RIDING ETIQUETTE by Karen Brown
IN THE ARENA
A new show season has begun and many of you will be traveling to shows or
events to see how your horse measures up against the competition. A good
warm-up can make all the difference in how a horse performs in the ring. Ensure
your warm-up goes without a hitch by adhering to the rules of etiquette for riding
in an arena with other riders. Warm up arenas are sometimes full of horses and
if even a few riders don't pay attention and respect the rules, everyone and their
horses are at risk for injury.
If we all drove our trucks the way some people ride in arenas, we'd never make it
to the show in the first place. If you know you'll be riding at a show where some
people seem to be unaware of how to behave, take a moment to make copies of
this article and ask to post it near the show office or at the arena gate.
Many of the rules are the same ones we abide by in our vehicles. If you don't
remember what to do in a situation, at least follow the same logic you would if
you were in your car. The most important thing you must do is PAY
From the time you approach the entrance gate to the time you are well clear of
the gate when leaving, it is your responsibility to be aware of every horse around
you. If this overwhelms you, then make a point to warm up in some remote spot
on the show grounds or use the arena in slack times when fewer riders will be
out there with you. Get comfortable at a walk, before trotting, and at a trot before
Here are a few hints on measurements you need to know in order to be a
courteous rider. One horse length equals 12 feet. How can you tell if you are
closer than one horse length? If you can't see the hind feet of the horse in front
of you, you are too close. In passing, keep 4 feet between horses as they move
beside each other. If you and the other rider could reach out and touch, then you
are too close.
1. Before you go into the arena, STOP and LOOK. Wait until all traffic from both
directions is clear and will allow you enough time to get you and your horse into
the "dead zone" of the arena and time to close the gate if there is one. Do not
walk into traffic or expect moving horses to change their path in order for you to
enter. Pay special attention to horses at a distance that are loping as they will be
on top of you fairly quickly. The dead zone is that space that is between the rail
pathways and the center circle riders/handlers.
2. Once you enter the arena, head for the center, or to the off center dead zone
where you can prepare to mount without standing in anyone's pathway.
3. ALWAYS ride on the "right". That means if someone is coming toward you,
that rider should go by on your left side. As you pass each other, left shoulders
4. Counter clockwise keeps the rail. If you are riding to the right (clockwise) it is
your job to leave the rail to pass on coming traffic. You must make this move far
enough in advance and with clear intentions so that the oncoming rider is
confident that he can proceed on the rail without interference. The faster you are
riding the more strides ahead you need to make your move.
5. If the arena is especially busy, it is best for all riders to ride in the same
direction. If everyone has been going to the left for several minutes, it is
acceptable to ask people to change, but don't make an abrupt stop or cause a
pile up in the process.
6. If you are riding to the left (counter clockwise) you should be riding on the rail
at all times. Don't leave space between you and the rail; it invites other riders to
come from behind between your horse and the rail, which is unsafe. If you are
riding in the same direction and are moving faster than the horse in front of you,
pass to the inside (toward the center of the arena) with no less than 4 feet
distance between the horses as they pass. Wait until you are 2 lengths ahead
before moving back to the rail.
7. Slower moving horses make way for faster moving horses. At any time a
potential jam is apparent, make allowances for the horse moving at a higher
speed than you. They need much more room to maneuver safely.
8. Do not ride side by side in groups of more than 2 horses. Three or four
horses abreast cause all sorts of jams for anyone coming up behind and for
riders coming in the opposite direction. Furthermore, when riding in groups,
riders tend to stop paying attention to what's going on around them.
9. If your horse is a kicker, or if he is inexperienced in riding in groups, put a
LARGE red ribbon in his tail. It is YOUR responsibility to make other riders
aware of the danger of approaching too closely. The ribbon should be prominent
so it can be seen at a glance and tied or clipped so that it does not come out.
10. Look behind you before stopping or slowing down from a fast gait. If you are
stopping, move to the interior dead zone of the arena as soon as possible without
crossing the path of traffic in either direction.
11. Allow extra courtesy for riders who are about to compete in the next class. If
you have plenty of time before your class or are just exercising your horse, make
way for the competitors to prepare their horses. Also, if a rider is obviously
practicing advanced skills, such as spinning, or other maneuvers, allow them the
space to work. These riders should be doing this type of work in the interior of
the arena, but make room for them to practice. If the arena is very busy,
however, these types of maneuvers should not be done.
