a few bucks and you’ll need it, believe me.
- Don’t be a yahoo. The most common way people do this is holding their horse back from the ride so they have to run to catch up. Please don’t. If it’s safe to trot or lope, the wranglers will provide an opportunity. On some trips there may not be an opportunity, just because of the nature of the trails. Accept that.
But above all, listen to the wranglers. Do what they tell you to do, don’t do what they tell you not to do. They’re concerned about your safety and that of the horses.
Oh, and make sure you pay attention to your surroundings. (And, by the way, ponies are mean. Ahem. No, not that sweet one up at the top of the article. Oh wait, was that the one who dumped the wrangler…)