Riding Etiquette for the Ring and Trail

Courtesy will go a long way toward helping you and your fellow riders have a safe and happy riding experience.

It is always more pleasant to work with people and horses who mind their manners. Being polite is something that you need to remember when riding in the company of others. It applies whether you’re riding at home, at a show, or on the trail.

The most universal rule in the arena is to always pass left shoulder to left shoulder when you are approaching another horse head-on. This will prevent a collision because both riders will be able to tell which one stays out on the rail and which one travels closer to the center of the ring.

If you are walking, stay off the rail. This is especially important if you are just cooling your horse out on a loose rein (as opposed to schooling a movement like shoulder-in on contact in the walk). It is polite to yield the rail to those working at the trot and/or canter.

Riders who are schooling over fences should call out their jumps as they are turning off the rail to head for that jump. Riders working on the flat should yield to the jumpers, within reason. If two or more riders are jumping the same thing, take turns. If you are jumping in “mixed company,” it’s best to stick with a few fences and not try to ride entire courses. The latter would make it difficult for anyone else to do much serious flatwork with their horses.

If there is a lesson going on in the arena, ask the instructor for permission to “share” the arena with them. This permission will probably be granted, but then it remains your responsibility to stay out of the students’ way at all times.

Do not “tailgate” other horses and always be aware of how close you are to the horse in front of you. If he should stop suddenly, would you run into him or get kicked? If the horse in front is moving slower than your horse, circle across the arena to an open space. Don’t cut anyone off, either.

Do not squeeze your horse through small spaces, such as between another horse and the rail or jump standard. If one horse kicks out, someone is likely to be injured.

Experienced riders should watch out for the beginners. If the novice rider’s horse should spook or act up, they may not be able to control him. Sometimes, the rider may be so focused on practicing a particular skill, like checking to see if he is posting on the correct diagonal, that he may be unaware of what else is going on around him. And, being beginners in this sport, these riders may not be familiar with the “rules of the road” in the arena.

If your horse is fresh and acting up (snorting, bucking, etc.) and you cannot tactfully ride him through it within a few minutes, take him out of the arena as he is probably disturbing the other horses and riders. One “wild” horse can set the others off, leading to a dangerous group of out-of-control horses. Take your horse somewhere else to longe him and return to the arena when you can have it to yourself.

Communicate with the other riders. If you come close to someone else, tell him/her which way you are going by saying “Circling through the middle,” “diagonal please,” etc. When in doubt, avoid a wreck by calling out “rail” or “inside” to indicate where you intend to go.

In the Warm-Up Area at a Show

Your performance in the show ring is directly related to your preparation in the warm-up area. If all of the competitors and coaches are courteous to each other, everyone can work together in close quarters and still be able to give it their “best shot” in the show ring.

All of the previously mentioned general rules of riding etiquette apply at a show. Riding in the warm-up area can be hectic—sort of like a mall parking lot on the day after Thanksgiving, with everyone jockeying for space. Even as you concentrate on your own riding, you must be aware of what’s going on around you.

Always mount your horse at the stall or trailer area. (Remember to bring a plastic mounting block to the show!) Then ride to the warm-up area. Trying to mount a nervous horse in the warm-up area can be risky for you and creates an “obstacle” in everyone else’s way.

It’s important to remember that the warm-up area is just for that—getting your horse warmed up to perform in the show ring. It is not for lungeing or schooling purposes other than the immediate competition. Don’t ride next to your friends, as groups of two or three horses will block the flow of traffic. Don’t hang out by the ingate unless you are the on-deck rider. Don’t make tack/equipment changes in the warm-up area; instead, step outside where you will be safer and won’t block the other riders.

Keep your eyes up and looking ahead where you are going so that you won’t collide with someone else. No tunnel-vision allowed! Do your best to go with the flow of traffic as you try to work your horse through his regular warm-up routine. Avoid making sharp turns, downward transitions or halts when you are in heavy traffic.

Remember to communicate with the other riders about where you are going, just as you do at home. This is especially important when you are warming up over fences. Call your fences, and avoid circling in front of the jumps.

At hunter/jumper shows, warm-up jumps can be ridden from either direction (assuming that the fence isn’t a ramped oxer). A situation of two horses headed for the same jump from opposite sides must be avoided, so be alert. Make sure the fence is clear in either direction. Don’t follow too close behind someone else jumping. If they have a refusal or a rail down, this could cause a problem for you if you are too close to the fence to circle away.

At events, you are only allowed to jump fences that are flagged (red, white) and you must jump them in the correct direction (with the red flag on your right) or you face elimination. You are permitted to change the height of a fence but you cannot change an oxer to a vertical or vice versa.

Try not to monopolize the jumps—they must be shared by all. If you want to jump lower or higher than the rest of the competitors, have your ground helper adjust one of the jumps but leave the other jumps alone for everyone else. When someone begins to change a fence that you are not done with yet, don’t be afraid to politely ask them to leave it alone for a few more jumps.

Communicating with the stewards is as important as speaking to the other riders. When you get to the warm-up area, check in with the steward before you start to work so that he/she doesn’t have to go running to find a “stranger” when you are on-deck.

