By Pat Barriage

Etiquette and safety are closely related, in many cases, a lack of one creates a breach of the other.  Poor etiquette typically leads40 great habits for trail riders 1 to unsafe situations, while good etiquette paves the trail for a safe riding experience.  It is every trail users responsibility and right to ensure their own safety and expect safe practices from other trail users.  Exercise caution at all times, follow guidelines and rules of the trails.  Always practice the 3 C’s of Trail Etiquette and contribute to a safe outdoor experience for all trail users: Courtesy, Communication and Common Sense.


1.      Trail etiquette rules indicate cyclists must yield to hikers and horses, and hikers must yield to horses.  Though most hikers and bikers will yield the right of way to horses, remember that many folks do not have experience with horses and may not know what to do. These situations present opportunities for you to inform and educate other users, in a friendly manner.

2.      As a rider, you have the responsibility to manage your animals on the trail.  It is not recommended to bring “green” horses to multi-use trails.

3.      Remember to always be vigilant for other users in front of you, behind you, and meeting you at trail intersections.  With a friendly greeting, do your utmost to let your fellow trail users know you’re coming. Strive to make each pass a safe and courteous one.



4.      Be friendly toward other trail users.  Stop, speak, answer questions, whatever it takes to present a good image of equestrian trail users.  You are representing all equestrians while in public.

5.      Make sure the trail matches your horse’s current fitness level.  Horses need to build their strength and endurance gradually, just like humans.

6.      Respect private property.  Permission to access farmland should be obtained prior to ride.  Carefully ride single file around the edge of any crops or stay on path.  Leave gates as you find them, open or closed.

7.      Drinking alcohol and riding do not mix.  Confine your alcohol to your camp area.

8.      Never go trail riding alone. Always let someone know where you plan to ride and approximately when to expect your safe return.

9.      Protect your head - wear a helmet. There are ample studies proving the benefits of approved headgear in almost all equestrian and non-equestrian recreational activities.

10.    Carry a cell phone, trail map and compass on your body, not on your horse.

11.    Attach an ID tag somewhere on your horse’s gear.

12.    Tie a red ribbon on your horse’s tail if there is a known risk of kicking.
Red ribbon tail13.    Pack a first aid kit for human & horse.

14.    Know how to monitor your horse’s vital signs.

15.    Balance your saddle bags to within a few ounces.

16.    Use insect repellent for both you and your horse.

17.    Do not bring an off leash dog on the trail.

18.    Ride at the level and speed of the least experienced rider.

19.    Before increasing speed get consent from the group.

20.    Check your tack regularly for proper fit.

21.    Make sure to rest and walk after periods of trotting.

22.    Leave one to two horse lengths between horses.  Make sure you can always see the heels of the horse in front of you from between your horse’s ears.

23.    Road riding can be dangerous. Ride on the right hand side in single file as far off the road as you safely can.  When crossing, do so only when the way is clear for all horses in your group to cross at the same time.

24.    Allow your horse the opportunity to drink at water crossings.  Wait for others in your group to drink before leaving the watering area.  Move downstream to allow ample room.40 great habits for trail riders 2

25.    Wait for riders who might be having difficulty crossing water or bridges.

26.    Always remove a tie-down or martingale before crossing water in case you encounter a deep spot.  These devices restrict your horse’s ability to swim.

27.    Wait for gate openers/closers.  

28.    Do not disturb wildlife or stock at large.  

29.    Pass on the left.  Pass oncoming riders, left shoulder to left shoulder.

30.    If your horse gets too close to a tree or obstacle and it looks like he might hit it, slightly turn his head toward it and use your inside leg (leg closest to the obstacle) to yield him away from the obstacle.  

31.    Lift low hanging branches up over your head, rather than pushing them forward, to ensure they don’t snap back at the horse behind you.

32.    Use your body position to help maintain your horse’s balance while traveling  uphill (tilt your body slightly forward and extend your arms up the horse’s neck  to give him his head) and downhill (lean upper body back, push feet forward in  your stirrups so legs are in front of the cinch/girth, and hold reins slightly higher than usual).

33.    If you must turn around on a hillside trail, always turn to the downhill side. Your horse can see his front feet better than his hind and he wants to keep his feet on the trail as much as you do.

34.    Socializing on the trail adds to the experience, but remember to always pay more attention to your horse and his body language than to a conversation.

35.    If you stop for a lunch break along the trail, remove your horse’s bridle and loosen the cinch/girth.  Better yet, remove the saddle completely.  Tie your horse to a solid object at wither height.  It is recommended that any tree you want to tie to be at least 8 inches (or 20 cm) in diameter to be substantial enough to hold a horse should something spook them. Bring a snack of carrots or crunchies for him.

36.    Follow the Leave No Trace ethics by collecting manure and scattered hay from your tie site and dispose of it at home or in a designated area.  Do not litter on the trail – if you packed it in, pack it out.  If you have room, pick up what others have carelessly left behind. “Take only memories – leave only footprints”

37.    Dismount to smoke.  Ensure butt is completely out and pack it out.

38.    Always return to the trailhead at a walk.

39.    Make sure to cool your horse down properly to relieve and prevent lactic acid buildup in the muscles.

40.    Re-evaluate your horse’s saddle fit after your ride.  Check to see if your horse sweated evenly under the saddle pad to make sure your saddle doesn’t have any pressure points (dry spots) that would indicate an ill fitting saddle.

While there are few “official” rules for trail riding there are some commonly accepted practices that are good to remind ourselves of every once in awhile.  And while the word etiquette implies good manners, the result is a safer experience for you and your horse.

Pat Barriage is a horse industry technical writer and a published author.

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