We rode on the beach the other day. It was a lovely day—I started out taking photos. Here I am following my son down the trail to the ocean.
Sunny and I look at the view toward Santa Cruz.
My son and Wally ride off toward Monterey. Wally is going wading with Twister.
Wally and Twister coming out of the ocean.
At a certain point I realized that all my beach ride photos look like the beach ride photos I’ve posted before and I put the camera back in my pocket and just rode. But later I got to thinking about this, and I realized there’s a reason for this sameness. I like to ride on the beach on sunny winter days, mid-day, when the tide is low. So my photos reflect more or less the same scene every time. For the last four or five years, every beach ride has been with my son and our friend Wally. Wally rides his gray horse, Twister, my son rides sorrel Henry and I ride palomino Sunny. So the characters are always the same. I’m the only one who likes to take photos these days, so all you see of Sunny are his ears. Thus my beach photos are pretty repetitive.
On top of this, we ride on the same stretch of beach most of the time. The ride takes a little less than two hours, like most of my rides. And its mostly quite uneventful (my favorite sort of ride). We walk a lot, sometimes we trot or lope along on the hard sand. Sometimes some of us wade in the surf. Sometimes we ride back down the trail through the sand dunes. Its good exercise for the horses and pleasant for us. We’ve only had a few “exciting” moments in many years of riding there (my recent post titled “A Near Wreck,” in which Twister lay down, was one of these times).
Anyway, I was thinking about this, and I realized that the sameness of my photos and the uneventful nature of our rides are linked in a fundamental way, and today I wanted to talk about this. Because I have heard from so many of you who really want to try riding on the beach (kel and Mrs Mom, I’m thinking of you). And it is (or can be) a lovely experience. And yet, so many people have disasters when they try it. So today I’m going to talk about how to ride on the beach sans disaster.
First off, I have been riding on the beach for over twenty years. I’ve ridden several different horses there in that time. Most of my “horse friends” around here also ride on the beach. Between us all, I’ve heard a good many stories, above and beyond my own personal experiences. And then, there’s what I’ve heard from my blogging friends. The first thing I want to talk about was brought up in the comments on my last beach ride post by Aarene of “Haiku Farm” (listed on sidebar). And this experience has happened to many others I know—besides Aarene’s friend whom she mentioned. Listen carefully here, cause this is important. Very steady, reliable horses will sometimes freak out at the sight of the ocean. And if that alone doesn’t do it, being ridden in the surf often will. Aarene’s friend had a steady horse flip over backwards with him. when he rode the horse in the water.
So, tip number one is to try to make your first ride on the beach in the company of experienced “beach horses” ridden by folks who have been there often. Pay close attention to your horse. There is a difference between being excited and “up” and being truly frightened. If your horse is truly frightened, just let him follow a steady horse along. Don’t force him in the water. Or if you do choose to force him in the water, be prepared for a violent reaction.
Wading in the surf, though it looks very fun, is problematic in a lot of ways. Many horses don’t care for the waves. All three of our horses will go in the water if we insist-none of them love it. I never take my horse in very deep because I’ve had the experience of a horse getting dizzy in the surf and almost falling down. This is very common. If you wade in the waves, be aware if your horse starts to get dizzy and staggers. They do fall down—its not a myth.
Some folks are absolutely determined to get their horse in the water. (Wally is one of these.) And some horses really don’t want to do this. My recommendation is not to fight this battle—but if you choose to do it, the easiest way is to back the horse in. OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you that it can be a real wreck. The commonest problem occurs when a person rides a horse in as the wave goes out and the horse is “trapped” by the next incoming wave—he can’t get away from it. Some horses find this WAY too scary and really do panic. So be careful.
Now I know not everyone will be able to find a friend on an experienced beach horse to give them a lead. But whether you can do this or not, there are a few other important things you can do to improve your chances of having a positive experience on your beach ride. First off, choose a nice day, weatherwise. As I say, I like to ride mid-day in the winter on a sunny, peaceful day mid-week. But certainly, just as in a trail ride in any new place, don’t pick a windy day for your first time. That’s just asking for trouble.
Its very important to ride on the beach at low tide, or close to it. We do not plan a beach ride unless the weather is good and the tide is low at mid-day. If you go at high tide there will be no firm sand to ride on, and I can assure you that plowing through the deep sand the whole ride will not be enjoyable for either you or your horse. It is very dangerous to trot or lope for any length of time in deep sand—horses can easily injure themselves. So, go at low tide.
