Essential Outdoor Skill: Ride a Trail Horse

Photo by Brian Klutch

A pack trip into the backcountry can be a fantastic experience, but you need to acquire some basic horsemanship skills to stay safe and comfortable as you ride.

Check Your Tack
The girth or latigo strap should be tight enough that the saddle won't slip or roll on the trail. Even if the horse is already saddled, it's a good idea to retighten the girth before you climb aboard your mount. The rear cinch should be tight enough that the horse can't get a hoof hung up on it on a steep descent. Your stirrups should hang at a level that allows you to stand up in them with a fist's height of clearance between your butt and the saddle.

Sit Up
Position yourself in the back of the saddle seat with your legs hanging straight down, the balls of your feet on the stirrups, and your toes pointed out. When going up- or downhill, sit in the saddle as a tree would grow on that hill--straight up from the ground. Don't lean too far forward or back.

Work a Loose Rein
First-time riders tend to want to keep the reins tight, thinking that will allow them to easily stop the horse if necessary. Instead, keep enough slack in the reins that the horse has control of its head. Tie your reins so that you can loop them over the saddlehorn if you need to use your hands. Leave enough slack so the belly of the reins drops below the horse's neck.

Read Your Mount
Even the best horses sometimes spook, and many times it's hard to know what scared them. Usually a horse will give you a signal that it is edgy. If it lifts its head suddenly, lays its ears back, lowers its body, or snorts, you need to be prepared. Sit deep in the saddle, have a firm grip on the reins, and be ready for sudden movement. If the horse starts to run or buck, pull one rein hard to bring its nose to your knee.