12. If you are lunging your horse, or riding in circles, go to the center of the
arena. Make your circles small enough so that your path does not encroach on
horses riding on the rail. You should have at least one horse length distance
between the path of your circle and any horse riding along the rail. ALWAYS
watch the other riders. If the rail becomes congested, it is your responsibility to
bring your horse in far enough to allow rail riders to pass without risk of entering
your path. If you are using a whip, do NOT crack it or flail it around wildly. Don't
yell commands to your horse.
13. If you are finished exercising your horse, LEAVE. Don't take up space if
you're not using it. If you are resting your horse before doing more work, find a
space in the dead zone. Once you find that space, stand still. As riders pass
you, they will expect to find you in the same place the next time they come
around the ring.
14. Maneuvers such as rollbacks, backing, and sliding stops should never be
practiced in a group arena unless there are only 1 or 2 riders and you are sure
you can complete the move without interfering.
15. If you see trouble, STOP! Wait until the horse and rider are back in control
before riding on. Someday you'll be the one in trouble.
16. Take special care when riding close to or passing inexperienced riders or
horses. They should know the rules, but it takes practice to get comfortable, so
give them a break.
17. If you do get in someone's way, apologize. If you do it again, ask them how
to two of you can work together without interference. Be polite, it goes a long
Once again, PAY ATTENTION. There is no excuse for rude behavior. And there
is no excuse for causing an accident because you are wrapped up in your own
world. If someone clearly does not know the rules a kind word of explanation will
likely solve the problem. If a rider is flagrantly ignoring the rules at the peril of the
other riders, take your complaint to the show manager and let them handle it.
Warm up arenas are usually filled with nervous and anxious riders about to enter
a competition; tempers can flare easily. Make your show experience more
pleasant by presenting good horsemanship and keep the competition friendly.
ON THE TRAIL
There are more obstacles and unexpected situations you need to be prepared for
out in the great wide open. The manner in which a horseperson handles himself
and his horse can make the difference between a great nature experience and a
disaster. In this article, I address the basic traffic rules for riding on trail.
The number one rule for trail riding is the same for arena riding. PAY
ATTENTION. Most folks ride on trail for the relaxation and to enjoy the
peacefulness of nature. You can relax and still be mindful of your surroundings.
Many trail accidents could be prevented if the riders would maintain the same
standard of attention they have while driving a vehicle. Never forget that you are
"driving" your horse. If you allow your attention to drift and become a passenger,
expect your horse to make decisions for himself especially when something
1. Trails vary from as narrow as a couple of feet to 10 or 12 feet wide.
Regardless, as in the arena, always ride to the right side. This will help prevent
head-on confrontations, especially in switchbacks or where the trail is obstructed
from view. Hikers and bikers should also abide by this rule. Ride in single file
unless the trail is extra wide and you can see ahead far enough to have time to
adjust for oncoming traffic.
2. STAY ON THE TRAIL. One of the best ways to get horses kicked out of
government owned parks is to ignore the rule that says all riding is to be done
only on the designated trails. Riding off trail can cause damage to the terrain and
disturb natural habitats of wild animals.
3. Maintain a minimum of 1 horse-length between all horses in your group. It is
wise to maintain 2 lengths between your horse and a stranger. When traveling
uphill keep 2 lengths distance between horses and 3 lengths when going
downhill. If the terrain is really rough, take your time and don't rush the horse in
front of you. If a horse has to lunge or jump he doesn't need to feel crowded
from behind. And if he were to fall or stop suddenly, you don't want to run into
him. If you travel at faster speeds increase the distance between horses as
much as needed to be able adjust if the horse in front of you were to stop
4. If you come up behind another horse and want to pass, call out to the rider
and ask permission to pass. The front rider should then either respond with an
OK or ask you to wait if necessary and explain why. Then he should either move
as far to the right of the trail for you to pass or find a place to step off the trail and
turn his horse to face the trail to watch you as you pass by. Do NOT ride up
behind another horse without announcing your presence.
5. NEVER, NEVER ride out of sight of the last rider. The horse left behind is
likely to get upset by being held back from the herd and you can cause it to bolt
in order to catch up with the other horses. This rule is often ignored at the peril of
horse and rider. Even if the duo survive the bolt, other horses in the group can
be spooked by a horse running up from behind.