Ride in the order of go that is posted. Once someone asks to go out of order, and does so, then several other riders tend to do the same thing. Now the polite riders who follow the original schedule don’t know when it’s their turn to go nor how to time their warm-up routine.

If you need your groom to do any touch-ups just before you go into the show ring, (dusting the rider’s boots, applying hoof oil, etc.), step outside the warm-up area and away from the in-gate to do this.

Sometimes you have to scratch your horse from the competition. Being a “no show” is rude, so notify the secretary’s office ASAP in case they need to make any adjustments. And if you scratch just 1-2 hours (or less) before you are scheduled to ride, notify the warm-up and/or ring steward as well. He/she may not get the message from the office and could be frantically looking for a competitor who is not going to ride.

Coaches, unfortunately sometimes you need reminders about etiquette too. Do not yell instructions across the warm-up area to your student. It’s unprofessional. Instead, speak quietly when your student comes close to you or take them aside for a lengthier conversation. Once your student enters the show ring, stand outside the fence, where you should be “seen and not heard.”


Working a horse on the lunge line is a valuable tool for both his exercise and training. Unfortunately, some people let their horses get out of hand, and this can be very disruptive to riders in the arena.

If you are going to lunge your horse, ask the riders that are already in the arena if they mind. If they say “okay,” then keep your horse at one end/corner of the arena. If he’s fresh and starts acting like a bucking bronco or whirling dervish, excuse yourself and come back later when no one else is using the arena. Riders will have a difficult time trying to keep their training sessions relaxed and productive if there is a horse in the arena that is going berserk on the lunge line. There are also safety issues—an excited horse could bolt under saddle or the horse on the lunge line could pull loose from the handler.

Some competitions do not allow lungeing on the showgrounds at all. Some permit it, but only in designated areas. And others say “okay” to lungeing in the warm-up area. So before you put your horse on a lunge line at a show, check with the secretary’s office to see what the particular policy is. If you don’t abide by it, you could be eliminated.

As mentioned above, if you are lungeing at a show where others are riding and your horse is crazy, excuse yourself and find somewhere else to work him. It is not fair to the other competitors for your wild horse to disrupt their show-ring warm-up routines.

Down the Road and On the Trail

Many of us venture outside the arena when we ride, where there are legal rules of the road and riding safety rules to follow. You will often have to ride along some sections of paved road to get to the scenic woodsy trails.

Always wear light, bright colors (even a reflective orange safety vest) and avoid the roads when the light is dim (dawn, dusk). This will also keep you off the road during “rush hour” when drivers show little interest in slowing down for horses or anything else.

Walk on the left, facing traffic, so that the cars that come closest to your horse are not spooking him from behind. Don’t go faster than a walk, and stay as close to the edge as you can. If you are riding in a group, stay single file with a calm, sensible horse as the leader.

In most states, drivers are expected to yield to riders, or even come to a complete stop if the horse starts to act up. However, never assume that drivers are aware of this. Most drivers know nothing about horses. It is the rider’s responsibility to use polite hand signals, as needed, to ask drivers to slow down or move over.

Always smile and wave or say thanks to drivers who slow down as they approach your horse and/or swing away to give you more room. A little courtesy goes a long way.

Once you reach the trail, keep your “Steady Eddie” horse in front as the leader of the group. Young, green horses and/or beginner riders who follow behind will feel more relaxed and comfortable with a fearless leader in front.

Always leave a couple of horse lengths’ distance between your horse and the one in front of you. If your horse is likely to get irritated (and possibly kick out), tie/braid a red ribbon into your horse’s tail. It’s the universal warning sign to “back off.”

If the leader is going to change gaits, either to go faster or slower, he should ask the followers if they want to change to the new gait. If they agree, he should tell them “trotting now” or a similar warning, and then ask his horse to trot. When you meet other horses on the trail, always slow to a walk to pass them.

If the leader sees something up ahead that necessitates an immediate slow-down (i.e. mud, rocks), he should speak up loudly, alerting the riders behind him to the situation ahead. “Walking – deep mud” conveys the necessary information as the leader slows up.

When you are trail riding in a park or recreation area, always follow the park’s rules concerning use of the trails and stay only on paths where horses are allowed. If you are on private land, make sure that the landowners allow horses to cross the property. If you happen to see the owners working in their yard, smile and say “Thank you.”

If you see a sign that says “No Horsback Riding,” respect it; turn around and retrace your steps. A few people who don’t follow the rules can limit trail riding for everyone.

Keep off the trails when everything is wet and muddy in the spring. It causes a lot of damage to the footing, possibly making it too chewed up to ride on later in the year.

When you come to fields, always walk single-file around the perimeter so as not to damage the grass and/or soft soil. You should only trot or canter across the middle of the field if the footing is dry, the grass is not being cut for hay, and the landowner says that riding in his field is okay.

Whether you are enjoying a ride on your horse in the arena at home, at a competition, or on the trail, always remember to follow the rules, be polite, and be careful. A little courtesy goes a long way towards making it fun and safe for everyone.

Sue Perry is a Certified Veterinary Technician and equine massage therapist. She lives in Upton, Mass., with three event horses and runs “Muscle Magic,” an equine massage service.

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