Hoof Beats: Trail Riding in Comfort

The main reason I trail run is to see things—birds and animals I’ve never seen before, blooming wildflowers—that I might not notice otherwise. In my book, horseback riding beats hiking, with or without a backpack, especially when crossing water or navigating rough country. Without the horse, I’m just taking a walk. Here are some tips to make your hikes more enjoyable.

Does your horse need shoes? We’ve been in the grip of the barefoot craze for many years now, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Yes, there have been changes because of this – in many competitive equestrian sports footwear is now optional. But some barefoot enthusiasts insist that no horse needs shoes, and they point to mustangs. It’s true that Mustangs tend to have good feet. It’s evolution at work – horses that colic easily, or have bad teeth or a crooked leg, will most likely die before they can pass those traits on to their offspring. But a mustang in the wild doesn’t have to carry the weight of a saddle and rider on its back. Once a mustang is ridden regularly, it will most likely need a farrier. And if the farrier says your horse needs shoes in front, like many trail horses do, believe him. A horse’s hooves are made up of keratin, the same basic substance as your fingernails and toenails. We don’t carry our weight on our fingernails. Horses, on the other hand, do, except they have four feet. Some people resist shoeing their horse because they think it hurts him – all those nails being driven into his hooves. It’s not – you would know immediately if it was. The only other option is trail boots. A quick check on the internet shows that the cheapest are $55 and the most expensive are $200 – often for a single boot.

Bareback riding is not only exhilarating, it’s great for your balance and getting to know how your horse’s muscles work. There’s no doubt about your horse’s leash if you’re galloping bareback. But if you ride solo, like I do, I wouldn’t suggest you ride bareback on the trail. What happens if your horse abandons you or you navigate difficult terrain and you simply slip? A horse’s bare back is incredibly slippery. Assuming he didn’t run home and you can catch him, how do you get back? You’ll need to maneuver it next to a rock or fallen tree, or – if the slope is steep enough – downhill from you. Probably because you really need him to stand still, your horse will sense your urgency and discover half a dozen reasons why he doesn’t want to stand next to that rock or fallen tree – or, actually , stay still at all. If you are in a flat area devoid of rocks and trees, good luck.

Many western cyclists use a thick woolen blanket every time they ride. As the sweat dries itchy – and sometimes tingly – clean the blanket according to the manufacturer’s instructions. After putting your clean pad or blanket on your clean horse, make sure the saddle still fits. All saddles – English, Western or Australian – should rest on the crest of the muscles on either side of his spine, not directly on his spine. He should also have enough slack in the front for you to fit your hand between the pad and his tourniquet. No tighter. Before your next ride, buy an inexpensive white English saddle pad (dressage length, not hunter/jumper length), and ride long enough for your horse to start sweating. Horses carry most of their weight (a long neck and big bony head) on their front legs, and the sweat marks should be either at the front of the saddle pad – because that’s where your weight should be – be evenly distributed between the front and back. There should be no sweat marks on your horse’s spine. If you see sweat marks only in the cantle area, you are sitting too far back or the saddle is putting you there.

For those of you who think your trail horse looks fancy with white leg bands, don’t. I don’t care what Clinton Anderson says. The leg bands attract dirt, which will eventually find its way inside the bands. It will feel to your horse exactly like a small pebble in your sock would feel to you. Rigid “splint boots” are specifically designed to support a horse’s front leg tendons, and they can be useful as long as you put them on correctly. Good walk !

Joan Fry is a lifelong horse lover and the author of “Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need” (The Lyons Press, Revised Edition, 2007). She can be contacted by email at [email protected]

Clyde P. Johnson