You’re enjoying a beautiful sunny day on the trail with your horse. The trail is designated multiuse, so as you ride you’re likely to meet hikers, mountain bikers, and maybe even motorcycle or ATV users. Your enjoyment and safety depend on how well everyone shares the trail.
You can’t control the actions of other trail users, of course. But your actions and demeanor can make the difference between a safe, friendly interaction and a nasty confrontation. And it’s easy to remember how to safely share the trail: Just stop, speak, and smile.
Stopping is Job No. 1, for sure. If everyone stops when they meet another trail user, it takes the momentum out of the encounter. Your horse has a chance to settle and process the presence of the other trail users, and it gives you a chance to briefly chat with the other trail user about how to best pass each other.
So, what do you do if the other person doesn’t look like he plans to stop? Call out a friendly, “Hi, there! Would you mind stopping?” Hold your hand up, palm out, in the universal “halt” signal. And if he keeps coming anyway, safely step out of his way, let him go by, and live to have a friendlier encounter another day.
Your welcoming tone of voice sends a potent message to both the oncoming trail user (I’m friendly, and I’d appreciate your help) and to your horse (my rider isn’t worried, so I don’t need to be).
And of course, when you say something friendly to those hikers with the big backpacks or cyclists crouched on their mountain bikes, they’ll likely say something friendly back to you. Your horse will realize they’re humans and not a threat, so he can relax.
(Editor’s note: Are you looking for ways to desensitize your horse to mountain bikes? Ready behaviorist Dr. Robin Foster’s article, “Mountain Bikes on the Trail? No Problem if You’re Prepared.”)
Having a welcoming smile on your face works miracles in trail encounters. Your smile shows in your voice, which not only sends a friendly message to the oncoming trail user, it reassures your horse as well.
The Best Way to Pass
Often the best technique when meeting oncoming trail users is to ask everyone to step off the trail on the same side (usually the downhill side) so you can ride by. But sometimes the terrain or the vegetation make it safer for them to step off to the uphill side. Sometimes it’s best for you to step off the trail and let them go by, or for you to ride out around them while they remain on the trail. And sometimes you might need to ask them to backtrack to a place where it’s safer to pass. You know your horse, and you’re in the best position to make the call.
But what about when a cyclist overtakes you from behind? He needs to go past you, so it makes little sense to ask him to step off the trail. Instead, turn your horse to face the cyclist. Ask the cyclist to stop, and talk with him about the best way to pass. If you’re in a place where you can do it safely, step off the trail and allow him to walk or slowly ride his bike past you. Then you can turn back around and follow the bike down the trail.
If you’re not in a safe place to pass, look around for a safe place and ask the cyclist to wait where he or she is until you can get off the trail safely. Then he can pass you slowly.
The Bottom Line
When you meet people on the trail, remain calm and treat them like you’d treat a friend. They’re out there to have fun, just like you. You can make their day (and yours) with a smile and a cheerful hello. Remember to “stop, speak, and smile,” and you can defuse trail confrontations before they happen.