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Into the Woods We go!

A Rider's Cautionary Tale to Hikers

Trail riding at Mohican

Horses natural preference is to be in wide open spaces, with their herd. It has always amazed me, when a storm is blowing in, MY preference was to gather my horses into a safe, snug barn... but THEIR preference was to be right smack in the middle of the field! It used to drive me crazy!! They would put their backs to the wind, hunker down, and ride out the storm in the wide open space of their pasture. They would rather ignore me and the run-in shed, and weather the storm in the wide open spaces as a herd.

It makes sense if you look at it from the horses perspective. They want to be able to scan the horizon for danger and see it coming from a long distance off. They want to be part of their herd. They feel safer in a way that doesn't always make sense to me.

I love to trail ride. I think my horses enjoy it too but occasionally I am baffled over what frightens them. A strange looking tree stump. A person walking up to us on the trail. A heavily wooded trail is a breath of fresh air to me. But going in the woods, with the heavy limbs obscuring their vision, is probably not what THEY would choose to do if they were not domesticated riding horses.

Thank goodness my trail horse will go into the woods when we go trail riding and we have an enjoyable time. I do believe my horse, in the big scheme of things, enjoys the exercise and stimulation of being hauled out to go on trail rides with friends. He seems to like being with his new buddy, Apache and with prick ears and an interested expression, explores the smells and sights of other horses that have been on the trail. So all in all, we both are happy.

There are times though, when things do clash. Anytime you mix horses and the general public, things clash. Heck, things can just clash with horses no matter where you are because they are horses!

my Tennessee Walking Horse gelding, Cimarron

What the horses don't like are surprises on the trail. I recently hauled out to a bridle trail that is open to hikers and horses. There is a rule of 'all dogs must be on a leash'. How well posted, followed or publicized this rule is I am not sure. My horse is an older trail experienced TWH and Apache is a Missouri Fox Trotter with a quiet temperament and is just an all-around steady guy. Thank goodness! Read on to hear about our surprise on the trail!

We had been out on the trail for a couple hours and we were happily walking along a part of the trail that was pretty heavily wooded. Cimarron and I were in the lead. Cim and I both saw a flash of something light colored thru the leaves. Cim stopped immediately and refused to go forward. In fact, he took a couple steps back and was on full alert. Apache came around front and was going to lead the way, which is what we do if one horse decides to balk, and usually, that is all there is to that...

this time though, the 'flash of something light colored' leaped across the trail path up ahead and now both horses were spooked! They both turned and attempted to run off but we were able to keep them under control. We turned them around and just as we did,

a large, enthusiastic, freshly groomed and quite fluffy Golden Retriever now is bounding and leaping straight for the horses.

Golden Retriever

Love my goofy dog... and she loves running in the woods.... but

Let's pause for a moment. Remember how I mentioned the storm and my perception of what was safe differed from what my horses think is safe? The same goes for what they perceive as dangerous. ~I~ could see it was a fluffy, happy, Golden Retriever (I even have one of those at home who my horse is well acquainted with and not the least bit afraid of.)

To the horses, it looked and smelled like a carnivorous predator running straight at them! Which is true. It was. And they were rightfully scared...being a horse, a prey animal, in a new, already slightly scary setting....

A horse sees a predator, you see a pet.

Bolt is a term used to describe when a horse jumps quickly and then takes off at a gallop. The clash continued as 2 of the 3 people kept walking toward us. The other rider called out to the dog owner to get him on a leash. Thank goodness he responded and the owner was able to leash him quickly. Both of our experienced trail horses had turned and were ready to bolt again. It is a natural defense mechanism of a frightened horse to get away from a perceived threat. A horse's instinct tells them to act first (flight) and ask questions later in times of danger.

Thank goodness, both horses were able to be controlled but it could have very easily gone very wrong for us.

We turned our horses to face the dog and hikers and had the ask them to stop walking toward us. We needed time to settle our horses. Our horses were tense and on high alert. That feels a bit like sitting on a stack of dynamite!

We asked the hikers to allow US to approach them to pass. This makes a huge difference for a scared horse. The people approaching us can look, to a horse, like the threat is continuing. The horses brain, when on high alert, is still posed to take off.

trail riding

Had one horse bolted, I am positive they both would. Even well trained, experienced trail horses get scared. Had I been riding with someone on a less experienced horse or a less experienced rider, whose horse bolted, it would have upped the adrenaline rush on MY horse and I likely would not of been able to stop him immediately. And visa versa for the other rider. If I wasn't able to stop MY horse, SHE would of been in danger too. Had OUR horses ran off, we would of put OTHER hikers in DANGER!

TWH profile

My TWH gelding Cimarron

The terrain is hilly with steep drop-offs from the trail. It could get ugly very quickly if a horse, in a panicked state, stumbled off the trail down a steep incline. Frankly, lots of things could happen.... our run away, frightened horses could come upon an unsuspecting hiker or rider just behind us and spook, trample or kick them. I don't like to go into the 'could haves' in this scenario because if I did, quite frankly, I would stop riding. I train my horse regularly for good behavior on the trail, but at some point, their natural instincts can be triggered. The scenario described above, in a horse's view, was pretty bad.

I am just thankful no one got hurt. I am sure the hikers had no idea they could cause that kind of havoc, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, taking a walk in the woods with their dog.

Please, please keep your dog on a leash- especially when sharing a trail with horses.

She means no harm.... unless you are a chew toy.

I am sharing some trail etiquette links below.

I know my part in this equation, to be a safe trail rider, is to continue to work with my horse and not to be careless or reckless out on the trail. Here are some links for trail riders:

Golden Retriever playing

Happy Trails!

animal artist

See my pet portraits and horse paintings here:

horse head photo by Sue Steiner

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