Developing and Maintainging a Safe and Sensible Riding Program


By Dick Elder, ACRI, owner/manager, Colorado Trails Ranch

Note: I met Dick in the later 1990’s, when he was teaching an equine law enforcement seminar at Colorado Trails Ranch. Dick is no longer owner of Colorado Trails. He sold the place in 1997, so this article was written before then. He is enjoying retirement in California. We visited Dick a few years later, when our DRA winter convention was held in his neighborhood. When I told him how much of our Sundance Trail Ranch orientation program was built on what I learned from him, he gave me permission to use this article in the orientation. (A case of truthful flattery!)

I will add notes where our practice here at Sundance Trail might be different than what Dick taught here – after all, it has been a number of years…

Thank you, Dick, for all you have done for our little industry, and what you have done for horses. We are all in your debt.

When the question arises regarding the number of horse related lawsuits or claims we have had over our thirty four year history, the answer: NONE is frequently received with disbelief particularly since we run an aggressive riding program with lots of cantering, individual riding and so on.

Which is not to say that we haven’t had our fair share of what we refer to as “unscheduled dismounts” over the years. As with any sport involving some risk, it is true that as the incidence of advancement (call it excitement if you will) increases, so does the chance of injury. Any skier can verify that.

Guests of a dude ranch will rarely be injured on a walk ride. Of course this type of ride isn’t going to be very much fun. In fact, it can become boring after a few rides even for first time riders. A good program will include some cantering for those qualified.

A safe, yet enjoyable riding program should have these four elements:
1. The ride must be safe.
2. The ride must be fun…an enjoyable non-traumatic experience
3. The horses must not suffer any abuse by guests or staff
4. The riders should learn something of value about horses and riding.

How can we provide our guests with safe horses? We train them to do the job we require. This takes time. You start with a horse or mare (mares work just fine) that has a good disposition has not been abused or poorly trained, is sound of limb and reasonably correct in his way of going, who carries his head properly and is able to keep a saddle in place without undue tightening of the cinch. And most especially, one who is on good terms with people and most other horses.

A safe horse is never a star gazer (abuse from heavy hands), is not a kicker or biter, is not easily startled by quick movements or unfamiliar objects, doesn’t buck or pitch. Where can you get that animal ready to handle dudes safely? That is, if you maintain a consistent and well thought out training program from birth.

It might be easier and certainly less expensive to buy a “made” horse, even if you must pay a couple of thousand dollars for it. When you are buying horses, pay attention to how that horse reacts to his handler or rider. Make sure you have the seller groom the horse, clean all four feet, saddle and bridle the horse. Observe how the horse reacts to the human. Is he afraid? Then have the seller, not you, ride the horse. Observe the animal’s way of going and how he is being handled. If you see so much as one thing happen that you don’t like….DON’T BUY THE HORSE! If a horse has developed a vice, you can be pretty sure it was brought on by abuse and you are never, ever going to erase that memory from the horse’s mind. You may mitigate the problem through training and considerate handling, but in a jam, with a green rider on his back, that horse will revert to his life-long associations and could cause an accident. A HORSE NEVER FORGETS….TRY TO REMEMBER THAT!

Regardless of how well trained the horse you have purchased, chances are he hasn’t been trained to do your kind of work and now before any guests ride him, he must be given to someone on your staff capable of training him to work with green riders. He has to obey the commands of his rider, he must be trained to work independently, he must accept many different riders during the course of a summer that means he must never suffer abuse by your guests or your staff. If you let your staff or guests ride abusively or in any way inconsistent with the way you have trained the horse, you will pay a stiff price as that animal will lose some of his training and become defensive when ridden. When these things happen, you also lose what was a safe saddle horse.

You should have a professional riding crew or at least people who act like professionals. You sure don’t want a bunch of teenage hot shots taking out your rides. You must have well-trained, knowledgeable wranglers and riding guides. Putting someone in charge of a ride who looks like a cowboy just won’t work. He or she must be trained to do the job you want done and nothing else. Every person on your riding crew must teach riding and conduct rides the way you want it done, and no other way.

It’s probably best to hire people with a ranch or farm background who grew up around stock and have cared for animals and know how it should be done. City types can do well if they have had some solid training by knowledgeable people. Regardless of where they come from, they should be able to demonstrate not only their equestrian skills but their communication skills as well. There is no point in using a guide who can’t carry on a conversation and help the guests with their riding. Getting good people is not easy! You must establish hiring practices that will allow you to make the right choices.

While the personal interview with a demonstration ride is the best way to go, you can get a pretty good handle on an applicant with a phone call, asking the right questions and requiring him to provide a riding video which follows an outline that you provide.

