Common Sense on the Trail

by Rhett Russell


It's a tremendous responsibility being a horse owner. Like most of you, I got a horse to have fun. The relationship and trust that we have built up over the years have made trail riding even more enjoyable. I bought my first horse with the romantic idea of going fishing in the mountains - just me and my horse. I trail ride with all kinds of people who have different skills and abilities. We all share the love of horsemanship and the outdoors. However, we don't all share the same concepts about appropriate "manners" on the trail. This is not intended to be a "don't do this, don't do that" essay. We want to help make trail riding safe and enjoyable for all of us.

Trail etiquette is one of those things that's like a "lost art", common sense stuff that a lot of people haven't been exposed to. When riding on trails in the National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or other wilderness areas it's important to consider your impact on the people you are riding with, the horses, others you may come in contact with, and the land itself.

It depends on where you are riding as to whom or what you'll encounter. In wilderness areas, you'll probably come across hikers, horses, llamas, mules and other pack stock. In many other areas you'll also encounter bicycles and motorcycles. There are some simple "rules of the road" that apply to trail use and right of way. As a general rule, horses have the right of way over other trail users. As horse owners, it's our responsibility to use this principle wisely and to our advantage. You should be considerate of children on horseback too. Kids may not have the skills to maneuver their horses out of the way like we "experienced" adults do.

Rules of the Trail


When meeting or passing other horses, hikers, bicycles, or motorcycles on the trail, know who has the right of way. Hikers have the right of way over everything except horses. All trail users are supposed to yield to the horse. Ask the other trail users to make their presence known to the horse by talking to let the horse know that they are "humans" as opposed to "trail goblins". In some instances, even though you have the right of way you may be better positioned to yield to another trail user - be considerate. Basically, whoever can get off the trail easiest should do so. Common sense and courtesy are much more important than who has the right of way.

When you meet a hiker or bicyclist, let him know that he should go off the trail on the downhill side. Let them know that horses are creatures of flight and are likely to move away from pressure or something that "spooked" them. Then, if the horse gets "spooked" it will go uphill instead of downhill - this is VERY important. You can usually hear or see a motorcycle coming before it gets to you, so it might be easier for you to move off the trail if it's more convenient. It's OK to ask a motorcycle rider to shut down his engine. Most of them will comply if you ask nicely.

You may run into difficulty when negotiating the trail with another group of horses. As a rule, you should use the right hand trail in a divided trail system. And, the loaded pack string always has the right of way. Horses going downhill should yield to horses going uphill if possible; this is especially important if you meet a loaded pack string. If you meet a hiker, other horses, or a pack string in an area that has no way to turn around, you may have to do some negotiating. We have had to back up our horses hundreds of feet in order to let a pack string go by. You sure better have this skill if you're headed up into the high country or you may not come back with a horse. In some cases, you may actually have to get off your horse.

Be sure to let the others that you are riding with know what you are doing. If you are in the lead, it's your responsibility to tell the others when you're stopping, when there's a hiker, a mountain bike, etc. Develop a system, even something as simple as yelling "HIKER" or "BIKE", to let the others know what's coming up.

And remember, not everyone likes horses. Some hikers will not yield the right of way to a horse, even though this is one of the "rules of the trail". Don't make a court case out of it. If you have room to move and it's safe, do it - use common sense, not your testosterone. Don't preach the rules of the trail to other trail users. Ask nicely and you'll probably get cooperation.

Prepare your horse for the trail at home

Too many people are riding horses that aren't ready to be on the trail (this goes for both the people and horses). Unless your horse has the proper foundation, you're asking for trouble if you take him into an environment that is not very forgiving. This isn't fair to the horse or the people you ride with. The trails we ride on in the Pacific Northwest can be steep and mountainous. Some trails have vertical drops of 300-500 feet off the side. We trust our horses with our lives on these trails.

Don't bring your horse on a trail ride unless it is physically fit, calm, and experienced for the situation you are heading into. If your friends are going for a 25-mile ride and your horse has been in a stall for 3 months, don't go. If you are working through some issues with your horse regarding its attitude and you can't trust him, don't go. And if you've never been up in the high country with your horse leading a pack string, don't learn how to do it on the way up.

You should be saddled and ready to ride at your appointed ride time. Be considerate; don't make others wait on you. Habitually late people tend to take shortcuts to compensate for their lack of time management. One thing that we see a lot in our area is people who tack up at home and then trailer their horses with everything on and ready to go. Don't tie your horse in the trailer with the saddle on. Why? It takes just as much time to do at home as it does at the trail head and it's much safer for the horse to travel without the saddle on in the trailer.

