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Horsemanship - Riding On The Road

( Originally Published 1962 )

There are several rules that should be observed when riding on the road, to protect the horse from abuse and to obtain the best results in time and distance. A horseman shows his ability and skill on the road even more than in the jumping arena and on the polo or hunting field. A long ride on a hard road is more a test of horsemanship than of the stamina of the horse. The condition of the horse at the finish will show whether he has been ridden intelligently and with applied technique or whether he has been handicapped by the most awkward of all burdens, a thoughtless passenger. This type of rider is often not content with remaining a passive load but actually spends a good deal of effort on making things as tough as possible for the horse.

Before mounting the rider should carefully inspect saddling and bridling. He should make sure that the saddle is not placed too far back, that the felt or blanket is smooth, that there is no pressure of any kind on the withers, and that the girth is tight enough. The girth should be tightened two or three times between saddling and mounting. Also inspect feet and legs. A loose shoe or a stone wedged in the hoof may cause trouble later. If a tendon or the hoof feels hot to the touch the horse should not go out at all.

The horse should be walked with long reins the first ten minutes of the ride, to limber him up. After this period of relaxed but brisk walk the reins are gathered up and the horse is collected and prepared for the trot.

Always ride with both hands on the reins when on the road or the bridle path. When the horse is given free reins for walking and resting all reins should be taken in the left hand, with the slack ends held firmly in the right hand. In this position the rider is prepared to tighten the reins quickly and without fumbling, if necessary.

The change from walk to trot must be slow and easy, with a gradual increase of speed until the desired tempo is reached. The horse should also be collected and generally prepared before he is allowed to advance into the trot. The horse should never be allowed to start the faster gait with a sudden rush, which is dangerous to the rider and an unnecessary strain on the horse. One should sit the trot during this gradual advance and start posting only when the desired tempo has been reached. The rider must at once ascertain which diagonal he is starting on, in order to be able to alternate each period of trot.

On a fairly level road alternate periods of ten to fifteen minutes of trot, and five minutes of walk are the most advantageous schedule. Trot should be used only on level ground, on slight inclines downhill, and on very slight in-clines uphill—the latter only when the incline is no longer than one hundred yards or so. Steeper inclines, up or down, must always be taken at a walk. Short, steep hills are, however, best negotiated at a fast canter, which the horse will usually select of his own accord.

To the average horse a trot tempo of eight miles an hour is the easiest and at the same time the most productive, because it can be kept up without interruption for thirty minutes or more provided it is steady and regular and that the road is level. This tempo will not abuse the horse's legs, even on hard roads, nor will it accelerate his respiration. In fact, an overheated horse can be cooled off at a trot at this rate of speed. After an hour of it the horse will still be dry and breathing normally. Even a very slight increase of the tempo will change this condition. A fast trot is never used on the road and is a sure sign of poor horsemanship.

An occasional slow canter when the softness and grade of the road permits will help to relax the horse and should be used on long rides, but always sparingly and with care. The horse must not be cantered downhill, even if the incline is very light, or up long, heavy slopes.

If you are obtaining your information about riding from the Wild West movies, where pursued and pursuer seem to be tearing after each other from one end of Arizona to the other at race-track speed, remember that these bursts of frenzied running actually last only as long as the "flash" lasts. It is not the normal gait even for he-men, because of the surprising fact that a horse is not constructed like an automobile. To cover the longest possible distance in the shortest possible time the long, steady eight-miles-an-hour trots alternated with periods of walk is the only way.

A short trip on a pleasant bridle path is, of course, a different proposition. More cantering is then perfectly in order, although it must under no circumstances become the standard gait. Running under any and all circumstances is the gait of the moron.

As already indicated, the steady, machine-like, unchanging tempo is one of the fundamental principles for preserving the horse's strength on a long ride. This refers to the walk, the trot, and the canter. It is much easier for a horse to cover a mile at a fast canter, provided the tempo is even and quiet, than at a mixture of all the gaits, with sudden and frequent changes of speed. A horse can cover two or three miles at the correct tempo of trot without signs of undue exertion, but he may be blowing and sweating after doing half a mile at a jerky, uneven gait.

The rider's feel is his only guide in judging the tempo. There is no convenient speedometer on a horse to tell the unskilled rider whether he is travelling eight miles an hour or eighteen.