You want your first time wranglers or guides to be available for training for a minimum of two weeks before your season begins, three or four weeks would be better. You must send these people out with experienced staff (management is best) to show by example how a trail ride is conducted. Throughout the training period and after, you must stress the importance of never allowing anyone to do anything that is not safe. This means that you will not tolerate any of your staff showing off, being Mr. Macho Cowboy, or other behavior that could cause an accident or is inconsistent with their training and your policies. One trick some wranglers use to impress the guests is to keep poking the horse with spurs just enough to make the horse jump or act like he’s hard to ride. This will ruin a good horse in a short time. Therefore, don’t let your guides wear spurs. If the guide needs spurs to ride the horse, how are green riders going to get that horse to move with just a pair of sport shoes? Think about it. That is the reason why you want to train your horses to work without spurs. Spurs are only for very competent riders and should be used only as a training aid. Spurs look “western” as hell, but is that look worth screwing up an animal for which you paid a lot of money? And what about the considerable time spent and expense to train him that will be wasted?

Point of clarification: We do not wear spurs here at STR unless we have a specific reason, discussed with the barn boss. Guests NEVER wear spurs. Period.

I know that it may sound silly, but I’ll say it anyway….that it is essential that you use the right tack and that it is in good condition all of the time and not just at the beginning of the season. In Colorado we are protected to some extent by laws and statutes regarding horse liability. Nonetheless, you can never be protected against neglect. Sorry, if you, and I’m talking about your employees as well, are careless, they will nail you.

So you need to pay particular attention to tack to make sure that the saddle fits the horse, that the cinch, billets and straps, stirrup leathers, etc. are all in good shape and are inspected daily. Pay attention to reins, curbs and headstalls. If you have any kind of a tack failure and an accident results, you’re a dead man, make no mistake about it.

Point of clarification: An injury that results from tack failure is considered negligence, and the wrangler will be held liable – there is no protection for this under the law. The process of brushing and picking is ACTUALLY a process of inspection and physical examination – when you are brushing, you should be pressing on withers and back looking for sore spots; when you are picking feet you should be looking for hot spots and “ouchies.”

When you are throwing the saddle, you should be looking for any damage to latigos, cinches etc.. When you are bridling, you should be looking for rein attachment – horses drinking water with bridles on will soak rein ends, and these will need repair or replacement.

One more thing regarding tack: Saddles do slip from time to time. However, you can protect yourself from a claim of negligence if you MAKE SURE YOUR GUIDES CHECK THE POSITION OF THE SADDLE AND CHECK CINCHAS FOR PROPER ADJUSTMENT SEVERAL TIMES ON EVERY RIDE, and especially after a steep climb or decent. In case of an accident, the time of the last saddle check prior to the incident should always be listed on the accident report, which must be written at once. That accident report should be written in such a way that you won’t mind having it read in court.

Point of clarification: Over-tightening cinches is not the solution to this problem! Frequent cinch checks is the solution to this problem.

Keep your riding lessons simple and easy to understand. Teach just one way to do each thing. Explain why you do what you do and how it relates to the horses’ training. Make sure that every guest understands that a HORSE KNOWS WHAT HE KNOWS and nothing more! The secret of all good riding is no secret at all. You give the horse only those commands with which he is familiar. When this is done, there is no trauma for the horse, no surprises. Explain this concept to your staff and guests.

Example: If you speak to a person in a language he does not understand, he will not be able to do what you ask of him. You can beat him, whip him, kick him, whatever, he still won’t know what you are talking about. Chances are he will get made and start defending himself the best way he can. And horses react the same way. You talk to them with your voice, your hands, your legs and your seat in a manner with which they are familiar through their training, and you will get the response you ask for without argument. You have your horses obeying the commands of their riders and therefore you are increasing the chances of a safe ride. People say that if horses could talk, riders would have a better understanding of what to do and when to do it. The truth is, that horses do talk to their riders constantly in a hundred ways. The problem is we don’t listen!

Give all of your guests a lesson, even if they insist that they know how to ride. If they hassle you about taking a lesson, tells them that your insurance company requires it otherwise you won’t be covered. That usually takes care of the moaners.

In that first lesson (better still, in a talk about your riding program before your guests even get on a horse) you must explain in clear, concise language how you have trained the horses and how they must be ridden. Then when the guests are mounted, explain, then demonstrate, then let them practice until they get it right before they go out on the first trail ride.

Here is a ten step example of a first lesson: Explain the theory of reward and punish.
1. Safe mount and dismount. (Make certain that your wranglers to it the same way.)
2. How to sit in a saddle (as opposed to sitting in a chair).
3. How the upper body is positioned.
How the feet are positioned in the stirrups (proper stirrup length is essential).
4. The proper position of the legs in relation to riders’ shoulder and hip.
5. How the legs are used to move the horse forward, backward and sideways.
6. How to hold the reins. (Explain bits and how the mouth is damaged by bad hands.)
7. How to use legs to move the horse forward. (Avoid kicking if possible.
8. How to “fix” the hand to stop the horse (rather than pulling on the reins).
9. How to ask for a turn using body, reins and legs.