Another factor is how high the surf is. This is different to the tide. The tide can be low but if the swell is up, the high swell produces big breakers. This makes the “energy” down on the beach much more exciting. The breakers boom and crash, and if a horse is going to get over-stimulated, this will do it. We do not mind riding our experienced horses on the beach when the surf is high (at low tide, of course), but the “feeling” is very different from calm days when there is little swell. I highly recommend going for your first beach ride when the swell is down.
OK—you pick a calm, sunny day at low tide and with not much swell. What else can you do to make for a good experience? Pick the right beach.
In my part of the world, horses are not allowed on most of the beaches near town. But even if they were allowed, those beaches would be no fun. First off, you need a good, safe place to park your rig—roomy enough and away from traffic. Second, you want the beach to be reasonably empty. If you look back at the photos I posted, you will see that there is not a soul on the beach. This is the way I like it. Most rides we meet a few other people, and that’s no big deal. But let me tell you what can be a big deal.
One November weekend it was seventy degrees and we were free to go and the tide was right. It happened to be a Sunday afternoon, but we went anyway. Big mistake. The parking lot was packed and we had to park the rig on the road. The entrance to the beach was crowded with people, including many running, yelling children. There were kites in the air, and surfers running toward the waves carrying surfboards over their heads, and flapping tents, and boom boxes blaring and beach balls flying through the air. Our steady horses marched right through this zoo (thank God) and once we got a ways down the beach it was reasonably quiet, but I learned a big lesson. I don’t go to the beach on the weekend any more.
So my suggestion is to be sure you choose a beach where horses are allowed, and go check the place out first, sans horse. Try to go at about the same time/day of the week that you plan to take your horse. Check out the situation. Is there room to park in a safe place? What does the access to the beach look like? Is it horse friendly? Are horses allowed? (In any case, be sure they are not prohibited.) How crowded is it? Try to imagine if your horse will be OK with what you find.
Long, flat beaches are the best to ride on. Steeper beaches don’t produce the hard packed sand that flatter beaches do, even at low tide. And a short beach just leaves you going back and forth.
Now on to the unpredictable. We all know that stuff happens you can’t predict. It happens on trail rides and beach rides; it can happen in an arena, too. But trail rides, including beach rides, make you most vulnerable to the unpredictable. A few years ago we had one of these unpredictable scary events and it really taught me a lesson. We were riding down the beach on a pleasant day at low tide and everything we could predict was in our favor. We were having our usual relaxing time. And then….
Two helicopters came flying down the beach, flying exactly above the shoreline, side by side, very low. We could see them coming, but there wasn’t much we could do to get out of the way. Of the three horses, my son’s horse, Henry, reacted the most. His head came up and his eyes got big. I rode my horse up next to Henry and—this is key—I grabbed the halter he always wears under his bridle. Wally rode up on the other side and stood next to Henry. We really didn’t have time to get my son off safely, or I might have done that. I said whoa to Henry and held him (this might backfire if you are holding a horse by the bridle—this is why the halter is important) and fortunately Sunny and Twister never flinched. The helicopters flew right overhead in a huge storm of noise and wind and Henry took a nervous step backwards, but heeded my tug and “Whoa.” We got through it just fine.
So, always keep the halter on under the bridle when trail riding. It can help you in so many ways. Ever since the helicopter incident I also carry a leadrope wrapped around my saddle horn. If you need to tie a horse up, lead a horse from another horse or from the ground, pull a horse out of the mud…etc. that leadrope will come in very handy. If I had had it the day the helicopters came by, I could have clipped it on Henry’s halter and I would have felt much more confident that I could hold him. Having the halter on under the bridle does no harm (yes, it looks ugly) and it can really help you in a bind.
Let’s see, check out my recent post “A Near Wreck” for the description of how Twister lay down at the beach. Be aware. Horses will sometimes try to lie down in sand or water. If your horse stops for no reason, make him go on. Especially if he paws the ground (though Twister gave no particular warning—he just stopped for a minute and then lay down).
Wearing a helmet is always a good idea—says I, who just got one a month ago (but I’m wearing it). Riding a steady, reliable horse in the double digits that has lots of experience “outside” will go the farthest towards keeping you safe. Even if the horse has never been to the beach, the odds are in your favor that he’ll behave himself. Especially if you follow the tips I’ve listed. We took Henry and Twister for their first ever beach rides, and they did great.
That about covers my beach ride insights. I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten. Please fell free to add your own tips in the comments, or ask any questions you may have. Riding on the beach IS really fun, and I hope you all get to do it—sans disasters.
PS--I have been pretty sick the last couple of days and not on the computer much, so have not kept up with email or comments. But hopefully I'm better now, and will catch up.