6. If you are riding with a group of horses, ALL horses wait until the last horse
has passed through the gate, the gate is latched and the gate handler signals his
readiness to ride on. Same rule applies for bridge or water crossings. If any
rider asks to stop for any reason, everyone in the group stops.
7. When riding in a group, the lead rider has the responsibility of not getting lost.
If the park has a trail map, it is always wise to have one in your pocket, even if
you are knowledgeable about the area. You never know when you may have to
send someone back to camp for help and they may not know the trails. The lead
rider should prepare the next rider for any hazards on the trail with a verbal
warning and use hand signals to alert the other riders to stop or slow down or to
indicate which trail to follow at cross. Each subsequent rider should prepare the
rider next in line.
8. On occasion there will be signs posting a speed or gait. Follow the
instructions; there's a reason for them even if not apparent. It can be a lot of fun
to lope or gallop along an open trail, but use common sense. The more crowded
the trail is or if the view is obstructed, slow down. It's not worth the risk. NEVER
increase speed until after you have verbally stated your desire to the entire
group. If ALL parties agree, wait until they state they are prepared for you to
move out. If ALL parties do not agree, don't go faster.
9. Just as in the arena, or any public riding venue, a horse that is a kicker or
becomes nervous if other horses approach from behind should have a LARGE
red ribbon tied to his tail. It is your responsibility to monitor your horse's potential
for dangerous behavior. The red ribbon is a warning sign, but you are not
relieved of staying vigilant for possible threats.
10. If you live in the country you already know the law of the land when it comes
to gates. If it's shut, close it when you pass through. If it's open, you're to leave
it open. Without exception. If you get to a gate at the same time as another
group of trail users, allow them to pass through first and get down the trail before
going through the gate yourself. Make absolutely sure you latch a gate that is
closed. In many cases, those gates are controlling livestock and a poorly latched
gate can spell disaster for the rancher.
11. If your horse balks anywhere on the trail, allow any other trail users to pass
and move on. You'll feel a lot less stress while helping your horse if you don't
have impatient people waiting for you to get out of the way. Hopefully, you will
be riding with true horsepeople who will have the interest of the horse at heart.
They will be prepared to wait with you for as long as it takes to help your horse
maneuver past a scary place in the trail. Keep your cool and think about life from
the horse's point of view. Have a snack, take a nap, whatever it takes to
approach the situation with a calm perspective. You'll get through it a lot faster.
If you wait for your riding buddies to get together for a ride, you might not ride
much. Riding alone can be enjoyable. To minimize the risk of riding out alone,
take a few precautionary measures.
12. Let someone know where you're going, what trails you plan to ride, and what
time you expect to be back. Arrange a check in call with this person. If you don't
check in by that time, they should initiate a search party.
13. If a park ranger is on duty, make a point to give him the same information. If
your vehicle is still parked long after you should have returned, he will know to
14. If these options are not possible, write your trail plan and an estimated return
time on a note and stick on your windshield. At some point, somebody will
wonder why your truck hasn't moved, will find the note, and know to start looking
One of the most important factors to account for when riding on the trail is the
presence of non-horseback trail users, such as hikers and bikers. Most public
trails are open to hikers, mountain bikes, and, occasionally, motorized
1. Before you trailer out to the park, you'll want to confirm that your planned ride
on public trails is open for horses. Many trails are no longer accessible to
horses. Contact the office of the governing agency before making the trip if
possible. Once you arrive, always look for signage at the trailhead. These signs
should have either symbols or phrases that make it clear what users are
permitted on that trail.
2. Occasionally, you'll ride a trail that designates direction. "One-way" signs will
indicate which direction you are to ride. It may not become apparent on your ride
why traffic is required to move in only one direction. Rest assured, there is a
good reason and it likely has to do with your safety and /or the conservation of
3. Multi-use trails have specific requirements for yielding the right of way. Bikers
yield to hikers. Bikers and hikers yield to horses. However, don't let the rule get
in the way of using common sense and protecting the safety of all trail users.
Bikers can cause surprises on the trail as they tend to move fast and bike riders
are pretty busy watching the path right in front of the bike tire. Always be alert for
flashes of movement or color ahead of you. Listen for sounds so you can be
prepared for when the bike races into view. Even if it means moving off a narrow
trail, be safe rather than stick to a rule if doing so will cause a collision.