Point of clarification: Wranglers, at orientation, you will be given a little laminated card to keep in your shirt pocket that will list… guess what? These skills for your Monday morning demonstrations!

Next, allow the riders to practice on your command. Keep control of the lesson. Give the order to walk, stop, turn left or right, stop, walk, etc. Have staff on the ground helping the class accomplish the maneuvers you are asking for. Your staff should be assisting the riders, readjusting stirrups, etc.

Remember: The key to all instruction is keep it simple! No double talk or mystery words or phrases that no one understands, including, more often than not, the teacher. Don’t spend more than fifteen minutes or so with your explanation and demonstration. Your students will get lost if your explanations become too technical, you begin to ramble or you spend too much time. Get on with it. Then go to the practice riding session for maybe thirty minutes. Then go out on a ride and have the guides help the people do the things they have just learned. Don’t make that first ride too long. An hour to no more than two hours with several dismounts for rest, is plenty on this first ride. I like to send out rides with no more than six guests, and the guides on that first ride need to be well versed in what they are going to do to reinforce the information that was learned in the class. This is why you need guides who are good communicators and know the subject.

Later on you will do the same thing teaching the jog and later, when and if they are ready, the canter. Don’t let your horses extend the trot. A slow easy-to-sit jog is easier on the horse and much easier for the green rider to maintain control with far less risk of horse abuse. If you have done a good job with your horse training and riding lessons, this can be done and you can’t help but have a safer more enjoyable riding program and your horses will keep the training you have given them.

Here are some safety tips for trail rides: The guide is in charge. S/He must determine what will happen. S/He must set a pace that is comfortable for the least experienced rider on his ride. No passing, no holding back and then cantering up, no jerking the horses around and other foolish behavior. Make sure the horses walk that last ten minutes of a ride and always walk to the corral. Make frequent cincha checks and adjust stirrups if the rider is uncomfortable. Let the riders get off and walk after an hour of riding to restore circulation and to get the kinks out. And never, never allow guests to ride without supervision especially in areas where horses are tied or where you are mounting riders. That is an accident waiting to happen and a jury will hang you for sure. Finally, make sure the riders ride your horses the way you have taught them to ride and no other way.

And here’s the big payoff for you if you can do the things I’ve just talked about:
1. Your guests are going to enjoy an improved riding experience.
2. Your guests will have a better appreciation for horses and hopefully you will have dispelled some of the myths associated with horses.
3. Your horses will no suffer abuse or lose the training you have given them.
4. Your riding staff will do a better job because there will be a consistency in the way they teach riding and conduct rides. Your guests won’t hear a different story or theory about how to ride every time they go out with another guide.
5. You won’t have lawsuits, have your insurance canceled, or pay higher premiums.
6. Your guests will probably want to return because of the great riding program you offer.
7. You will show higher profits allowing you to take more extravagant winter vacations.
8. You’ll rest easy knowing that someone isn’t going to get killed while on a ride.

Don’t say you can’t do it. It’s being done! It may take several years to finally get the string of horses and the riding program you know you need, but that’s okay. Just keep pecking away at it. There will be naysayers on your on your staff giving you a hundred reasons why you won’t be able to do the things I’ve been talking about. The good news is that you’re the boss and you can prevail if you have the will to do so.

If you make up your mind that you are going to try to achieve a better riding program, if you make up your mind that you will devote the needed resources both in time and money, if you make up your mind that you, the owner, are going to become more involved and more knowledgeable on this subject, then it will happen. But if an owner maintains the attitude that horses are a necessary evil instead of understanding that in dude ranching, horses are not just one of the things we do, but THE THING, that distinguishes us from all other vacation destinations.

If you don’t comprehend that the horse is the heart of the dude ranch experience and operate your outfit accordingly, then you are simply running a resort with horseback riding available. You really can’t be considered a dude ranch, that unique, totally Western American experience that other types of operations try to emulate but can never duplicate. If you cannot give your guests the advantage of a good riding program, then you are doing a disservice not only to them but to every other member of this association who depend on you to carry forward the good name and integrity of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association.

Before you get back to your ranch, will you resolve to learn more about caring for your horses…those animals who work so hard to make you a living? Will you? You know, the public is much more aware of animal abuse and their tolerance for it has dimished considerably in recent years. If your horses suffer abuse from riding, training or care, you not only lose the respect of your guests who certainly will pick up on it, but you degrade the image of every rancher in this association.

And will you work at making your riding program the very best you can? Will you?

If you will do these things, you will certainly get the gratitude, appreciation and respect of your peers and the public. But more than that, you will gain the ultimate reward…that inner satisfaction that comes with the knowledge that you have created and achieved something very worthwhile. And in the end, my friends, that is what dude ranching is all about.

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