Your horse should be able to stand quietly on its own. Many people overlook this important component of the training foundation. Horses that only stand in the crossties to be groomed or saddled never learn the patience involved in becoming a good trail horse. Fortunately, this is easy to teach. Your horse needs to be able to stand quietly a number of ways; tied to a hitching post, tied from above, tied to a tree, etc. If you are going overnight, then you need to train your horse to stand quietly for 8-10 hours. Ideally, your horse should be trained to hobbles too.

Practice mounting your horse from both sides. It's almost impossible to mount from the downhill side on a hillside trail. If you can't turn your horse around, you'll have problems if you can't mount from both sides of the horse. The place to learn this is at home.

The place to try out your new gear is at home in a controlled environment. Try out your new breast collar or rear cinch before you get to the trail. Don't practice or experiment with new things on the trail. Although we do enjoy watching a horse buck off a rider that does this to him. Don't be cheap entertainment for the rest of us; work this out ahead of time.

Make sure the brakes work on your horse. You probably would never consider getting into a car that had no brakes, but some people will get on a horse that they can't control. This is just plain stupid! Know how to stop your horse in an emergency situation. Preferably with a single rein stop.

Don't bring a mare in heat, a stallion, or an unbroken colt on a trail ride with others. If you choose to have the stallion, don't endanger the rest of us by bringing him along. If your mare is in heat, then keep her at home away from the rest of us, even if she is your ONLY horse. You need to be considerate of others. Just because you can control your stallion or mare doesn't mean that others around you have control of their horses.


Get your horse used to things you may encounter on the trail or wilderness area before you get there. Expose your horse to backpackers, llamas, mountain bikes, pack goats, unfolding maps, etc. This may save a "horse wreck" and the impact it can cause. If you live in a rainy area like we do, get your horse used to rain jackets, ponchos, and plastic tarps. Just because you don't use one of these doesn't mean that your riding partner won't pull one out and use it.

Check out the area your going to ride in before you go. Actually look at the map before you get there. Some of the trails in our area are closed to stock use in the winter. Horses can do a lot of damage to a trail during the wet winter months in Washington. If it's closed, don't ride there. In addition, it's always best to carry a compass and a map of the area.

Be prepared for an emergency. We have our saddlebags filled with a first aid kit (for horse and rider), emergency food and water, rain gear, compass, maps, hoof pick, duct tape, flashlight, knife, and cell phone. We have used every one of these things at some time.

Trail Etiquette and Common Sense on the Trail


Wear a helmet when trail riding. This is especially important for children. It's important for children to see their role models wearing helmets; this reinforces the belief that helmets are OK. Helmets should meet all ASTM and SEI safety standards. Bicycle and motorcycle helmets are not appropriate for horseback riding. Think about wearing a helmet the same way you think about using seat belts in your car. You don't anticipate a crash but when you really need the protection that it offers - if you aren't wearing one, you can't "magically" put it on. Having seen traumatic head injuries with bicycle riders, I tend to think of helmets as an absolute necessity on a trail ride. Like insurance, it's a personal choice - protect what you think is valuable enough to safeguard.


If you have a "green broke" horse or your horse has a history of kicking at other horses, put a ribbon in his tail. A red ribbon in your horse's tail signifies that he may kick. Tie a green ribbon in your horse's tail if he's green broke. And tie a yellow ribbon in the tail if he is a stallion. Let others know why the ribbon is in his tail. When riding a young horse, we almost always put a ribbon in his tail. We don't know what he's going to do, so we're not going to give him the benefit of the doubt. We use survey tape; it's cheap and easy to tie. If you do have a horse that you know does kick, it's your responsibility to know how to take away the hindquarters to avoid a kicking situation. If you can anticipate the kick and get the horses to disengage and step under himself in the rear, you can keep out of trouble. This is easy to do; you just need to be able to recognize the warning signs with your horse.

When moving down the trail, try to keep 1-2 horse lengths between you and the horse in front of you. A good rule for judging minimum distance is to be able to see the hind hooves of the horse in front of you; if you can't, you're too close. It is your responsibility as the rider to be the leader. When your horse is going nose to tail with the horse in front of you, he is following a different leader - the horse in front of him. It's hard for the horse to stay back; he naturally wants to closely follow the horse in front. Remember, don't be a passenger - be in control. If the horse in front is a kicker this can be a problem. If the rider in front stops quickly or needs to maneuver on the trail, it won't be possible with you right on his rear. This is the most considerate thing that you can do for your horse and the rider in front of you.

