Stay on the trail. Don't go blazing new trails, especially on switchbacks. It breaks down the foundations.--->
I wear a helmet when I ride and people assume it is because I ride a mule. They are totally surprised when I inform them I wear one because I don’t always trust the judgment of other riders, especially on the trail. In the past I’ve been attacked by a stallion, had a stranger’s foal rear up onto my mule’s rump, was almost run off a cliff by an inexperienced rider, and spent one group trail ride with some woman running her horse into my mule’s rump because “it was the only way she could stop her horse and my mule was so nice and didn’t kick at her.” So yes, I have become a very cautious trail rider.
In all of these situations I was fortunate to be riding an extremely sensible mule that took the situation in stride. But all of these incidents could have been avoided if only the riders had shown some common sense and followed good trail etiquette. Trail riding is much like driving a car. If you don’t follow the rules, sooner or later someone or some equine is going to get hurt. And, like with reckless drivers, the victims of a reckless rider are either their equine or another rider.
So what is good trail etiquette? Basically it’s common sense and respecting others. For instance, if you’re riding in a group, only ride as fast as the least experienced rider. Don’t leave another rider alone so you can trot or gallop ahead. His equine might get upset and race after you. If someone dismounts, stand still until he is back in the saddle. This also applies if someone drops a rein or has to stop for any reason. Stay with him. Don’t ride away unless the rider tells you to go on.
Never trot or canter up behind other riders. Slow to a walk and ask to pass. Wait until they acknowledge you, then give them plenty of room since you don’t know if their equine will kick or get upset. Some riders like to turn their mounts to face other equines, hikers or cyclists coming from behind. If your mule kicks, tie a red ribbon in his tail as a warning. Don’t be a trail hog. If you’re riding next to a friend, drop back to single file and let others pass. Don’t force them off the trail. When riding on narrow winding trails, listen for approaching riders and call to them, then look for a wider place to pass so you don’t have to back-up to a wider area.
If you lead a second equine, keep him on a short lead, especially when other trail users pass. Don’t let him swing his rump around or block the trail. When exercising a youngster, don’t let it run loose. Just because your mule doesn’t mind a cute youngster running around kicking at him, it doesn’t mean other equines, especially mollys and mares, will like it. Keep youngsters on a lead and under control. This applies to dogs also, as not all equines like dogs.
When maneuvering an obstacle give the rider ahead of you plenty of time to get through it. Don’t run up on his rump. If you’re crossing water or a bridge, depending on the width of the crossing, wait until the mule ahead of you is at least halfway through before starting across. The same with going up or downhill, give other riders time to get clear. If the equine ahead of you is leery of crossing, ask the rider first if he wants your help. Don’t just charge in. It often helps when traveling with a youngster or spookier equine, to keep it next to, or just behind, a more seasoned one. This applies to novice riders also. After crossing a tight or uneven spot on the trail, keep going. Don’t stop. Just because you’re clear doesn’t mean those behind you are. Make sure everyone’s on safe ground before stopping.
Whether in the arena or on the trail, keep some distance between your mule and other equines, even if they are stablemates. Don’t let your mule sniff at or rub his head on other equines or riders. While this looks cute, riders can be knocked from the saddle or the mule can get caught on the reins or other tack.
While practicing good etiquette is essential for safe trail riding, there are a few other things you can do to ensure a safe ride. First, always tell someone where you are going and how long you expect to be gone. Don’t ask your mule to do something he’s not capable of, like climbing up or down an extremely steep hill. If the terrain becomes too rough, turn back or get off and lead your mule. Stay on the trail. Don’t go blazing new trails, especially on switchbacks. Be aware of your environment. Don’t get to chatting with your friends and forget your riding. Many accidents happen at the walk because the rider wasn’t paying attention to where his mule was going or what he was seeing. Equines are great radar systems and through their body language, especially their ears, they can tell you if something is wrong. You just need to listen.
Trail riding is a challenging equestrian activity, but following a few simple rules and exercising good judgment you and your mule can share years of exciting trail adventures.
Susan Dudasik is an equine journalist, NARHA certified riding instructor and a mule enthusiast. She’s competed in numerous trail class events, holds clinics and teaches groundwork and trail classes at Misfit Farm in Salmon, Idaho. The advice given here is meant only as a guide. A professional trainer should handle any serious mule training problems.