4. Horses are often skittish at the sight of bikes or backpacks. If you aren't
positive you can pass these trail users without your horse getting more upset,
step off the trail, face the person(s) and allow them to move on down the trail a
safe distance before going on your way. Some biker/hikers are intimidated by
horses. Take time to talk with them. Let them know how to approach or pass
your horse safely. They are nearly always respectful of the fact that you're riding
an animal with it's own brain and will happily comply with any requests made for
their own safety.
5. Hills are a part of many trails and require an exception to the rules for yielding
to other trail users. The ascending party gets the right of way, regardless of
mode of travel. The uphill trek is more arduous and is aided by momentum. If
you are starting down a hill, check the trail in front of you for oncoming traffic. If
someone is climbing up your trail, stop and wait until they pass you before
moving on. If you have already ridden a good distance down the trail before
seeing the climbers, find a place to get off the trail and allow them to pass.
6. When you approach other trail users, be friendly and smile. Talk to them.
Your horse may be the first time they have been close to a horse. Think of
yourself as a representative for every horseperson. A few minutes of show and
tell will be remembered by these trail users when they join together for the
purpose of restricting trail use for horses. Give them reasons to vote with us, not
against us. If your horse is the friendly sort, take a moment to let curious trail
users pet him. Answer their questions about horses and riding. Consider that
the more comfortable these trail users get sharing space with horses, the less
likely they'll try to get horses kicked out of the parks.
RIDING THE HIGHWAYS
It's not uncommon to see riders following the "trail" of the bar ditch. Lots of roads
in Texas have wide ditches that are great for riding. Before heading down this
kind of trail, make sure your horse has been desensitized to heavy traffic and
horns. I prefer ponying inexperienced horses with a solid trail horse the first
several times they trail along a roadway. After that, I make a point to ride in a
group with other experienced horses.
8. Leave plenty of space between you and the roadway. If you have to ride on
the road, say, to get around a culvert, stop and look far down the road in both
directions. Make sure you can ride onto the asphalt and around the obstacle
long before any vehicles approach. The last place you want your horse to spook
is while walking on the pavement.
9. When crossing a road, STOP and LOOK. Only cross when you can see that
no vehicles will be on top of you before you get across. NEVER count on a
driver slowing down or stopping to let you go by. If your horse is worried about
vehicles coming up from behind, stop and turn him toward the vehicle. Allow him
to watch the vehicle pass by following the car or truck as it passes. If the horse
shows obvious fear, GET OFF. A last-second panic in the face of fast moving
traffic is not an experience you want to have.
10. Keep a sharp eye out for broken glass. For some reason, beer bottles
appear on a regular basis in the grass beside our roadways. Think about what
happens when a horse punctures the sole of his hoof the next time you see
someone toss something out the window of their truck.
11. Be on the watch for dogs or livestock in the yards and pastures as you ride
along the road. Quite often, pastured horses will come running up to the fence to
see who's coming. Your horse may become scared or agitated and you need to
be prepared to maintain control and get past that spot in the road. If a dog
comes at you, don't speed up to get away from it, your horse may bolt since
running away encourages the dog to chase. Walk calmly past the dog. Once
beyond his territory, he'll stop and go home.
12. Here in Bandera, we do a lot of riding in town. If you are riding in a city or
town, obey the traffic laws. No jay walking. Don't block traffic. Be polite to
drivers. Don't ride too close to pedestrians and call out to them if you are coming
up from behind so you don't scare them. This is another time I will pony
inexperienced horses for awhile so they can get used to all the sights, smells,
and sounds without having to cope with a rider at the same time.
One common rule to all nature users: carry out what you carry in. This rule
applies to riding in the wilderness, along the highways, or in town. Don't drop
water bottles or trash on the trail. Don't clean your trailer out in the parking area.
If there is not a designated place to dispose of manure, kick it around to spread it
out or, better yet, pick it up and toss it in the back of your trailer to be thrown out
at home. Pick up loose hay if you feed your horses while tied or in corrals. If the
park has corrals, clean up any mess before leaving. Do not tie horses to trees or
other objects if there is any chance they could be damaged by the rope. Don't
allow your horse to dig holes where he is standing. If he does, refill it and pack it.
In a phrase, LEAVE NO TRACE. So that future horse people will have a place to