In some wilderness areas there are rules about the number of animals/riders that can be in an area at any given time. There is the" heartbeat rule" - count up the number of living animals (things with a heartbeat) and that total number can't exceed the number of heartbeats designated for the maximum in a group for the area. 12 heartbeats are a common maximum amount. This could be 6 riders and 6 horses, 1 rider and 11 horses, or 2 riders, 2 llamas and 8 horses - you get the idea. Check this out for the area you are going to before you get there. In addition, take only the minimum number of animals necessary.

Don't pony horses when you're with a group unless you are packing. The extra excitement may be more than the group can handle. Unless you are a very experienced horseman, you're probably heading towards a "horse wreck".

Be considerate of the horse. It's physically harder on the horse to go downhill than it is for him to go uphill. Don't trot or canter your horse down hills unless absolutely necessary. You can keep the weight off the forehand of the horse. This reduces the chance for injury or stress (impact) related problems. Do this in consideration of the horse. We want our horses to last a long time; we have spent hundreds of hours with them. We see this as an investment in a long-term relationship. When trotting on the trail, post or rise with the trot. Whether you are riding in an English or western saddle you can and should post. Posting is not just something that you do in an arena. Although you probably aren't riding in circles, you need to ease the impact on the horse's back. Every so often you should switch diagonals to give the horse a rest.

When crossing logs, deep mud, or any difficult, rough terrain, give the horse a loose rein. Make sure that the horse has full use of his head. Horses need to use their heads to balance themselves. If you are holding onto the reins with a "death grip" your horse may not have the ability to recover from a stumble or fall and this may make a bad situation even worse.

When you stop for a break on the trail, loosen the girth a hole or two to give the horse a break too. They worked hard and deserve the consideration. And don't tie your horse with the reins if there is a bit in the horse's mouth. The only time that you can tie a horse with a bit in his mouth is if you are using mecate reins. Be sure to tie your horse well off the trail so that others can get around you.

Wait for others before proceeding too far. If you stop to water your horses, wait until all of the horses have a drink before taking off. The same thing goes when crossing bridges and other difficult obstacles. If someone has trouble with his horse, wait for him. Call ahead for others to wait. Trail riding is not a race. Be considerate of others in your group; they may need your help. Some impatient (poorly trained) horses are dangerous when left behind.

Stay with the group you are riding with. If you plan on leaving the group, let someone know. There's nothing more frustrating than back tracking and searching for someone who didn't have the courtesy to let you know that they were going to stop or take a different trail.

Ask permission to ride across private property. If there's a "no trespassing" sign or a fence, there's probably a good reason. Most ranchers are pretty good about allowing horsemen to ride across their property. The time to find out if it's OK to ride on others' property is before you meet them when they're angry. If you come across a gate and you open it, you darned well better close it. This is the fastest way I know of to anger a farmer or rancher. Private property owners can be our best friends if we treat their property with respect. Don't ruin it for the rest of us.

When going out on a trail that is unfamiliar, we mark the trail with ribbon or survey flagging so that we can find our way back out if necessary. On the way back, we pick up the ribbon and pack it out. Having been lost in the backcountry before, I can't tell you how many times this has saved me from an emergency call on the cell phone. I have a few goals in my life; one of them is that I don't want to read my name in the local newspaper as having been "found" by the search and rescue team!

If you ride during hunting season be sure to wear bright colors. Don't be a target! Believe it or not, horses really do look like elk or deer to some of these hunters from the city. Acclimate your horse to the sound of gunfire. We use fireworks in the controlled environment of our arena to work this out with the horse.

Don't let your horse run uphill or downhill unless you ask him to. Remember that you're the leader. Horses naturally tend to run up hill because it's easier. When going downhill, their momentum can get them "heavy" on their forehand and they'll tend to trot or canter to catch up to the rest of themselves. Teach the horse to walk up and down hills. This is very important.

Maintain control of your horse. Don't let him go "visit" other horses on his own. He has a job to do, and it's to safely get you to your destination. Keep the horse focused on this job. We are very strict about the behavior that we will tolerate while trail riding. We won't let our horses visit other horses, they can't eat unless we release them, and we ask them to walk down the trail at the speed we dictate.

Don't trot or canter off without telling people that are with you what you plan on doing. You don't know if everyone is ready to go. Some may be off their horses, eating lunch on the trail, etc. It's common courtesy when riding with a group to keep the others apprised of your intentions - especially if you are in the lead. If you are passing another rider, tell the person where you are and which side you will be passing on.

LEAVE YOUR DOG AT HOME! You don't know how the other horses will react. We were out riding at night with a group of about 20 people and a dog got under one of the horses. That horse started to buck and the rider got hit in the stomach with the saddle horn. The rider had to get off; she was hurt and was shaken up so much that she couldn't get back on. If you do have to bring your dog along, make sure that you have it on a leash.