To maintain a steady tempo the rider must have completely mastered the art of using his aids correctly. The horse must be trained so that he responds easily to the aids and can be kept well balanced between boots and bit. Maintaining a steady tempo requires constant attention by the rider, coupled with hard work whenever the horse becomes sluggish or tired.

The horse-must be ridden actively every inch of the way for the above reason alone. But there is another important reason that this is necessary. As previously explained, in order to work the most efficiently the horse must be forced to take more of the weight on his hind legs and at the same time use his back muscles more vigorously. Left to himself on the road, the horse will plod along on his forehand, with his neck stretched out and the hind legs used mostly for pushing. The more tired he becomes the more noticeably he will balance himself in this position, his back muscles mean-while growing more slack and inactive.

The inevitable result is two-fold—heated or sore tendons in the weak and overtaxed front legs and reduced endurance and strength resulting from inefficient and uneconomical performance. It follows that it is up to the rider to keep his horse collected during the trot on the road. This requires a continuous application of the boots, adjusted to the sensitiveness of the horse. No horse is so sensitive and spirited that this action of the boots becomes unnecessary. On a very tired horse the spur points may have to be used for his own good, not as punishment. The animation with the boots must be sufficiently effective to make a tight rein possible and make it necessary to hold back the horse, regardless of how tired or lazy he is.

In this way the continuous impulse given the horse for more speed is checked and transformed into an increased forward swing of the hind legs and more pronounced back action. Proper handling of the reins must keep the horse light on the bit, with the neck flexed and the head correctly placed.

When ridden correctly on the road a horse should seem to be fitted with steel springs. Active back muscles give a high, elastic lift to the trot. The properly supporting hind legs result in long, floating, easy strides. On a paved road a correctly ridden horse makes a pleasant sound—light, sharp, leisurely clicks, regular and unhurried. The sloppily ridden horse sounds like a concrete mixer.

Many of the fundamental rules for riding on the road do not by any means demand expert horsemanship. They can and should be observed by any beginner. An indignant citizen stopped a rider in the act of running his horse on a hard, slippery road. The rider's self-righteous defense was that he was no expert he was an amateur and proud of it!

Although the need for certain precautions is obvious, it is consistently disregarded by the hordes of riders swarming over the highways and byways. The need to consider the character of the surface of the road is one example. Incredible as it may seem, it is no rare experience to meet riders thundering along at a wild trot or at a gallop on a paved road. Not even the instinct of self-preservation seems to be working.

The horse's hoof is very delicate, and can stand just so much punishment on hard ground without serious damage. The same applies to joints and tendons, especially those of the front legs. A paved road should never be selected for riding except for short, connecting distances. On the other hand, hard gravel roads can be just as bad, and coarse gravel and loose pebbles will hurt the horse's feet even more than smooth concrete. As a rule, the shoulders of most roads can be used unless they are covered with loose rocks, in which case it is better to ride on the hard but smooth pavement. If the soft part of the road is slippery or covered with soft mud it is better to use the hard surface.

The ideal bridle path is a firm dirt or sand track, free of stones. It is every rider's duty to keep his eyes well ahead and to pick the softest and smoothest ground to ride on. It is also up to the rider to guide his horse around holes, rocks, and anything else that may cause him to stumble or hurt his feet.

Should the horse show signs of lameness, dismount immediately and look for stones wedged between the frog and the shoe. It is advisable always to carry a large nail or similar tool for this purpose. Should a shoe be loose or partly off, it must be torn off entirely. The reason for the lameness may also be overheated tendons. In this case it is well to hunt for a shallow creek or pool and to keep the horse standing in the water for an hour or more. If not too far from home, he should, of course, be walked or led back to the stable at once.

On rides of more than an hour's duration the rider should dismount at least once and inspect saddling and bridling, as well as his horse's legs.

The last ten minutes of a ride should be made at a walk. The horse must always come back to the stable dry and with normal respiration. Should he pull so strongly toward home that it is impossible not to bring him in excited and hot, the rider must dismount and lead him around until he is completely cooled off. A warm horse should never be left to cool while standing still.

We frequently find horses that obstinately resist leaving the stable and are equally hard to hold back when headed home. It is worth remembering that there is only one reason for this—disregard of the elementary rules of horsemanship and lack of common decency, not to mention plain abuse, to the horse on previous rides. The horse is not in any way to blame. He has learned from experience that to be taken away from the stable means a session of torment and punishment. Any horse that has been ridden and treated decently will start on a trip willingly enough and is not so anxious to get back to the stable that he becomes troublesome.

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