Nobody has to tell the horseback riders that the unexpected should be expected, or that the exception to the rule is the norm. We’ve seen it all, from crazy terrain in the backcountry to wild reactions from a horse. The trail can throw a lot of curveballs our way! To help us all stay safe, we will discuss a variety of situations that may or may not require a controlled, quick departure from the saddle.
Commit to the Ride
Most of the time, you are safer in the saddle. When I start colts I commit to the ride and do not look for a place to land or cloud my thoughts with “what if.” I confidently sit down and ride the horse. When jumps, side-steps and bucks happen, I stay centered and teach the horse that everything is still alright and I’m not going anywhere. This is not the time to bail. My horse gains confidence and I stay safe remaining balanced and mounted.
In order to continue building personal confidence in addition to a better equestrian trail riding seat, stay with horses that suit your ability and ride in areas that are easy to negotiate. With experience—time in the saddle—you can then recognize true danger. I used to ride with my boss’s brother. He was not an experienced horseman. At the first sign of “trouble”, he would clasp his hands together and dive off the saddle onto the ground below. It actually became a bit funny to the rest of us. In my opinion, he would have been better off committing to the ride.
The “Step Off”
To learn how to step off your horse quickly, focus on getting on better. In my training program, I spend ample time doing “up-downs.” This is a confidence-building exercise for the horse where I stay energized beside him and progressively mount the horse until both my legs are in the stirrups. This actually does a lot for the rider, since it teaches our body to both mounts and dismounts smoothly and quickly without pulling on the saddle. If you can get on with grace, you can most likely “step off” with some too.
When I trail ride I usually have a full rain suit, sweater and vest all rolled and tied behind the cantle in addition to saddle bags. These items can impede your leg from swinging off. Practice mounting and dismounting with “up downs” at home and make sure that you are confident and ready to react correctly when needed.
Helping the Horse
Sometimes you need to step off the horse to help him. A good example would be a horse that has sunken in a mud bog. Obviously, this was not a planned event, but now that you feel your horse unable to lift himself out of this sloppy footing, you can smoothly swing your leg over the cantle and stand beside him. This takes all that extra weight off him and allows him to hopefully regain his balance quickly. In this case, you would not let go of your reins if you can help it. Once he is back on solid ground, take a moment and check him over letting him settle before you mount up again and move off.
Another example is when a horse stumbles from time to time. In almost all of these cases, staying on is the right answer. But, every once and a while, such as last week for me, a horse stumbles down to both knees. In this situation, you can quickly step off him and let him regain his legs from under him. This has happened to me in the snow, on rocks and with young horses that are on their first few rides. When a horse is stumbling it is not always helpful to offset your weight by trying to get off. Sometimes you can make it worse. The experience will help you decide.
For the Riders Sake
Stepping off the saddle quickly is best for your safety. An example might be a horse that is rearing up and might flip backward. Nobody wants this to happen to them, but even good horses stumble on ground wasps from time to time. Again, the experience will tell you if you should stay on or step down, but if you do decide to dismount, decide quickly. Lean forward and grab the mane as you swing your leg off and step down. And, if there are ground wasps, run for the water!
Another case where you might step off for your own safety is when a horse starts to buck on an unsafe footing, such as rocks or near a cliff. If your horse sees sand or water and likes to drop and roll, be prepared to step off as this is not a safe type of reaction. I once rode a horse named Sampson that would drop in a small puddle if he was hot. I only stepped off him once and then watched as others found his quirk over the years.
On steep—severe—climbs I have never had a situation that warranted an emergency dismount. I have always felt safer staying centered and with the horse; whereas, on steep declines I have. Sometimes a long downhill trek can really shift your saddle up the horse’s neck. It’s usually by surprise, or else you would already be on foot. In this case, stay very centered until you’re ready and then step off quickly to the high side of the trail. If you were to fall forward, it could be very dangerous. Remember, long downhill trails should be taken with the horse in hand. When you are on a sloped trail, where one side is high and the other drops off remember to step to the high side.
If you want to see a quick “step off” in action, watch a calf roper. Those boys swing off the saddle and hit the ground running. It takes a lot of dismounts to be that quick and smooth, but practice will prepare you for the time you need it most. Stay aware and attentive to your balance, your horse and the footing on the trail and remember that a swan dive is never the answer. Have fun and safe horse trail riding!