When crossing deep water, watch your horse to make sure that he doesn't try to lie down with you in the saddle. If your horse starts pawing at the water, there's a good chance that he's thinking about lying down. Many horses like to lie down in water after a hot day of trail riding - it's refreshing! I don't blame them. Be aware and don't let this happen. If you are using a "tie down" or standing martingale and your horse slips and falls in the water, he may drown because his head is restricted. We don't ever recommend using tie downs and this is just another reason to add to the long list of why you shouldn't...

If nature calls and your horse has to pass some manure, make the horse walk while he's doing so. Believe it or not, this is actually a bad habit that can get you into trouble. You don't want your horse to get into the habit of stopping when he has a job to do. On the contrary, if your horse has to urinate while you are in the saddle, let him stop and sit up off his back so that it's more comfortable for him. Urinating under saddle can be a difficult thing for some horses to do. Make it easy for them and reward them for doing it. We try to train our horses to urinate on command. Believe it or not it can be done relatively easily. All we do is whistle while the horse is going. After a while the horse associates the whistling with another duty and the rest is history....

When you stop on the trail, turn off your horse. By this we mean get him to lower his head out of the "adrenaline zone". This gets the horse into a feel good zone where he would be naturally when he is grazing or in a submissive posture. This is something that we teach our horses during their early training that pays off big in the "real world". It's great to have a horse that will stand quietly when you ask.

Leave No Trace. You have probably heard this before. The idea is to leave the land in the same condition as you found it. Ideally, you shouldn't be able to tell that you and your horse have been on the trail. The Backcountry Horsemen of California have developed an excellent web site devoted to the Leave No Trace philosophy at:

Stay on the trail - don't cut trails. Horses can do a lot of damage to the land in a short amount of time. If you cut a trail and someone else follows your trail, pretty soon it's not a trail - it's a road. This scars up the land, ruins the trail and gets the land management bureaucrats mad. We as horsemen have to do our part to keep the land in good condition. This includes puddles. If you notice, the area around mud puddles or water crossings always seem to be much bigger than the rest of the trail. That's from people who can't get their horses through the puddle and instead go sideways, around it, and over it. Your horse should walk right through the middle of the puddle if you ask.

If there is a bridge over a stream or river, use it. Don't go through running water unless absolutely necessary. We have salmon and fish spawning in the streams in our area. One horse can decimate a spawning bed by walking through the water.

The US Forest Service has rules about what to do with a horse or pack animal that dies or must be destroyed on the trail. It is the owner's responsibility to remove the carcass. If you thought dealing with your horse's bad habits was difficult, try removing a dead horse 25 miles into a wilderness area. We haven't had to do this with one of our own horses, but we have run across people in the wilderness that have had to destroy an animal and then deal with the body. It's not a pretty sight (the Forest Service actually has a brochure on how to do this). I'm telling you this because we don't want anyone to take a horse into an environment that he isn't able to deal with - it's not fair to the horse. Work out any issues before you get into something that's over your head; the trail is no place to practice.

After the trail ride

When you get to your destination or back to your trailer, take care of your horse first. The horse did most of the work! Make sure you loosen the girth, clean the feet and offer the horse water. Then remove the saddle and brush him out. After you've tended to his needs then you can go get your soda.

Take your manure, garbage, and hay with you. Don't leave this garbage at the trail head; leave the place cleaner than you found it. Volunteer to help with trail cleanup and maintenance. In the Pacific Northwest we have the Back Country Horsemen of Washington. This is a national organization with groups around the country. There is probably a chapter in your area. Their web address is The Back Country Horsemen participate in trail advocacy, maintenance, and working with government entities to keep the trail systems accessible to the horseman.

Report any trail problems to the appropriate authorities. Don't assume that they already know about downed trees, washed out bridges, or any other bad spots that need attention.

Now go have your cold beverage and talk about your adventure with your friends.

For more information:

The Backcountry Horsemen of California

Back Country Horsemen of Washington

About the author:

Rhett Russell is a freelance writer and horse trainer. He and his wife Marilou live near Olympia, Washington beside the Capitol Forest recreation area. They own and operate Cloudburst Farm where they breed, start and train horses for future careers in dressage, eventing, and other disciplines. They believe in developing the horses' abilities with a foundation of good ground manners and versatility. Rhett and Marilou produce all-around horses that are at home on the trail as well as in the arena, and in the process they help people build lasting relationships with their horses.

The Russells also own and operate Natural Horse Supply, an online supply store, and they make many of the high quality products that they offer. Please visit their website at or e-mail